Welcome back to another Friday Nightmares Review wherein I talk about what you could be watching instead of wasting time on the internet. Because sometimes we long to look back at those days of our youth when life was simpler and things seemed better but probably weren’t. Back when there were no such things as memes to give people shorthand to what you were thinking and we were desperate to find something else to do other than actually converse with our loved ones in person. In such days, we did things like put on pants and leave the sanctity of our homes to go find entertainment in archaic formats at these mythical places called Video Rental Stores! Sometimes, when the moon aligned properly, usually on a Tuesday, we would even go to that most sacred of places, the local cheap theatre! Cinema! The Pictures! Video Nasties! Beta Max! Come on, friends! Let’s be kind and rewind back to the days when we had to put effort into watching a movie!
While I would assume that most people who would be interested in reading about the weird movies I dig up are within a certain age range, just in case you’re not familiar, let me paint you a picture of another time. Believe it or not, there was a time when streaming was but a dream. When Video on Demand in your own home was just a ridiculous demand to be making. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had two or three options at your disposal. If you had basic cable, you were gifted with whatever the stations had managed to get the rights to play for a month and you hoped it wasn’t something obnoxious. If it had any degree of badass action or horror scenes with nudity or any “strong language” at all, you were also reduced to watching baby’s first toothless film where any violence was edited out (poorly), the swearing was dubbed with the lamest words in the English language or silenced and any instances of sex or boobies were cut out entirely. If this didn’t suit your needs, you ran to the video store wherein you would be greeted to entire walls of the latest film releases (which were usually all gone within seconds) and everything else was separated by genre. And what to pick from here, you might be wondering. Since this was the times before IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, you had to go off the opinions of someone you knew or go off some weird critic from the paper. Most of the time, however, you were reduced to that tried and true method of yesterday: Crossing your fingers and going off what had the best box cover art.
This was no easy task in the horror department. I know I’m biased and all, but the horror box cover art was always a notch above everything else in the store. Comedies were fine but mostly pretty stupid. Romances were all pretty bland and same-y. Dramas were all just too serious. Then there was Horror. Amid menacing faces and iconic designs were box covers that ranged from disturbing to the awkward to the creative to the truly “why would anyone design that” bizarre. Most of them were painted posters but there were also often staged photos that were usually topped with some gloriously horrible or drippy typeface that promised some title that you knew was going to be either bad or fun or both. These covers were a clear signal that if you wanted something weird, this movie was going to deliver. It might not be good but there was a good chance that you would laugh or be haunted by images that you would not soon forget. In any case, it was better than watching the edited version of Terminator on cable.
If you want a great example of the glory that was horror box cover art, check out the trade paperback edition of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism for a spot on tribute to all that was wonderful about those films and their art. But we’re not talking about weird books tonight. This evening, we’re talking about oddball films with excellent signals to the casual browser of a local video store that says, you need to see this now! Tonight’s film, Popcorn, has cover art that promises a very weird tale for those with the courage to pick it up. Tonight, I dig for the gold at the bottom of the bucket, and trust me, there is indeed gold to be found in them kernels.
This film was brought out in 1991 when the last dying gasps of the 80s were still hovering in our culture and trust me, it shows in the fashion and the soundtrack. Popcorn was directed first by Alan Ormsby but according to the always reliable world of the intertubes, he was replaced after three weeks of principal photography by Mark Herrier. Originally called Phantom of the Cinema (I can’t possibly imagine why), the film title was changed by the studio to reflect some story element in a prior draft of the movie. A story element that was then cut from the final edit that was released in theatres but the studio liked this title better, so they did the completely professional thing and said “Fuck it, let’s just call it Popcorn anyway” and thus, the title stuck.
And what’s this film about? On the surface, it’s about a group of college film students who decide to host a fundraiser for their projects at an abandoned old fashioned movie house with an all night horror-thon. At their sold out event, the students are stalked by an unseen figure that begins to pick them off, one at a time as he makes his way towards our final girl. Sounds like pretty standard slasher fare with slight nods towards a Phantom of the Opera vibe, yes? Well let’s make this more interesting and throw in a mysterious film cult into the background. Also, hey why don’t we make these horror films that they’re showing really weird and gimmicky? While we’re at it, why don’t we also make the characters kinda fun to watch and actually kind of likeable? To top it off, why don’t we throw in an atmosphere that you can only find at a horror marathon in an old theatre. That, friends, is a recipe for an excellent time while enjoying some pretty standard slasher fare with a bit of a Phantom of the Opera twist!
