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January 28, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #4 - Popcorn

The 1991 shocker Popcorn, from only-time feature director Mark Herrier, is a bit of a horror mutt. Mixing elements of slasher and supernatural horrors with loving parodies of '50s B-movies and the works of Toho studios in Japan, it comes off as one of the more intriguing horror mashups in my memory.

Our story begins with a film student named Maggie, who's suffering from horrific nightmares of a man she's never known - and who thinks these dreams would make one heck of a screenplay. Meanwhile, her film department decides to put on a fundraising "horrorthon" at a deserted old movie theater...which also happens to house a movie trailer sized reel of film from the presumably lost '70s acid-trip horror film Possessor. As it turns out, Possessor is the creation of a madman named Lanyard Gates who a) killed his family during the film's premiere, before burning down the theater and killing himself with the audience, and b) appears to be the man from Maggie's dreams.

Of course, the night of the marathon begins, and a raucous, packed house shows up for Mosquito, The Amazing Electrified Man, and The Stench, but Maggie soon realizes that one of the members of the audience seems to be the undead Gates. Members of the film class soon start dying in ways that eerily resemble the gimmicks of the films on screen, while Maggie realizes that she appears to be the killer's intended target.
Jill Schoelen, who stars as Maggie, was previously the damsel in distress in 1987's The Stepfather and 1989's Phantom of the Opera and knows the survivor girl roll well. She's supported well throughout the film by the supporting cast, particularly Tom Villard (One Crazy Summer) as the dorky leader of the film class, Toby, and bit performances by veterans Dee Wallace Stone (E.T., Cujo, The Howling) and Ray Walston (Damn Yankees, The Stand). The rest of the cast is your standard teen-horror group of unknowns, but none of them are painfully bad at their roles.

There are a lot of things I love about this one. For starters, the footage from the films featured in the triple feature are fantastic examples of the genre cinema they're imitating, including the in-theater gimmicks that were so popular in the '50s and '60s. The bits from Mosquito (which was filmed in PROJECT-O-VISION!) are especially hilarious, but the other "films" feature some good laughs too. The film itself has a dark, cheap feel to it, and while I'm not sure it's intentional (there's a green vertical scratch that's visible on the DVD transfer during what I assume is the film's fourth reel), it makes the film feel authentic as a B-movie treasure.

Also, the whole film seems to completely love the idea of cinema as a relevant part of culture, which is something I love to see. There are references to no less than Citizen Kane, Ingmar Bergman, Alice in Wonderland, Indiana Jones, and plenty more throughout the film, and most of the references are relevant to the progression of the plot. Additionally, the scenes involving the audience watching the B-movies seem to give the film a lot of energy, leading us to a finale that involves audience participation in the plot's outcome. The film's portrayal of moviegoers who're looking for cheap fun actually adds to the humor of the film in the second act, and to the tension of the film in the third act.Popcorn never really hits top speed, mostly because the Possessor film that much of the plot relies on isn't near as engaging or creepy as it could be, but the film's consideration of all things horror as part of culture makes it instantly lovable in my mind. It's easy to see that the people behind the film had the utmost respect for horror cinema across the history of the genre, and had a lot of fun putting together their own terror tale. With humorous gags, some creepy/surreal images, and a few twists in the final reel, Popcorn passes as the kind of mindless entertainment it praises, and I'm glad to give it a recommendation as Midnight Movie of the Week.

(By the way, Popcorn can be viewed instantly on Netflix, despite the fact the DVD is out of print. Check it out if you're feeling lucky.)

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

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