By the time the 1980s ended, the horror genre was practically on every film critic’s shitlist. After a decade of the slasher genre with the Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies along with dozens of knock-offs, the 1990s started with a clean slate. If you changed the name of the subgenre, you could change the reaction.
In the winter of 1991, The Silence of the Lambs opened to favorable reviews and was a hit at the box office. It wasn’t a horror movie. It was a pscyhological thriller. Even though the theme focused on a character who was a cannibal and another who was kidnapping, killing and skinning women, it wasn’t your typical slasher horror movie.
However, a couple of weeks earlier, Popcorn opened in theaters and it came and went by the time audiences were introduced to Dr. Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter. I remember seeing a commerical parodying the “I’m going to Disneyland” commercials popular among athletes who had won big games in which a fictional baseball team tells a reporter they’re going to see Popcorn and cheering. That type of humor is an example of the type of movie Popcorn is.
Before Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream acknowledged real horror movies, Popcorn is an ode to the old-fashioned sci-fi/horror movies made popular by filmmaker William Castle and others who turned the movie-going experience into an event. Joe Dante would also pay homage to style in his underrated Matinee in 1993 with the always watchable John Goodman as a Castle-style filmmaker.
The plot focuses on a film class under a professor Davis (Tony Roberts) who follows the idea of a student, Toby (Tom Villard) to have an all-night horror marathon to raise funds for their department at a nearby run-down theater set to be demolished. They show three movies, Mosquito shown in 3-D, The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man and The Stench. They will use an oversized mosquito prop to fly through over the audience on wires and will set the seats to have electrical charges underneath during key scenes of the Electrified Man. And the The Stench will make use of Odor-Rama.
Unfotunately, one of the film students, Maggie (Jill Schoelen) has been having nightmares she’s being chased by a strange man who wants to kill her. Her mother, Maggie (Dee Wallace Stone) has also been receiving demonic prank calls. While the film class goes through a collection of props and memorabilia supplied by Dr. Mnesyne (Ray Winston), they find a film cannister containing what appears to be an experimental film called Possessor. But Maggie notices it features the same man from her nightmares.
Davis later tells the students that Possessor was made by Lanyard Gates, an eccentric filmmaker who flipped out and killed his own family while shooting a final scene in front of a live audience and set the theater on fire trapping the audience in the theater. As the night of the marathon comes, Maggie thinks she sees someone resembling Gates but can’t get Toby not her boyfriend, Mark (Derek Rydall) to initially believe her.
But problems arise when an unseen person causing the mosquito prop to impale Davis on the catwalk killing him. It’s revealed that a person is using very well made masks to pretend to the people he has killed to kill others. At the same time, the audience is going crazy over the poor quality and absurd ideas of the cheap movies being filmed.
Originally intended as a possible movie for Bob Clark who had made horror movies in the early 1970s, including Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Black Christmas. However, Clark suggested the script written by Mitchell Smith be a directing project for Alan Ormsby who had collaborated with him on previous movies including Porky’s and Dead Things.
However, Ormsby was replaced after three weeks of filming, only making directing the fake movies. In the end, Ormsby who had rewrote the script was credited as Tod Hackett. Mark Herrier whose biggest role had been as Billy McCarty in all three Porky’s movies was brought in as director. It’s been reported that Clark still worked as an uncredited producer and helped directed second unit scenes.
Schoelen was also brought in to replace Amy O’Neill, who had previously appeared in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Shoelen, who was the Julia Roberts of the horror genre following her roles in Cutting Class and The Stepfather, as well as others, seems a better fit for the role. She has the final girl next door quality these movies needed.
But this movie does shake things up a little by having several class members, including Cheryl (Kelly Jo Minter) survive. The casting of Minter is a nice touch, seeing as she appeared in The Lost Boys, despite having all but two of her small scenes cut and the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Rydall had appeared in the cheesy Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge. Stone was a nice touch thanks to her previous roles in The Howling and Critters among others.
In a way, the casting of Roberts (who famously played Woody Allen’s friend in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall and Al Pacino’s cop partner in Serpico) and Winston seem to be a nod to how the slasher movies would cast bigger name actors in small roles they could film within only a few days.
The most interesting casting is Villard as Toby. The late actor was mostly known for more comical roles on the TV show We Got It Made and the comedy One Crazy Summer with John Cusack and Demi Moore. He had also appeared alongside Clint Eastwood and Mario Van Peebles in Heartbreak Ridge. Villard had been open about being gay as well as being HIV/AIDS positive in the early 1990s. So, seeing him in a dark comedy horror is a nice change. Villard later would die in November of 1994 from AIDS-related pnuemonia.
While the movie only made $4 million, it did get some favorable reviews notably from famed New York Times critic Vincent Canby who awarded it 3.5 stars out of a possible five. Canby called it “the best spoof of its kind since Alligator. It’s especially funny when it allows the audience to see sequences from the movies-within-the-movie, each of which recalls some piece of cherished junk out of the 1950’s or 60’s.” Both Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times also gave it favorable reviews. It would also find its audience on home video and the cable market.
So if you’re looking for a nice horror flick on a Friday night, Popcorn should fill your appetite.
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