To give you a bit more of a deep dive on this one, let’s start at the beginning where we are greeted by a standard Bad Dream™, presented to us in stunning psychedelic foreshadowing vision. This is the introduction to our main character, Maggie, who is going to turn that mess of a dream into an amazing film some day, don’t you know. One day, people are going to pay millions to adapt this coked out segment from Willy Wonka’s boat ride into 90 minutes of cinema that audiences will shrug and go see if there’s nothing better to watch. Either that or it will likely land in a single theatre somewhere that specializes in art house flicks that will have about ten people in attendance and they will all say it was incredible and laud it to everyone they meet until it comes available on Netflix about a year later, after which everyone who watches it will wonder if there were possibly some drugs influencing the original critics’ opinions on this dreck to which their rebuttal will include something along the lines that you just don’t appreciate cinematic expressions that take risks and have vision and are needlessly too long and have no plot.
That sounds like an excessive and weird rant to have in the middle of the review but it is actually relevant to the story, I assure you. You see, Maggie is obsessed with recording her every thought on this developing screenplay that she completely passes up the opportunity for easy sex with her boy toy that might or might not be dating her. She’s also so engrossed in this task that she agrees to be part of some class project about fundraising or some such. She’s not paying attention. And if you are an arts major or have ever been one, I will warn you now that their plight about budget concerns and trying to find anywhere to dwell on campus will probably hit closer to home than you might like. It’s also the reason for our future cadavers to go to the old abandoned theatre that’s going to end up being their final resting place.
I feel like I should mention here that in most films, set ups are among the most important things that should be established in the opening. This probably sounds like a no brainer. After all, everything the characters do from here on out hinges on this part of the story. You need to establish the stakes and what the trajectory of the next hour or so is going to be for everyone. All this said, it seems like in a lot of horror films, this is one of the few instances where you just have to go with it when they set up the story. And that’s not all horror, to be fair, but it’s like with this genre, we are all just meant to expect fairytale logic and money grows on trees and things just are available and no one ever thinks about or notices anything is weird about anything until the first body appears. To think too hard about these things is to say to yourself that you were really hoping for a stellar migraine for the rest of the evening. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to go explore that weird creepy mansion for a really obscene amount of money? Who wouldn’t blindly wander out to a campsite where a bunch of people had been murdered?
If you’re in the minority and would find yourself unable to say yes to these kinds of scenarios, you’d probably wonder how a bunch of young students from a cash strapped program managed to find a way to pull together the funds to rent a theatre, print advertising for their horror marathon, found movies that they could show without copyright issues, hire a live band to entertain people while they were lining up and still had enough left over to provide all the props and the effects that they put on throughout the showings. At times like these, one must look deep within and embrace that beautiful lyric from the classic Mystery Science Theatre 3000 theme song: “Just repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax’”.
And here we get our big walk on tribute to the film and part of our flimsy explanation to at least a few of the questions posted above. Acting as a kind of homage to William Castle and his shocking films of yesterday is Ray Walston of “everyone is on dope” from Fast Times at Ridgemont High fame. Playing a character that we get to see far too little of, Walston is Dr. Mnesyne and everything he says is a love letter to the days when horror was all about throwing things at the wall to see what would make them jump, what would make them sick, what would get the butts in the chairs. Part carny barker and part P.T. Barnum con man, he equips our starving art students with the means to turn this (strangely pristine even though it’s abandoned) theatre into the perfect home for their all night horror fest and the end result is perfect.
There are few horror films where you can look at the setting and wish that you were there. In fact, most horror films make you happy you’re on the other side of the screen as opposed to having to deal with what’s attacking the characters. This movie comes to mind as possibly being the only exception for the fact that being in the audience for that film fest would have been insanely fun. If you’ve never been to a horror marathon around Halloween where they showed old or odd movies on the big screen before, you need to indulge yourself at the next opportunity. It’s entirely too much fun, the films aren’t always great but being in the audience for things like this is genuinely one of the best times you’ll have. The crowd gets into it, the atmosphere is like everything you loved about Halloween as a kid and it has the power to turn things that would be absolutely stupid in your living room into the best film you’ve seen in the theatre. What’s neat about this film is that not only does it capture that atmosphere perfectly, it does so in a way that the audience, while never safe from the pranks and tricks of the film students, are still pretty much safe to watch the movies. You have a weird meta moment when the audience of the horror films, watching the carnage on screen, is still safe just by being members of the audience. It might be something of a statement on the role of the horror fan but it’s never really explored that much because there’s that whole plot getting in the way of our perfectly fun party.
