Popcorn. 1991. Directed by Mark Herrier. Screenplay by Alan Ormsby, from a story by Mitchell Smith.
Starring Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Dee Wallace, Derek Rydall, Malcolm Danare, Elliott Hurst, Ivette Soler, Freddie Simpson, Kelly Jo Minter, Karen Lorre, Ray Walston, & Tony Roberts.
Movie Partners/Trans-Atlantic Pictures
Rated R. 91 minutes.
There are many critics who’ll say the 1990s were a bad era for the horror genre. This isn’t true, whatsoever. Only if you’re a snob. There were plenty of good to awesome horrors throughout the ’90s, not simply Scream knockoffs and lame attempts at carrying on the ’80s aesthetic.
Popcorn, the only feature film directed by Mark Herrier whom many will know as Billy from Porky’s, is a unique bit of horror, and not only because of the decade during which it arrived. There’s definitely still a leftover 80s style, though it isn’t forced, it’s entirely natural. Above all, the film’s metafiction and sense of intertextuality with other horror movies, the genre itself, really sells the entire deal thematically.
But it isn’t only writing, because beneath it is a slasher film. A young woman named Maggie (Jill Schoelen) begins discovering there’s more to her family than mom (Dee Wallace) has told her, involving a mysterious film and its director, a cult figure in the ’70s film community named Lanyard Gates. And throughout Maggie’s quest to discover the truth she faces all types of blood, ripped off faces, a homicidal all-night horrorthon, among other insanity.
“Come into my head“
From mentions of Ingmar Bergman to the merits of Police Academy – precursor to those excellent bits of dialogue in a film class during Scream 2 years later – it’s obvious the theme of this film is cinema itself. Of course that’s made even clearer with the all-night horror show the students at the high school intend on putting off. Plus, the discovery of Possessor, a (fake) long lost film reel leads us to the dark, eerie history of an avant-garde director with ties to the town, as well as Dee Wallace’s character and her daughter Maggie. Film, film, at every turn.
We’re also given the pleasure of watching films within the film, during the horrorthon the students throw. This is great metafiction, playing as intertextuality with other cinema; made all the better because they’re not actual films. Instead they’re extra short films directed by Alan Ormsby before he was fired, replaced by Herrier. Layers upon layers for what, on the exterior, appears as just another slasher.
The main focus of Popcorn is obsession, specifically centred on film. And in this sense, film is a view into the mind. Concepts that come involve faces, as in identity, and film characters versus real people. Lanyard Gates and his deadly obsession, the killer’s own obsession, blurs the line between fiction and reality. The film’s slasher aspect plays into these thematic ideas, as the new killer operates through use of masks. He goes from one face to the next, making masks out of his victims; this plays back to Leatherface and Tobe Hooper, also in a sense creating film characters out of the victims within their little universe inside the film.
Even the killer calls to mind these themes, reminding us that the past – knowledge of it, as in our knowledge of other movies in the genre – is necessary to us for the future.
“Without memory there can be no retribution“
On the other end of the spectrum, Popcorn is a delightfully nasty slasher at times without any symbolism or deep themes. It’s a revenge film, at its core. A man whose life was irreparably changed, shape by film using the cover of an all-night film showing for his various acts of revenge; a William Castle-type screening gone terribly wrong.
We get perhaps the genre’s most gruesome kiss, as a skin mask tears off the killer revealing his deformed face underneath. Truly, an all-time great horror moment, and certainly top of the ’90s! You’d have expected this to have been used in a Texas Chainsaw movie with Leatherface. A gnarly image, of the best kind.
There’s a sort of surreal mood at times, particularly earlier on. Actually, a scene with Dee Wallace doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me, yet it plays into the idea of fiction and reality blurring, so regardless it works. This helps to thrust us into the killer’s perspective, where horror crossed over from the screen into his life, scarring it and him forever. Aided by the killer speaking of his “soul” and “sustenance” as being his audience.
This leads us into the finale, an ironic sequence. A rear murder on stage, in place of a theatre screen, a precursor to the modern obsession with morbid videos, with the killer creating murderous reality in front of the audience rather than fiction while people cheer him on, not understanding it’s real. We get to a place where reality and fiction are indecipherable from one another; the theatre’s audience is the modern audience. It’s all one big surreal mix.
Popcorn finishes with dark irony. The killer is killed with a movie prop, a fake, flying insect which causes literal death, a smart end for the maniac. All the metafiction, the genre intertextuality rolls into one fitting death scene. Although the awful end credits rap is a bummer, just outright wretched garbage, this doesn’t take anything away from what followed.
It’s wild that this isn’t a more well known film. Lots of genre lovers have seen it, but it ought to be bigger. There’s a few missteps, a couple performances not up to par. Overall? A fun horror with equal amounts to think about and effects to enjoy. The bit of Dee Wallace we get, and Jill Schoelen, is fantastic, as usual.
This warrants a spot on any Halloween list or horror movie marathon. And what a title! Can’t be a coincidence. No matter what, you’ll find something to dig, whether it’s the killer’s face masks, the films within the film, the metafiction, the revenge; there’s plenty good stuff. Snatch up a copy this season.