The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: POPCORN (1991)

by: Damon Swindall
June 29th, 2011

After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago, Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas, and Chicago. GATW’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!

VHS box art for POPCORN

Most real film fans out there are suckers for movies that take place around our favorite subject - movies. Whether it is about a film production or just someone else obsessed with the medium it makes for a fun, at times meta, viewing experience. Is there a better way to show the fun of movies than through horror and sci-fi? Some would say that we horror fans are lowest common denominator when it comes to cinephiles, but I would greatly disagree. We are some of the most passionate and fun filmgoers out there, and we can love cinema just as much as the art film freaks. How many French New Wave conventions do they have all over the world every year? I digress...the important thing here is a Horror Movie Night pick centered around a horror/sci-fi film fest put on by a struggling film class and full of homage and fun. POPCORN (1991) is a great flick with a ton of replay value. For horror cinema enthusiasts it’s also a sort of wet dream...er, wet nightmare.

A small college’s budget is getting slashed, and one of the departments to feel the brunt of it is the film department. Although, I’m not sure if a class with a mere seven students can be considered a whole department. Anyway, the group needs to come up with some way to raise money to insure their beloved class’ future so they decide to put on a horror movie marathon in an old theater that has been abandoned and is a few weeks away from demolition. Things come together quickly, with the aid of an awesome montage sequence and song, and everything seems to be going off without a hitch; at least until they realize that Lanyard Gates, the presumed dead leader of a late '60s film cult, may be there to finish the murderous real-life flick he started years earlier that ended in a tragic theater fire.

Patron: “What time does the first show start?”
Bud: “Check the Shock Clock ma’am. When it screams, a feature beams.”

His face is all burned up

The premise of this film is simple enough and the director, Mark Herrier (who you might know as Billy from the PORKY’S trilogy), pulls it off rather well. Of course this film plays a lot into the mind of people who love having a good time watching horror flicks in a crowded theater of like-minded people. The film class picks three films which used gimmicks upon initial release, paying homage to the late ultimate showman William Castle. There is a giant glowing mosquito that flies above the audience for one, funky smells pumped into the theater for another, and the third feature sees electric shocks going off underneath the seats of unsuspecting moviegoers. This may all sound familiar because Castle did all of these in his heyday, but also because Joe Dante would pay tribute with some of these same techniques, along with his fictitious director Lawrence Woolsey, in MATINEE. That film is a barrel of enjoyment and has probably been seen by many more people, but it doesn’t have the body count this one does - small though it may be.

I was not alive for all of Castle’s gimmicky flicks in the late '50s/early '60s, but I love them and feel an almost nostalgia-like affinity toward them. I know that’s not reallypossible but I want to have been a part of that exciting time in genre film’s cinematic history so much that it warms my blackened heart when thought about. Hell, I still have my Odorama card from when IFC re-released John Waters’ fabulous film POLYESTER back into theaters five or six years ago. If only time travel was at my disposal.

Aside from the gimmick, this theater they used is gorgeous. Billed as the Dreamland, it’s a wonderful one screen with a full balcony and a big backstage behind the screen. This is the kind of movie palace that has been run out of business by multiplexes over the last twenty or so years. They actually say that this theater is destined for the wrecking ball in three weeks on the day they go to take a first look. Here’s where suspension of disbelief must be relied on rather heavily. Usually in these film it’s because of supernatural elements, but not in POPCORN! Here you have to really stretch your imagination for a lot of standard everyday things. For a theater that has been empty for a while, it is in damn good shape. During the “getting ready montage” all they really have to do is a little cleaning and changing of light bulbs. The projectors work and the screen is in great condition. Odd for an old closed movie palace soon to be a big pile of rubble.

Exterior of the Dreamland theater

Still, within three weeks they get the Dreamland up to specs, with prints of the old films and all the fun accoutrement involved. Most interesting of all - they pack the place! Maybe I’m jaded from living in a town that is about as excited about cool film events as most people are about watching city council meetings on cable access, but they get the word out and the theater is crawling with patrons, cash in hand and even donning costumes. There are more people in masks and heavy make-up for a triple bill film event than at most Halloween parties. They even got a band to come and rock the house. At first it’s weird combination to have a Jamaican-accented group playing a reggae-ish style of music at a horror-thon, but the credits show everything was shot on location in Jamaica. Ossie D & Steve G supply the songs “Scary Scary Movies” and the montage music, “Saturday Night at the Movies”, which kind of feels like something that you would hear on a special Jamaican vacation episode of FULL HOUSE. Not only do they play some cool tunes accompanied by nauseating camera angles, but they have magical powers as well. At one point they play in the theatre while all of the power is out. Not sure how their electric guitars and electric hexagonal drums (!) were heard, but I’ll chalk it up to the power of the Dreamland.

