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A group of film students find out when they stage just such an event at an abandoned movie palace. In addition to the three main features, they decide to screen a bizarre short called The Possessor, whose creator, Lanyard Gates, killed his family and set the theater on fire after its first showing. Maggie (Jill Schoelen) has been having frightening dreams that seem to be connected to The Possessor, and as the festival proceeds, the nightmare comes true for her and her friends as they are stalked and slain by a mysterious killer. Has Gates survived to continue The Possessor’s deadly legacy? (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

 Popcorn
Horror filmmakers love the idea of scary movies possessing actual power over their audiences. Sometimes, this manifests ironically as on-screen characters allow their obsessions with filmed violence to drive them to madness and murder, like in the case of Wes Craven’s genre-busting, postmodern Scream (1996), but this fantasy is also manifested in more literal ways, sometimes shouting ‘these movies can literally kill you!’ from behind the screen. More recent versions of the concept tend to revolve around home video screens, a trope borne out of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and its imitations, while the more classic approach sees the theater itself spawning dangerous evil. And the golden era of this movie-within-a-movie, evil movie theater phenomena occurred over a six-year period when Italian director Lamberto Bava released Demons (1985), Spanish director Bigas Luna released Anguish (1987), and American actor-turned-director Mark Herrier released Popcorn (1991).

I’ll start this brief retrospective by warning readers that I’ve never really liked Popcorn very much. I always found it overly ‘affected,’ awkwardly wordy, and have never been a fan of the indelibly early-’90s/late-80s look that it shares with a number of similar movies. I haven’t really changed my mind in terms of my subjective interest in the film, but do realize I had been approaching it from the wrong angle for quite some time. It’s still a bald-faced nostalgia trip brimming with bumbling, cutesy homage, but now I realize that its clumsy characters and dialogue, occasionally cartoonish look, and turgid exposition are all hallmarks of children’s entertainment. Popcorn’s real appeal lies in its kid-friendly approach to completely un-kid-friendly material. This probably reads like an insult, but this realization has exponentially increased my enjoyment (the distributors seem to agree with me, as they had really wanted a PG-13 rating). I now appreciate the slow build-up of R-rated violence and the switch in tone to more adult horror feels intentionally subversive, rather than the miscalculations of a first-time filmmaker stumbling his way through a difficult production. I even realize that Herrier beat the King of B-Horror Homage, Joe Dante, to the family-friendly-ish William Castle tribute punch, since Matinee (a superior film, thanks to its bigger budget, more thoughtful writing, and strong Cold War era theme) was released a solid two years after Popcorn.

 Popcorn
Herrier reportedly co-directed Popcorn with screenwriter Alan Ormsby – another actor who appeared in a number of Bob Clark films and who co-directed the Ed Gein-inspired Deranged (1974) with Jeff Gillen. Ormsby was reportedly fired, but did manage to direct the movie-within-a-movie clips, which ends up working in the film’s favour, as the ‘real world’ and movie sections probably should be stylistically different. An unfortunate side effect is that Ormsby’s esoteric and ironic sequences are more intriguing than the movie proper, leading me (and many others, from what I understand) to wonder if a series of shorts would’ve been preferable to the ‘real movie’ we got. Not to say Herrier’s scenes are unattractive – their aesthetic qualities are actually quite nice, especially the flashy, Nightmare on Elm Street-esque dream/nightmare flashbacks. Herrier’s sections (which may have been co-directed by Clark?) also include Tom Villard’s charming, scary, scene-devouring performance as the oddly likeable villain (that could’ve easily devolved into yet another Freddy Kruger rip-off in lesser hands) and the cleverly executed, gross/silly facial appliances he wears.

Video


Popcorn was a reasonably popular movie in theaters (compared to other low-budget horror films as the genre continued migrating straight to video) and was easy to find on VHS (there was even a Laserdisc version from RCA/Columbia), but I’d guess the majority of its fans first saw it on cable TV, because it certainly made the rounds on the syndication circuit. It practically disappeared on DVD, though, following a long out-of-print disc from Elite Entertainment in 2001. Synapse’s Blu-ray (which is generally the same as their Limited Edition release from March, minus the DVD copy, liner notes, and collectable Steelbook packaging) marks its first home video availability in more than a decade, as well as the first HD version on the market. The transfer was culled from a brand new 2K scan of the archival 35mm interpositive and, from what I understand, the process was quite difficult. I wouldn’t assume as much based on the actual image quality, though, because it looks just as good as most major studio archival releases. There is considerable grain and, despite the fine textural quality of said grain, some of it does lead to discolouration. This appears to be mostly a side-effect of cinematographer Ronnie Taylor’s soft daytime photography. The darker scenes that make up the bulk of the film (it does take place largely in a darkened theater, after all) remain relatively crisp, despite the consistent grain and there’s no notable posterisation issues. The important colours remain consistent, neatly separated when needed, and punch out nicely against the clean black levels. When Taylor fixes his harsh lights and tighter focus onto to a close-up, details are plenty sharp and there are no signs of compression problems, like haloes or jagged edges.

 Popcorn

Audio


According to Synapse head Don May Jr. (who appeared on the Shock Waves podcast), the original magnetic audio tracks were missing and they almost gave up on the release, until someone at the distribution company stumbled across them in a random closet. With the tracks in hand, the company was able to clean up the original 2.0 stereo and create their own 7.1 remix. Both are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound. I found that I quite liked the new mix with its larger scope and neatly centered dialogue. Most of the stereo/surround effects are already present in the original tracks. However, despite its occasionally reverbed/over-spread qualities, the 2.0 track is significantly louder, to the point that some of the incidental sound effects are practically missing. Composer Paul Zaza supplied a small number of original themes for the scary scenes and movies-within-the-movie, but a considerable amount of the soundtrack is either music-free or driven by pop songs. These pop tunes (most of them from new wave reggae group Ossie D and Stevie G) are notably muted on the 7.1 remix alongside those aforementioned effects, leading me to recommend the stereo track for the sake of authenticity.

Extras


  • Commentary with director Mark Herrier, makeup effects artist/actor Mat Falls, and actors Jill Schoelen & Malcolm Danare – Kristy Jett of Rue Morgue Magazine moderates this warm and sweet-natured group track. The participants lose some momentum by simply watching the movie, but their laughter is infectious and they tend to get themselves back on track.
  • Midnight Madness: The Making of Popcorn (57:11, HD) – This new retrospective documentary by Felscher features cast & crew interviews with Herrier, Falls, composer Paul Zaza, distributor executive Jonathan Wolf, and stars Schoelen, Derek Rydall, Dee Wallace, Malcolm Danare, Ivette Soler, and Elliott Hurst. It covers Alan Ormsby’s contributions, casting, production woes, replacing both the director and the lead actress, filming in Jamaica, special effects, Tom Villard’s untimely death from AIDS, the possibility that Bob Clark was a co-director, and distribution.
  • Electric Memories (6:38, HD) – A separate interview with actor Bruce Glover, who portrays the electric-powered death row inmate during one of the films-within-the-fim.
  • Trailer, video trailer, and TV spots
  • Still gallery


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Overall


I wouldn’t go so far as to say this rewatch turned me into a Popcorn fan, but it certainly turned me on to and made me respect its unique camp appeal. Synapse Films’ new transfer reproduces the sometimes raw look of the original material and its colour quality is fantastic. The Blu-ray comes fitted with two solid audio options and a load of extras, fronted by a new group commentary and an extensive retrospective documentary.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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