4.21.2012

Popcorn (1991)

DIRECTED BY
Mark Herrier
Alan Ormsby

STARRING
Jill Schoelen - Maggie
Tom Villard - Toby D'Amato
Derek Rydall - Mark
Tony Roberts - Davis
Dee Wallace Stone - Suzanne
Kelly Jo Minter - Cheryl
Ray Walston - Dr. Malcolm Mnesyne


Genre - Horror/Slasher/Comedy/Cult

Running Time - 90 Minutes


PLOT
Maggie (Jill Schoelen) is having trouble due to some bad dreams. She's been having some bizarre nightmares about some bearded dude whispering disturbing stuff to her - a dude she doesn't recognize. Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Maggie decides to use her dreams as ideas for a screenplay she's trying to complete. However, Maggie's aunt (Dee Wallace Stone) doesn't seem to share in Maggie's positivity for reasons made unclear.


Meanwhile, the film school she attends is trying to have a fundraiser by showing old B-movies that utilize 3-D and aroma gimmicks. While setting up, Maggie and her friends find "The Possessor" - an old film directed by Lanyard Gates. Gates is considered to be a drugged up hippie who lost his marbles, which led to the murder of a lot of people who were in attendance at the screening of the film. Gates also tried to murder his own family on stage, but was shot dead. Or was he? And why does Maggie feel connected to Gates?

As Maggie worries about her connection to the late demented director, her friends end up getting killed during the fundraiser while an unsuspecting audience enjoys themselves. Is Gates back and out for blood? Or is someone else behind the madness?









REVIEW



HITS

- The B-Movie homages. POPCORN is one of the first horror films to reference other films within its narrative, making our characters aware of the horror film rules and motifs. The film festival is based on B-Movies from the 1950s, especially the William Castle variety with different gimmicks involving sight, smell, and touch. And quite honestly, this homage to horror films of yesteryear is the highlight of this slasher film.

POPCORN
gives us three fake B-Movies, all of which are silly, campy, and so well done that I wish they were actual features. "The Mosquito" is the 3D film and it feels as if it were made during the era of 1950s science fiction films. The dialogue, the way it's shot, and the acting all feel authentic. We only get clips of the film, but each time it played, I looked forward to more. "The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man" is the film where the audience would get randomly shocked in their seats anytime the monster would attack. It's obviously a riff on THE TINGLER, but the black-and-white look made it seem like it was made during those classic monster movies. And "The Stench" is the aroma film, basing itself on Japanese monster films. I thought some of the shots shown were pretty funny and cool.

POPCORN
, while a slasher film made long after its boon during the early 1980s, seems to embrace the B-movies of the past wholeheartedly. There's nothing wrong with that at all, as the fake films presented seem to have been made with a ton of heart and professionalism. They were the best part of the film for me.
- The cast. While the acting isn't the greatest ever, the charming cast help keep POPCORN afloat through its flaws. Jill Schoelen, best known for her work in 1987's THE STEPFATHER, does well in the role as the Final Girl, Maggie. She apparently replaced another actress in short notice, but you couldn't really tell by her performance. She does what she can with the material and helps carry the film pretty well. Dee Wallace Stone and Ray Walston are pretty wasted in bit parts, but do what they can with what they're given. The late Tom Villard is way over-the-top as Toby, but I enjoyed his performance. He gave the film a ton of energy whenever he was on screen, and really had the most depth out of all the actors and characters in the movie. He was the most memorable out of all the actors. Kelly Jo Minter, of SUMMER SCHOOL and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD, has some standout moments - especially one where she kicks some guy's ass. That was pretty funny. Derek Rydall is decent as Maggie's boyfriend, Mark, giving the character some sympathetic notes. Plus, he had a falling and tripping gag that ran kind of old after a while. I think if the script was better and the actors had more to do, the acting would have been outstanding. But for what it is, it's more positive than negative.

-
The villain. I won't spoil the mystery for those who have not yet seen POPCORN, but I actually dug the villain here. Just a really batshit crazy character with an interesting way to get around undetected. The voice impersonations and the awesome facial masks to cover their true appearance is pretty rad. I'm sure the villain was inspired by more personable villains, like Freddy Krueger, who used great one-liners to become majorly popular and likeable. The villain here isn't that memorable or anywhere near Krueger's league, but I liked the character and his/her motives. The film was a lot more fun whenever he/she appeared.

-
The murders. For a slasher film, POPCORN isn't particularly gory at all. In fact, the film was pretty much a low budget affair, so I'm sure special effects weren't exactly a priority. But the way the characters do die are pretty nifty in their own way. Someone gets impaled by a giant mosquito during the screening of the film it's inspired by. We get a gassing and an electrocution [in an electric chair] as well. Not a really violent film, surprisingly since this is a slasher, but I thought that the deaths were cool because each one occurred as the film they were inspired by were playing in the theater. It was a nice touch, I feel.


MISSES

- Direction and tone. From what I've read, there seems to have been some behind-the-scenes trouble when it came to who directed POPCORN. Alan Ormsby, who was the screenwriter for 1972's CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and DEATHDREAM, also was the screenwriter for POPCORN, as well as the film's original director. After Ormsby shot some of the footage, he decided to leave [or was replaced, said by some] the director's chair, which allowed PORKY'S actor, Mark Herrier, to direct the rest. Ormsby was the man responsible for directing the three B-movie segments, which are quite honestly the best looking parts of the film. They all have the right tone for the eras each film are inspired by, as well as the best cinematography as well. It would have been great to see Ormsby direct the entire film, because I'm sure it would have come across better.

