If you consider its plot on a bare-bones level, there’s nothing remarkable about 1991’s Popcorn. It’s a slasher film that 100% adheres to the classic structure: a tragedy in the past sparks a vengeful killer in the present, who then proceeds to pick off their victims one by one. But thanks to its clever setting and its own horror-movie worship, Popcorn is so much more than that.
We’re first introduced to Maggie (minor scream queen Jill Schoelen, who also starred in The Stepfather and When a Stranger Calls Back), a film student who lives with her mother (horror legend Dee Wallace, star of The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, Cujo, Critters, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and is convinced that her eerily vivid dreams will help her write an amazing script. Then we meet Maggie’s classmates—a cornucopia of movie geeks. To raise money for their college’s film department, they decide to host a horror marathon at a long-shuttered nearby theater, featuring a trio of corny flicks that were originally released with promotional gimmicks (major hat-tip to William Castle) they’ll recreate.
Stepping in to help with this task is “the master chef of showmanship,” Dr. Mnesyne (Ray Walston, star of My Favorite Martian, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and about a million other things), who runs a memorabilia shop and is able to supply the kids with all the rubber monsters and wacky costumes and props they’ll need. But on the big night, a killer lurks among the crowd, creatively murdering members of the group and then assuming their identities using alarmingly lifelike masks to cover up their crimes.
The niftiest aspect of Popcorn—directed by Mark Herrier and written by Alan Ormsby—is that the production actually went the distance and filmed significant portions of the movies-within-the-movie that form the backdrop for most of its action. At times, the main film cedes the entire screen to these cornball pictures, all of which would’ve been fair game for Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffage if they were actually real. There’s creature-feature Mosquito, presented in 3D with the added bonus of a giant bug that’s rigged to fly across the theater at a key moment; monster tale The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, for which certain seats are rigged to “shock” audience members; and The Stench, stylistically modeled after a Godzilla movie (the dubbing!) but also featuring the John Waters-esque use of “Odorama” to envelop the audience in whatever disgusting smells are depicted on-screen.
The attention to detail is admirable. And there’s a fourth movie-within-the-movie that also plays a crucial role: Possessor, which the college kids find a copy of while they’re cleaning out the theater. Fifteen years prior, its director—“head guru of this film cult back in the ‘60s”—lost his mind after audiences laughed at his self-serious avant-garde cinematic explorations. His solution to silence the haters? Film his entire script for Possessor save the last scene, which he performed live onstage instead, adding the gruesome final “gimmick” of murdering his family then setting the theater on fire, killing several audience members in the process. He died along with them… or did he? And another thing: why does Maggie’s recurring dream look exactly like Possessor?
The mystery portion of Popcorn is absolutely not difficult to figure out. Like most slashers of the era, you will not have any trouble discerning who the killer is, and even if you have any confusion as to their motivation (you won’t), they get a big scene at the end where they explain everything. The fun here is the general air of goofballery that envelops the entire movie. The characters are all one-note—the only person who gets anything resembling an arc is Maggie’s boyfriend, played by Derek Rydall (star of another slasher from the same era I also highly, highly recommend: Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge)—but they’re likable all the same, with Tom Villard (Grease 2) and Kelly Jo Minter (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) among them.
And what’s more, you can’t help but love the rowdy audience that settles in for the horror marathon wearing all manner of Halloween-costume finery. They eat up all the movies and the gimmicks with hooting excitement, they enthusiastically take a dance break when the theater loses power, and they even stay through the end to witness the killer get their just desserts. Popcorn’s by no means a masterpiece—not even among its slasher kin—but it is absolutely an earnest love letter to midnight movie madness.
Popcorn arrives on Shudder today, May 9.
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