Quick side note - one of the excited moviegoers in costume appears to be wearing a Syngenor mask! I’m not sure if it was a popular item back in the day, if someone on this film knew someone involved with either SCARED TO DEATH or SYNGENOR, or if it just happened to be something they grabbed off a shelf. No matter the reason it’s nice to have a little inter-HMN connection.

Syngenor spotting in the wild

You kind of have to question this group of future filmmakers. The only ones who really seems to care a lot about cinema are our female lead, Maggie (Jill Schoelen), who is always either sketching storyboards or dictating her ideas to a small cassette recorder, or Toby (Tom Villard) who is the main brain behind this horror-thon idea. The rest are pretty much idiots. One of the guys suggests putting on a play to raise money. A play...to raise money...for the film department. Not too bright. But what do you really expect from a small group of “filmmakers” who has someone arguing the merits of POLICE ACADEMY 5 over anything made by Ingmar Bergman? Really? The one where they all go to Miami? Then when they watch the infamous Lanyard Gates’ short, THE POSSESSOR, immediately they are mocking it for being pretentious. What film school has no one into artsy and/or pretentious films? This must be where Michael Bay learned the ropes.

One thing this film really has going for it are the make-up FX. There are some really cool scenes involving our killer, who switches faces quickly to take on the identity of those he has killed. Of course he has to since his face was badly burned in a fire. Once again we must ignore anything we know about making latex make-up appliances and, well, science in general. There’s a contraption he uses to make a mold of the face and then make the appliance to fit his face that only takes a few minutes instead of hours like in real life. It’s all capped off by applying these prothstetic face lifts with precision and ridiculous speed. Either our killer has some skills that are out of this world or people like Dick Smith have been lying to us for years. There is a big moment in the film where Maggie has been captured and the baddy is explaining his motives and all about the high-tech prosthetics he wears that is just incredible. There is a wonderful actor behind all that make-up and having the half-on face flopping around the whole time is a nice touch.

Uh, your face is hanging off

Cheryl: “What makes you think people are gonna pay six bucks to see some crappy old movie they wouldn’t even rent for 99 cents?”

A while back, in 2001, Elite Entertainment released a DVD of POPCORN and it was met with whimpers of enthusiasm. People were happy to have it on the format but the only extras were a couple of trailers and the transfer looked like a rip of the VHS. It is now out-of-print and the fans want more - a lot more. Enter Kristy Jett, who many of you may know as working at the phenomenal horror t-shirt site Fright Rags. She has taken to the streets with a few others to get a new DVD of this classic released with some realextras such as a cast commentary, a collector’s booklet, new artwork by Jeff Zornow, and a big retrospective documentary! They have a distributor and a release date of March 23, 2012 lined up but they are still raising funds for the extras. The IndieGoGo campaign will have a few days left at the time this post goes live so you can donate to that HERE and get some cool swag along with your contribution. The project also has a blog that you can follow and “like” them on Facebook to keep up-to-date on all the happenings - including some 35mm screenings!

Yum

Actual popcorn may have very little to do with this film (according to IMDb that title had to do with a removed story element) but it’s still great fun. There are some great people behind the scenes from make-up artist Wayne Toth (who recently has been working on Rob Zombie’s films), to writer Alan Ormsby (CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, DERANGED), and produced by the one and only Bob Clark (BLACK CHRISTMAS, PORKY’S). There is a lot about this POPCORN that makes little to no sense but that only adds to the charm. A film like this is full of the fun and spirit of those great Castle films from decades past mixed with the slasher films of a more recent generation. A definite classic!

Until next week - I’ll be in film class studying POLICE ACADEMY 5-7.

Body Count: 5
Best Death: Electric (Wheel)Chair
Best Gimmick: Shock-O-Scope!
Number of Times Popcorn is Directly Mentioned: 6

Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-6/29/11: AMSTERDAMNED (1987)
-7/6/11: THE DARK POWER (1985)
-7/13/11: RITUALS (1977)
-7/20/11: DEADLINE (1981)

That kiss made his face melt!

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