So went the heavily-run advertisements for a Horror film called Popcorn. Yeah... "Popcorn"! It may sound like an anticlimactic title after all the buildup the preview had to offer. The final tagline might either fill the viewer with dread and more interest in the title or evoke laughter: "Buy a Bag... go HOME in a BOX!"
Regardless of your reaction, I assure you that Popcorn is no joke. The Possessor however, never existed, except as a "Film Within A Film". While the marketing for Popcorn may have tried to link this slasher thriller to a fictional older flick that predates (and implicitly influenced) the Splatter Icons, the truth is that Popcorn does make its own place in horror history, albeit an oft-overlooked place indeed.
Popcorn is, as its title would suggest, a work of pure entertainment. It also is one of those "Self-Aware" Horror Flicks that both pokes fun at and pays tribute to the scary movies that have led up to it. It involves a Slasher Killer who is obsessed with movies, is tied to the lead actress' past and wears a mask while dispatching each victim in classic horror ways. Further, it does all of this while still working as an actual SLASHER flick, not as a Spoof.
And, yes, Popcorn does predate Scream and its sequels by half a decade! In fact, there are moments in Popcorn that feel like prototypes for the Scream films, right on down to an in-theatre murder sequence, cheered on by the packed house that mirrors the Cinema Scene from Scream 2 down to the finer details.
True, Popcorn is far from the first "Movie Theatre Horror" Flick. Both Demoni and The Movie House Massacre came out just a few years before Popcorn (and they followed several others), but the similarities to the later films of its kind are close to undeniable! Observe...
We kick off our terror tale with a class filled with quote-volleying Film Students in a college course with a laid-back professor (Tony Roberts' Mr. Davis). To raise some funds for their Movie Club, they decide to hold the Horrorthon Film Fest to end all Horrorthon Film Fests in a condemned movie theatre downtown called "The Dreamland".
You've got your class cool-guy Mark (Derek Rydall), the tough chick Cheryl (Kelly Jo Minter), the big guy Bud (Malcolm Danare), the school's dedicated Film Geek Toby (Tom Villard), the JOKER Leon (Elliott Hurst, the blonde vixen with a heart, Joannie (Ivette Soler), the "Class Bimbo" Tina (Freddie Marie Simpson), the school bitch Joy (Karen Witter) and, of course, our heroine, the beautiful and thoughtful Maggie (Jill Schoelen)!
Yeah, these seem a lot like your usual suspects from your standard College Flicks. However, there is a depth to Maggie who could be bounded in a nutshell, and count herself a queen of infinite space, were it not that she has bad dreams! Let me tell you, her dreams are doozies! She runs through a horrifying dreamscape, pursued by a frightening man who could make the killer from Antropophagus look like your kid's Sunday School Teacher! To her, these are inspired nightmares that she plans to use to fuel her creative new screenplay. Her mother Suzanne (Dee Wallace-Stone) is concerned that they might be something more. Something much more terrible that Maggie should not explore.
But the SHOW MUST GO ON, right? The Film Freaks need the money, so they bank on this film festival. The real question is why would anyone fork over their big bucks for these films when they could pick up the VHS at the local Ballblocker Video (or just watch them on the USA Network) for cheap? That's where having a film geek in the class pays off big time. Toby's idea is to use every in-theater ploy, every matinee gimmick, every charged seat, odorized house, ceiling-wired insect and 3-D projection that made B-Movies like these sell tickets in the first place! The bigger problem with this, however, is that the classic Dreamland is going to be torn down in only three weeks. That's where having a film historian and creature collector in town pays off big time. Enter Dr. Mnesyne (played by the great Ray Walston), who has all the props, all the know-how and all the memories to help make the theater into an attraction and the festival a success.
Unfortunately, there is an even bigger problem here... an unplanned entry into the "Special Horror, Sci-Fi and Supernatural Film Festival Plus Surprises" that was just found collecting dust in a certain film collection. That film is, of course, The Possessor, by a creepy director/ star named Lanyard Gates (Matt Falls)! Mr. Davis recognizes him as the dangerous leader of an ill-fated Film Cult, whose first (and last) screening of The Possessor culminated in the murder of his family on stage in front of the screen (to complete the film's story) and ultimately his death and immediate cremation (along with a whole gaggle of his forlorn followers). Maggie thinks she just might recognize him as the man of her dreams. Lastly and chillingly, it's right before the Horror Fest that Suzanne starts receiving frightening phone calls that she dare not ignore.
