True Believers, I realise I might be older than Methuselah or even Madonna compared to some of you, but I’m not *that* old. I may have been old enough to have seen STAR WARS when it first came out, but I’m not old enough to have been around for the gimmicky horror and science fiction movies of the Fifties and Sixties. In those days, men like William Castle, Roger Corman and Herschell Gordon Lewis knew you had to do a little something more to generate publicity for your cheapo films that just draw a lurid poster that had nothing to do with the actual content of your movie. You had to have 3-D. You had to have gimmicky glasses and prop axes, plastic skeletons flying over people’s heads, Smell-O-Vision, electric buzzers under the seats, and fake legal agreements absolving the theater of any blame if you died of a horror attack after watching their tepid cinematic offering. It was showmanship. It was razzle dazzle. It was bollocks.
It also sounds like a hell of a fun era to have grown up in.
Joe Dante’s all-but-forgotten MATINEE (1993), featuring John Goodman as a William Castle-like entrepreneur, was a loving homage to this era. But one more suited for viewing on Anythinghorror’s roster is POPCORN (1991), a movie whose listed director is actor Mark Herrier, but with help from Alan Ormsby, late of personal favorite CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (he also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Tod Hackett). All but forgotten now, POPCORN deserves a relook.
It opens with someone making latex masks of different people using a strange machine, before we cut to Maggie (Jill Schoelen, who starred with Robert Englund in 1989’s equally-underrated PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), a film student having a nightmare about a longhaired hippie chasing a girl named Sarah around with an axe. Maggie is delighted by it; she writes down all the details in a notebook, thinking it might make a good screenplay someday (Bad news, Maggie: I think it’s been done). Her mother Suzanne (Dee Wallace-Stone, ET, THE HOWLING) seems more disturbed by the dream. Or maybe it’s the weird calls she’s been getting lately?
But Maggie is more concerned that her acting class’ funding is getting cut again. But her teacher Mr Davis (Tony Roberts, AMITYVILLE 3-D and numerous early Woody Allen movies when he was still funny) and her best friend and fellow film student Toby (Tom Villard, one of the few actors in Hollywood in the early 90s to come out both about his homosexuality and with having AIDS, and who sadly died in 1994) have come up with a fund-raising idea: an all-night marathon of old movies, using the original gimmicks.
The featured films (made up for the movie) are: MOSQUITO, which will feature a giant prop bug flying overhead, THE AMAZING ELECTRIFIED MAN, where random seats wired up will shock patrons at key moments, and THE STENCH, where the audience will get whiffed out by the smell of dead dogs and cigars and such.
The props are supplied by old entrepreneur Dr Mnesyne (a cameo from veteran actor Ray Walston, better known to younger viewers for a recurring role as Boothby in Star Trek: The Next Generation), but among the props is an old 8mm reel. Curious, Mr Davis and the others play it, discovering it’s an avante-garde short called THE POSSESSOR, helmed by Lanyard Gates, a Sixties Manson-like cultist who ended up killing his family onstage – all except for his young daughter Sarah, the only survivor who escaped with her aunt, leaving Lanyard and his followers to die when the theater caught fire and everyone seemingly died.
Of course, all this has everything to do with Maggie’s dreams, and with the phone calls to her mother. As the students fix up the old Dreamland Theatre for their show, her mother is drawn to the same theater the night before the film marathon, where something ominous happens to her…
The marathon starts off successfully (it looks like a hell of a fun time, and I wish I’d been to something like that in real life), though Maggie gradually becomes convinced that somehow Lanyard Gates has come back from the dead, and for some reason is after her. Her forgettable boyfriend Mark (Derek Rydell, PHANTOM OF THE MALL) remains skeptical.
But we see the mayhem unfolding: Mr Davis is impaled on the prop mosquito, another student is electrocuted (by the way, did you know that the word ‘electrocution’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘electricity’ and ‘execution’? So Now You Know), another is killed with cyanide. So who is this masked murderer? Is it Lanyard’s ghost? Is it a copycat killer? Is it Dr Mnesyne? Is it THE POSSESSOR? Is it Old Man Peterson, who’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids?
POPCORN is both a homage to the history of horror, and a precursor to the self-aware, meta-fictional movies like SCREAM, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, and the aforementioned MATINEE. It can be watched both straight and with a nod and a wink to the audience (at one point, the movie marathon has a short break, and a hitherto-unannounced reggae band comes on so people can dance in the aisles. Did I mention that the movie was filmed in Jamaica?). The clips of the old movies we see (sequences directed by Ormsby) captured the look and feel of those, er, ‘classics’ well, and there is overall a genuine air of mystery about the nature of the killer.
Unfortunately, POPCORN did not get the kudoes it deserved at the time, having unfortunately slipped down between the slasher boom of the Eighties and the slick, self-aware resurgence of the Nineties. The movie has yet to see a proper DVD release (at least, the copy I got was bereft of high definition or features), but is available in various formats, and the trailer is below.
Director: Mark Herrier (and Alan Ormsby)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 4 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Edna’s Rating: 4 out of 5 sausages
Reviewed by Deggsy. And Edna.