That's not to say that Herrier's direction is completely terrible. Some of the editing is good. Some of the shots are stylish, especially during the murder sequences and scenes involving the villain during the last half of the film. However, compared to the B-movie segments, the real plot line is pretty much directed in a generic way that doesn't really allow for much tension or suspense. The visuals aren't as shot as tightly as they could possibly be, and the cinematography isn't all that great either as the film looks grainy and darker scenes needed a bit more lighting. It's competent enough, but there was potential for more.


What also hurts the direction is the uneven tone. Is this supposed to be a serious horror film? Or is this a campy B-movie with silly, throwaway characters and a hammy villain? It never really balances the two out, confusing the viewer on how they should react to the film. Is POPCORN fun to watch? Sure. But it would have been a lot more fun if the film played it straight, as Maggie's plot had very serious and creepy undertones. It would have been fun if it was completely campy, where we don't take anything seriously and the characters are kind of in on it. Hell, a great director would have been able to balance the two in a way that you barely notice the different moods the film wants to build. But Herrier isn't the director to make that happen [
not sure if Ormsby is either, but his experience probably would have improved the final cut]. It's like watching Maggie in a thriller while everyone else around her is acting as if it's a comedy. Plus the musical interludes [with the reggae band - the film was made in Jamaica] ruined the flow of the film for me, even though I did enjoy the music in the film. It doesn't really work for me.
- Narrative too localized amongst main characters. I don't think the narrative, or the screenplay itself, is terrible. In fact, it has a lot of likeable and charming qualities. The fact that the killer goes after the film students behind the fundraiser is a logical plot that POPCORN did right. It's a slasher and that's the template of this sub-genre. The film students, besides Maggie, should be in fatal danger to set Maggie up as the Final Girl. POPCORN does that well.

However, you have a group of people inside the theater who are completely oblivious to what's going on. They're never in danger. They're never fearing for their lives. We, as an audience, can tell that none of them will probably die because the killer isn't focused on them. And that's an issue I kind of have with
POPCORN. I think if this was meant to be a horror film, everyone should have been in serious danger by this villain. Why would he just kill the film students? Isn't the audience supporting this fundraiser too? They should also be victims of this person's madness.

Take a look at 1985's
DEMONS. Everyone was in danger at that theater. Yes, you knew who the main characters were and why they were there. But other audience members were victims of the demonic attack that plaqued that showing. Hell, I think the horrors of the movie experience were done better in 2008's MIDNIGHT MOVIE. At least that had a tone I could identify with and all the audience members were pretty much screwed by the film's villain. That's what POPCORN needed to really raise it from average to good. There's really no threat here and I never felt that "anything, to anyone, could happen". Maybe that's due to a restricted budget, but the idea should have been there anyway.

-
Bland characterization. It doesn't help that POPCORN has really underdeveloped characters. To be quite honest, most of them were interchangeable. We had the slutty girl. We had the nerdy guy. We had the buff boyfriend. We had the tough girl. But other than those stereotypes, I had no idea who these people were. When that happens, I start to tune out and not care. I don't mind stereotypical characters as long as they have some sort of personality, or if the actors are trying to give them more depth than they probably deserve. Neither one is present here. I just felt indifferent about these people and didn't really care if the killer got them or not. They were neither interesting or annoying. They were just there for me, and that's never good. They were in the film because they had to be there to raise the body count. Luckily some characters were interestingly enough to keep me watching, but the supporting characters could have used a tiny bit more substance for me to react to them in a positive or negative way. My reactions were stuck in limbo, unfortunately.


THE FINAL HOWL

While flawed, the underrated POPCORN is still a decent film that deserves some appreciation for its attempt to create something fresh in the horror scene of the early 1990s. The uneven tone, the average direction, and the dull supporting characters hurt the film. But POPCORN has some decent acting, great homages to classic B-movies, interesting methods of murder, and a villain who happens to be the highlight. POPCORN is a film that could use a remake of some sort, which could probably lead to a supplemental DVD/Blu-Ray package that it definitely deserves. Just above average POPCORN here. Could have used more butter, in my honest opinion.


SCORE
2.5 Howls Outta 4



7 comments:

  1. Great review as always. I saw this in the theater opening weekend. I was 13, it was a great experience on the big screen. It doesn't add up as well now as it did then, but it is indeed a fun movie. And I fully agree that the faux movies made for the film festival are the best part. And Jill Schoelen. I love that girl. Can't wait till this film gets a good DVD release. That Elite disc is awful.

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  2. Yeah, I remember liking this more when I was younger. It's pretty dated now and wouldn't mind a redo of some sort if it happens. But yeah, it's a fun flick. And it definitely needs a new DVD. Or even a remastered Blu Ray. Fans of the film deserve better when it comes to POPCORN. Thanks buddy!

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  3. Cool and entertaining little slasher, unfortunately pretty underrated. No masterpiece but full of wonderful ideas (Mosquito!) + the gorgeous Jill Schoelen.
    Superb review, Fred!

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  4. Awesome! this little nasty managed to find its way into mah rotten heart; probably because of the 50s tribute, and too the campy tone of it! Nice one, mate!

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  5. I saw this one in the theater too - and reviewed it for my hand typed movie review newsletter that had a readership of 6. You're exactly right - it's two different movies jammed together - and none too smoothly - and when either part is working well - you wish the whole movie would be that style. But kudos to the killer performer - as it's not the kind of role "they" (protecting gender - not intimating multiple killers) are known for. Terrific review!

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  6. @Kaijinu - Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoy this one.

    @Craig - Yeah, the uneven tone ruins the film for me. Either it should be serious or it should be campy. Sometimes you can balance the two, but that doesn't happen here. I agree about the person playing the villain. This person isn't known for horror, but they do a great job in the role. Thanks!

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