For slasher-movie fans, the ‘90s were both a heartbreaking and a heartwarming era. The decade came in like a lamb with a dearth of anything that resembled the "dead teenager" films of the early ‘80s, those beloved movies in which assorted youth are dispatched, one by one, by a masked killer motivated by revenge/madness/other nefarious reasons. The genre itself was dead at the dawn of the ‘90s, but 1996 brought us the miracle of Scream (celebrating its twenty-year anniversary this year!) and a sudden reinvigoration of new slashers that finished out the decade like a lion.
The success of Scream was pinned on its ability to teach a fresh trick to an old dog: self-referential meta-horror. This new point of view technically arrived in 1991 with Rolfe Kanefsky’s There’s Nothing Out There (a terrific film to discuss another time); that was also the year that Popcorn snuck in under the radar. Sadly, few saw it — the horror flick's box-office returns were terrifying on their own — and even fewer realized that the film was less about understanding the rules of the genre and more about why we loved lining up to watch slashers in the first place.
Popcorn is a horror film set in a movie theater —- “Buy a bag, go home in a box” was the movie's lean, mean tagline — with a no-fat script that cuts right to the action and keeps things moving. Within the first ten minutes we meet our cast of potential victims, led by most-likely final girl Maggie (poor man’s Winona Ryder and mini-scream queen Jill Schoelen) and her teensy film class (seriously, only eight kids in the program?), made up of simple but soon lovable archetypes: jock boyfriend, exuberant nerd, blond sex bomb, pissed-off wheelchair kid, token black girl, sassy curvy girl and sarcastic prep. At a nearly breakneck speed, we learn that the film department, led by film stalwart Tony Parker as teacher Mr. Davis, needs money, so it's throwing a horror marathon at the Dreamland Theater, a gorgeous movie palace. “Welcome to the house of ushers!” quips nerd Toby upon arrival. And so after a quick “putting it together” montage as the empty theater is cleaned and the concession stand stocked, the film's ready to get into the real scares of the story.
The creep factor actually begins at minute one, when we meet Maggie and jump right into her nightmare: She sees a little girl being terrorized by a bearded stranger and watches him stab a woman on a table before he starts coming for her. She wakes up and begins recanting the dream into a recorder, excited to potentially use the idea for a film. ”I wonder if Orson Welles dreamed about Citizen Kane?” she ponders to her nervous mother (played by The Howling and Cujo's great Dee Wallace Stone).
After the students wrap the theater setup, they discover a film reel containing a weirdo short called Possessor that Maggie realizes is made up of all of her nightmare imagery. Mr. Davis informs the kids that the film is from a man named Lanyard Gates, who, fifteen years earlier, ran an experimental film cult (maybe that's the group that decides what defines a “cult film”?) and produced scoff-worthy titles that led him to create Possessor — only he left off the ending and instead closed the film with a live stage show in which he murdered his family, set the theater on fire and locked the audience inside. Yowza. But why is Maggie dreaming of these events? And why, after Maggie describes the movie to her mother, does she race with a gun to the Dreamland, where something spooky happens to her? The plot thickens — and we’re still only twenty minutes in!
The tastiest kernels of the film, of course, surround the actual horror marathon at the Dreamland, where a thousand ecstatic and costumed viewers fill the seats as the faux-horror films Mosquito (filmed in Project-O-Vision 3D!), The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man (in Shock-O-Scope!) and The Stench (in Aroma-Rama!) are unspooled to the audience’s delight. Each movie features a William Castle-inspired gimmick — a giant mosquito flying over the audience, electric shock-rigged seats and that Aroma-Rama smell-delivery system. At the same time, the body count begins to build, as students are stalked and dispatched by Lanyard Gates — or someone else? — while Maggie wanders every inch of the theater looking for everybody who's missing. Meanwhile, the audience members — both on screen and off — are having the time of their lives.
The buttery magic of Popcorn lies not in any kind of meta-ness that our post-Scream minds pick up — the characters aren’t aware that they’re in a horror movie, nor do they follow any of “the rules” of slashers as they constantly go looking for missing friends, walking into total darkness; Maggie is the only one concerned with the possible Lanyard Gates attack/mystery. Still, from the minute you set eyes on the beautiful Dreamland facade, you’re hooked. With its towering neon marquee, in-the-round glass box office, cathedral-like auditorium (complete with a balcony) and cozy lobby concession stand, it creates a real nostalgia. If you’re lucky enough to have a memory of a classic movie palace, Popcorn will pull that heartstring.
And that nostalgia extends to the fake movies being shown to the whooping delight of the captive audience, all unaware that a horror movie is occurring around them. Produced for the movie, these films represent the best of ‘60s, ‘70s and '80s shlock cinema and remind us that horror movies — and the act of seeing them with an audience — are worth saving and savoring. Audience members in Popcorn hoot and holler, toss snacks at the screen, and cop feels with their seatmates when the action on screen gets too quiet — only to be surprised by jump scares and loud music cues. And you will be, too!
Most important to slasher-movie fans, of course, is the killer in the film — and Popcorn’s is a real winner. The specter of creepy Lanyard Gates and his monstrous voice and potential act of revenge — did he survive the fire only to repeat the scenario with Maggie? — gets a goose when it’s revealed that the evening’s victims are getting latex masks of their faces cast by Gates, who uses them to fool the main characters as they meet their own dark fates. This scenario quietly recalls Vincent Price’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a 1971 charmer about a doctor, disfigured in a car accident, who seeks grotesque revenge on the surgeons who killed his wife, all while wearing a new face to meet his victims.
To see Popcorn is to love it — and to declare your love of horror movies, and movie watching, to the world. Grab a handful of this hot, buttery treat and dig in.
Special things to watch for:
Popcorn’s soundtrack is curiously reggae-centric, complete with a goofy house band entertaining the audience before the show. That’s because the entire production was filmed in Jamaica, which doubles for Hollywood; the Dreamland Theatre is actually the Ward Theater, which is located in Kingston.
After three weeks of filming, original director Alan Ormsby and lead actress Amy O’Neill were replaced for undisclosed reasons. Ormsby was replaced by Mark Herrier (his only feature-directing credit), and O’Neill was replaced by Jill Schoelen in the role of Maggie. Ormsby retained screenplay credit and a credit for directing the fake movies screened at the horror-thon.
Villain Lanyard Gates was inspired by weirdo Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins, also known as the bizarre film character Coffin Joe.
You can rent a copy of Popcorn via Video One, at 600 Downing Street, and Video Station, 5290 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. The best way to view the film, though, may be at the screening at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 27, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Tickets are $7 and available at drafthouse.com, and the fllm is a 35mm version. Still, I'll be disappointed if the Alamo hasn't planned a William Castle-type stunt — or offs an entire film school class — while Popcorn plays.
For seven years, writer Keith Garcia — then programming manager for the Denver Film Society — curated and hosted the Watching Hour series, introducing Denver audiences to neo-cult films: little-seen genre films that needed more eyeballs to work their way up to becoming full-fledged cult films, which they all deserve to be.