Popcorn 1991 Review
aka Phantom of the Cinema
Directed by: Mark Herrier
Starring: Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Dee Wallace
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
For the slasher cycle, Popcorn was a whole lot more than just another genre retread…
You see, there weren’t really any other cinematic styles around during the eighties that could multiply a budget as easily as a stalk and slash flick. Drama? You either needed De Niro, Pacino, a Costner or someone like a Mickey Rourke; and they’re not cheap. Action? Good shout. But explosions, fake M60s, stuntmen and helicopters can also drain a monetary resource pool. Ok so what about a chick flick? Again always popular at the box office if they’re done well, but can you name me one without a megabucks pairing? Obviously not. No, it’s decided – when it comes to a quick and relatively easy way for a producer to make a fortune, nothing does it like a slasher does it.
But the small problem was that the good old milk laden cash cow had run bone dry midway through the eighties and left only a couple of major franchises to mop up the proceeds. If anything, Popcorn was a hand pushed in to the bath to test the temperature of the water before entry in to a bold new decade. A film well financed enough to get publicity, which boasted a great cast, cool location, neat gimmick and good marketing strategy. If it had been a success I predict we would have had a start to the nineties that would have mirrored the previous decade with a million wannabe duplicates. In effect, this was the first slasher since 1988 to be given actual backing from big studio players like Bob Clark and Ashtok Amiritraj. The only problem was that it flopped. Drastically.
But the biggest question is why?
A group of drama students are given the opportunity to renovate an old cinema for an all night horror-thon. At first, they’re less than impressed, but when they’re told that there may be some budget left over to make their own movie, they all climb aboard. Many years ago on that site, a deranged film cult screened ‘Possession’, which resulted in a few murders and then a big fire within which the aggressor supposedly perished. When sweet student Maggie begins seeing him in her nightmares and conspicuous things start happening, it seems that he’s returned.
Not only is Popcorn a belated entry to the slasher catalogue, which utilises all the traditional trappings, but it’s also a tribute to the notorious B-Movies of the fifties. We should keep in mind that Bob Clark would have grown up on the features of Christian Nyby, Andre De Toth and even Edward Wood, so it makes sense that he would want to reference them here. Popcorn is fun to watch, because when we are not seeing the black gloved killer get to work, we are enjoying full scenes of the films that the audience are watching.
It was shot in Jamaica, which was something of an intriguing slice of trivia. At first I though that it may have been a collaboration of sorts between the two countries, but I couldn’t find any evidence of a producer from JM. The film does however have a very fun reggae/pop play-list. Hell it even has a reggae band that come on and play for no apparent reason halfway through! Keep in mind that this was an era when Chaka Demus and Pliers, Bitty McClean and Shabba Ranks were regulars in the charts and the choice does not seem so unusual. In fact, I rather enjoyed the refreshing soundtrack.
The cast are pretty good in lightweight roles. I was thinking of giving Tom Villard a mention for a solid performance, but then just as I thought that, he went completely overboard with the hyper-acting and got lost somewhat. The gorgeous Jill Schoelen gives another great wide-eyed babe in the woods portrayal and easily manages to win over the audience. We last saw her in genre entry Cutting Class and it strikes me that of the three ‘stars’ that appeared in that flick, only the weakest performer on that occasion built a superstar career. Whilst everyone in the world knows the name and face of Brad Pitt; Schoelen gave up on movies to be a mother and never really fulfilled her potential. Despite the fact that everyone here is little more than a cliché, the characters are likeable and the villain is fun.
Perhaps I was tired (or drunk) at the time, but the twist really caught me off-guard. It was (for me) totally unexpected. It made sense too. There’s some far fetched examples of the maniac’s ability to camouflage himself, but they only add to the thick…THICK dollops of cheese. Yes; and I mean pure and unadulterated cheese. This is like a fondue festival and despite its nineties release date, could seriously be a contender for cheesiest movie of all time. SERIOUSLY. Everything from the bubblegum toons to the wacky costumes (it even incorporates fancy dress) is campy comedy at its best (or worst)
So with so much fun to be had, why was Popcorn such a flop? Good question. To be honest, it’s hard to understand exactly what happened, but the problems that plagued production certainly didn’t help. Original director Alan Ormsby disagreed on a few plot points and walked off the shoot, which unsettled his choice for the lead actress, Amy O’Neill and she soon followed after three-weeks of filming. Schoelen was a more than adequate replacement, but the script reeks of obvious re-writes and missing scenes.
The thing is though, many slasher movies suffered similar troubles behind the scenes and to the untrained eye, Popcorn’s riddles aren’t outstandingly obvious. So what else was wrong? Was it tad too diluted? (There’s no real gore anywhere throughout). Maybe it was just a wee-bit sillier than it should have been? Was it the extreme lack of a mean spirit? I think more realistically, cinema audiences had moved on from masked killers and screaming teens and the reputation of such flicks being incompetently made and embarrassingly bad was still in its fullest of flows back then. It’s a shame, because looking back now it’s actually a really quirky little gem.
Popcorn’s failure to grab an audience most definitely signified the death of the studio slasher flick and it would take the success of Scream five-years later to reignite the sub genre. Still, this deserved a lot more than it received and should be remembered as a decent entry that had everything except luck.
Killer Guise: √√√
Final Girl: √√√√