1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Popcorn October 2, 2019
f it bleeds, it leads.” So purrs Nina (Rene Russo), a news producer featured in 2014’s Nightcrawler. The sentiment is a pretty appalling one, but for horror movies with a satirical edge — particularly ones orbiting around the entertainment industry — it’s almost banal. In Network (1976), TV-programmer Diana (Faye Dunaway) milks, with an almost vampiric smile, the public meltdown and suicide threats
of an anchor (Peter Finch) to get better ratings. A station featured in Videodrome (1983) only airs stuff with over-the-top violence and pornographic images. And throughout the Scream series (1996-2001), journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) does all she can to involve herself in a local murder spree. She not only gets some good, unfortunately first-hand leads in her reporting but also writes a book based on her experiences.
These movies most popularly capitalize on and exaggerate media bloodlust. But they aren’t the only ones to hurl venom. A great forgotten gem working with the same thematic ideas is Popcorn (1991), a comedy slasher that, in addition to trying on the violence-is-entertainment messaging of those films, is also an obvious precursor to the aforementioned Scream franchise, which was credited for reviving the then-monotonous horror genre through meta-commentary.
Popcorn largely takes place in a movie theater, during a horror-film marathon fundraiser put on by a university’s theater department. Just before the first movie featured gets going, the protagonist of Popcorn, aspiring director and co-event planner Maggie (Jill Schoelen), finds out that a murderer may be one of the ticket-buyers. Adding to the excitement is that he’s a crafty, rather legendary one. He might be Lanyard Gates, a moviemaker who notoriously killed his family while shooting the final scene for “Possessor,” a short feature he wrote and directed that’s beckoned in a cult fanbase in recent years. Most people thought he died during the incident.
When she realizes that her suspicions may have weight, Maggie isn’t upset for very long. At first apprehensive, she worriedly says, “Maybe he’s still alive. I mean he could be lurking in this theater just waiting to attack us.” But then she breaks out into a grin. Suddenly, she’s elated in a viperous Nina-slash-Diana fashion. “What a great movie this would make!” she exclaims.
The film, whose story was penned by Mitchell Smith and whose screenplay was written by Alan Ormsby, is a cheeky tale of comic terror. It’s what we want, but rarely get, from a horror comedy — the more macabre and humorous passages are distinct from one another, but there's never a tonal unevenness. The movie knows how to be darkly funny without seeming amoral, and it knows how to be scary-scary without undermining the primarily jovial tone. Popcorn has been directed by Mark Herrier and the uncredited Ormsby in the sort of fashion that subliminally tells us that they’re having a super-fun time in the co-directing chairs.
The movie, in part due to its festival setting, is a celebration of horror fandom. This notion is upped by the obligatory inclusion of films within the film. While the main ensemble of Popcorn tries not to get picked off by Gates or whoever this masked dude is, faux movies play on the screen attendees gawk at. There’s “Mosquito,” a 3D black-and-white schlocker that’s mostly a worse version of Them!, the giant-ant infested thriller from 1954. There’s also “The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man,” which comes with some requisite seat-buzzing for the audience, and “The Stench,” an Odorama’d detour which looks like an Asian import complete with the bad dubbing many a B-movie fan gets accustomed to after a while.
That Herrier and Ormsby opted to make these inserts rather than intercut scenes from real-life feature-lengths is a testament to the effect the movie has on us. Popcorn is a horror film made for horror lovers. We as much want to be a part of the film’s camp-loving theater troupe as we want to be in the audience, gleefully wrinkling our noses at “The Stench” and getting our asses literally electrified while the protagonist of “The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man” squirms in the electric chair. (He survives.)
Popcorn is predominantly cheeky, but it includes some effectively suspenseful passages. In one of them, Maggie’s guardian, played by the always-welcome Dee Wallace, tries to fend off a stalker in the currently pin-drop empty theater just a day or so before the festival. The ingenious bursts of neon lighting, paired with the emptiness of the auditorium, speak to how chilly a thing it can be to not only be inside a theater’s screening room alone with just one or two other strangers but how unbearable it can be to sit through a horror film by yourself in the dark, even in the comfort of your own home. The finale, which finds the newly unveiled murderer threatening to grandiosely kill Maggie on stage, with the audience thinking it’s just a joke and therefore clapping for it, is an efficiently wrought race against time. (It also made me wonder if it’d inspired Scream 2 writer Kevin Williamson: that sequel had a lot of death-on-stage frights.)
In a 2017 interview with The A.V. Club, Wallace described the making of Popcorn as a “true adventure” — chaotic because of ever-shifting producers, directors, and questionable shooting conditions. But you can’t feel any of the bedlam in the finished product. Here is a strange, high-concept movie that showcases such narrative and visual mettle that we trust it. We also kind of want to live in it. A-