My first impression of Popcorn (1991, directed by Mark Harrier) is that I liked this movie better when it was titled The Phantom of the Paradise. But that isn't quite right. It doesn't have that film's cruelty (or misogyny, for that matter). Another point of comparison is Joe Dante's Matinee, what with the deadpan send-up of old school creature features, but that doesn't seem quite right either. It doesn't have that film's innate sweetness. Unfortunately, comparing Popcorn to other, frankly better, movies may be kind of inevitable given both its choice of subject and the way it's filmed.
The story here follows a high school film club that aspires to become a full-fledged department. To that end, they've concocted a horror movie marathon at a local movie palace as a fundraiser. When asked how they plan to compete with 99 cent video rentals and with the sketchy quality of their films, their teacher vows to stage them all with their original William Castle-ish gimmicks. Meanwhile, one of the students, Maggie, is having dreams about a human sacrifice. Among the fragments of film contemplated by the club is The Possessor, which was made by a Manson Family-knock off film club led by one Lanyard Gates, who many years earlier had staged the film complete with on-stage murder and an attempt to burn the audience alive. On the eave of the film marathon, Gates appears to have come back from the dead, as mysterious misfortunes begin to happen to the members of the club. Maggie, for her part, discovers something about her own past, and begins to smell something fishy about everything that's happening around her...
The main charm of Popcorn is its genuine love of movies. You can see that love in every frame of the fake films it has made to show during its movie marathon. In "Mosquito," the film presents a credibly awful 50s-style big bug movie, while "The Incredible Electrified Man" is a terrific impersonation of late-period Universal sci-fi horror a la The Neanderthal Man or Monster on Campus. And "Stench" seems like a genuine Japanese schlock classic. Each of these films is accompanied by a gimmick that is surely more elaborate than their role models. Certainly, the giant mosquito they fly over the audience is better than anything that William Castle would have built, while the scheme to shock the audience is the same one from The Tingler, only on a more ambitious scale. I have no doubt that Castle would have done the smell effect in "Stench" had he thought of it, though it properly derives from the scratch and sniff cards distributed with John Waters Polyester (in "smell-o-rama"). This is all designed to cater to an audience hip to movie history, to a generation that has grown up with the movies.
It's less sure-footed with its central plot. This is basically a slasher movie that utilizes movie gimmicks as murder set-pieces. While I think William Castle himself would have approved, it's kind of disappointing. I mean, if you're going to do a slasher movie, you need to make those kinds of themed deaths positively baroque, and Popcorn's deaths seem kind of timid, actually. Anton Phibes and his plagues of Egypt apparently rose again in vain...
Additionally, this is burdened with excess back-story. I've described this as "the classic mistake of the slasher movie" in the past, and it's just as vexing here as it is in every other slasher movie. This turns itself inside out with red herrings and shocking revelations, much to the detriment of its own credibility. The shocking film made by Popcorn's film cult cries out, too, for the same kind of loving memesis one finds in the movie's other fake films--a forgery of a Kenneth Anger movie, for instance--but instead, it comes off as depressingly lame. Maybe that's the point.
Still, this has an appealing cast, starting with Jill Schoelen, this film's final girl, and Dee Wallace as her mom. You also get frequent Woody Allen buddy Tony Roberts and a sinister Ray Walston as a horror memorabilia dealer. The cast goes a long way toward making this go down easily, but I wish the movie they were in was better. But then, I think that about a lot of movies.
Current tally: 25 films
First time viewings: 23
I should note that I'm traveling this weekend. I made an attempt to blog this entry on my iPad, but, man, blogging on an iPad just sucks. Updates may be spotty until I get back home on November 1st. Anyway...
Around the Web:
Dr. AC over at Horror 101 has a brief foray into sci-fi horror today.
Rod over at Ferdy on Film remains in the game with a critical look at An American Werewolf in London and declares it John Landis's best film.
Pussy Goes Grrr looks at the magnificent folly of The Exorcist II.
Bob over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind continues his rundown of Toronto After Dark with a look at Absentia.