Remember that whole comparison to the Phantom of the Opera thing earlier? Well color me stunned but after the students finish setting up for their festival, people start getting killed. Not the audience, as stated, but the students themselves! I know, you’re as shocked as I am. Seems a mystery killer is on the loose and sees fit to deliver a world of terror by committing the most bloodless and silent murders ever! From here, there’s even more nods towards Phantom but I won’t say anything further because I don’t want to spoil anything of where it goes. Trust me, even if you can guess, the whole thing is kind of bonkers in only the best way and it is better to go in fairly blind and just enjoy. And besides, why worry about something like that twist when you have the murder spree going on? While they’re not Jason X level of inventive, the kills are actually pretty impressive for a film like this. It’s definitely a cut above the sneak and stab variety, which is a welcome departure. About the only thing that makes it a touch on the weaker side are the characters who are getting murdered.
Don’t get me wrong, these kids are all pretty likeable and all seem like they would be the types that you would find in a film studies class. The problem is that we don’t really get much of a sense of anyone’s personality except for maybe Maggie and even she isn’t really very well developed. We get a small sense of her interest in her screenplay and her dreams but if you look at her sitting next to any of the other girls in her class, there’s nothing really to set her apart. She’s just kind of there and when she has to carry the weight of the film, she doesn’t really have much to do but chase her own tail or get plot pointed by our mystery villain. There are some other issues too, mostly in the comic relief boyfriend and the stereotypical tough black chick cliche but I will give the film points for at least not killing her. I do wish that they had developed these kids a bit more because giving them some context or background, even a little bit, would have made this movie more of a heavy hitter on par with any of the Friday the 13th films or the Elm Street series. The ingredients are all there and there’s plenty to like about what little you do get to see so it would have been nice but it’s not a deal breaker. Besides, we have to talk about our scene stealer and ultimately the best part of the film: our villain.
I can’t spoil this one, even a little bit, because it would be full on robbery. The film does a good job of establishing a motive for our killer and even though the set up is still based in that every popular horror fairytale logic, they still stick the landing because they commit to it. This is half the reason that I can’t even tell you who the actor is because I very much insist that if you have never seen the film, go in blind. Let the movie dazzle you with its little surprises and allow the over acting by our resident mystery murderer to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And I assure you, once the villain has been unmasked, so to speak, this film really plunges into fun territory. Our killer has a strange, if sometimes awkward, sense of humor and has props and even has a real motive, even if it is kinda flimsy. And the best part is that the film even goes so far as to acknowledge that and kind of even make fun of itself for it. What’s also refreshing is that we also get to see how our killer is not just evil for the sake of it and actually is affected by the idea that the world isn’t quite how he thinks it is. When his point of view is challenged, he is actually shown to be conflicted by it. He’s still a killer and ultimately still tries to carry out his evil plan but he’s still got some sense that there’s more to him than this. In some ways, he’s actually the most developed character in the film and even if I bag on his motives, he’s given enough time to really parse out why he feels the way he does and ultimately he still feels well rounded in the end. That alone is worth watching for sure.
Ultimately, this film is a great example of those gems that you didn’t know what you were going to get when you looked at the weird box cover art at the video store. In this case, I argue that it is indeed a gem. Don’t get me wrong, I know this film isn’t without issues but I still feel like the horror world is sleeping on this one. It’s not going to win any awards and it’s got it’s weaker points but Popcorn is exactly the movie you want for those times when you just want to enjoy a little bit of everything that makes horror fun. The atmosphere alone is worthy of your attention, the villain is way too much fun and even though it doesn’t always have the strength to try to carry all the things it tries to do, the film has a lot to give. Grab your favorite snack and give this nostalgic piece a little bit of your time.
As always, thanks for joining me on another Friday Nightmare Review and if you’re still craving some horror in your life, check out my main story Hello Dolly on Mondays. Until next time, here’s wishing you all some pleasant Nightmares this weekend!