It's hardly a spoiler to tell you that someone or something might be aiming to use the forum of the film festival to finally complete The Possessor and spill a great deal of blood along the way. The real question is just who this is!
The possibilities are endless, from the dedicated follower of film lore with the cryptic name of "Mnesyne", to any one of the obsessed film students, to our nightmare girl, to the most obvious choice of Gates himself, whose body was never identified.
The secret is revealed in a cool and surprising way that still makes sense. Along the way, of course, we do get more than our fair share of bloody murders, mistaken identities and groovy, bygone Cinema Gimmicks! There are some interesting twists here and there and some very good special makeup effects from Timothy Huizing and Matt Falls himself (amongst others on a proficient team). Some of the most fun is had in the humor of the film, which isn't excessive enough to devolve the film into a farce, but certainly provides more than enough comic relief to keep this from being a cruel joke. That said, the Film Parodies (shot by screenwriter and original director Alan Ormsby) are fittingly funny and the obvious work of fans of the genre they successfully spoof!
That said, Popcorn is most certainly not perfect, though in hindsight it does feel ahead of its time. Director Mark Herrier does a pretty decent job of holding together the entire affair, but fails to evoke flawless performances from his overall talented cast. The occasional line is far too over-acted and there are a great number of very silly situations that do fit the plot, but don't elevate the movie in any legitimate way. The montage of film restoration is accompanied by a musical interlude that makes the film feel a lot more like either a nostalgic fun piece (a la Matinee) or an playful Afterschool Special than a vaguely supernatural horror flick. Further, while in many ways fresh and unique, the story by Mitchell Smith and the resulting screenplay by Ormsby (credited as Tod Hackett) occasionally devolves into horror cliches and the standard motifs of the films of the age. In short, often Popcorn can't decide just what it is or wants to be. It commonly tries to be too much, but sometimes results in just a bit too little.
This might be why Popcorn, for all the TV ads that ran for it, was not a huge hit upon its release (it grossed a little over four million bucks). This is too bad, too, because the same formula was used to great effect for a lot of the films that came after it... none of which seem to acknowledge Popcorn, even in that metafictional kind of way that they name-check oh-so-many horror flicks. While maybe Popcorn isn't quite as brilliant or seamless as the bigger-budgeted films of its kind that came later, there is a great deal of good in the film, as I've indicated. In addition to all of this, Schoelen (just off of a lead role the similarly themed Phantom of the Opera ) gives a fine performance as the troubled, brainy and sexy lead who is equal parts "Final Girl" and "Nobody's Victim". Likewise, the late Tom Villard, who so commonly would play the stereotype nerd in films, gives a complex and layered performance as the smart guy who knows a great deal about movie history and how to turn it all into a great show. There is no one dimension to his character of Toby and he manages to steal the show more than once.
So, yeah, Popcorn tends to be forgotten and swept under the rug, especially when one looks at those later self-aware slasher flicks that combine parody and brutal horror like the Scream Trilogy, New Nightmare, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, but Popcorn preceded these films and (along with some others) had the in-jokes, the cameo appearances by established stars and the much-imitated and spoofed plot elements that were used to great effect later on. It's easy to see how a lot of these films (particularly Scream 2) owe a debt to Popcorn. While it's not a perfect film (or even quite as good as some of those that followed it), Popcorn is an underrated, lamentably ignored and purely entertaining Slasher Flick worth your time to check out (and love or hate) and worth somewhere in the Cinema House of Three and One Half Stars out of Five! It wasn't quite the first or quite the best of its kind but it deserves to be seen, remembered and recognized at least for the kernel (pun intended) of the Pop Culture phenomenon that evolved after its release and left it behind.
What I'm trying to say, Film Freaks, is "Before the Theatre Scene from Scream 2... Before the Film-Within-A-Film of New Nightmare... before the Farce of Scary Movie... before them all... there was... POPCORN! Now eighteen years later... IT'S PART OF THE SUMMER OF HORROR II!" So until uncredited Producer Bob Clark succeeds in pushing through Popcorn II: The Critic, all about the writer of the worst-designed website on the net debuting his ill-advised documentary and thus losing all his fans, I'll see you in the next reel!
Reach OUT from the Past
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You'll find that they just might POSSESS you!
But possibly only because they're so damned long.
I went through that entire review without calling it "Corny" or pointing out that POPcorn should have been more popULAR! Go me.
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