Before Scream, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and In The Mouth of Madness, a small slasher movie called Popcorn experimented with meta-horror. Today meta-horror is common enough to sometimes wonder if straightforward horror wouldn’t be more revolutionary. But in 1991, Popcorn was just taking a risk daring to recycle tired slasher tropes. Adopting films-within-a-film was a big risk for the time and genre. Not many people saw Popcorn on its initial release. Critics were also lukewarm on the results. And it’s a hard movie to find even now. That’s unfortunate because there’s quite a bit to like about this little movie.
As their college program struggles for resources, film students decide to run a horror movie marathon in a run-down old theater before it’s torn down. But the theater has a history. Years ago, a warped filmmaker tried to kill his wife and daughter as part of the screening of his mysterious movie, Possessor. Dozens of people died when the theater caught fire. Now one of the students – Maggie Butler – is having dreams about a little girl caught in fire running from a man. And a masked killer has shown up for the all-night festival.
Popcorn Mixes Clever Ideas With Odd Tonal Inconsistencies
If it’s a flawed movie, Popcorn still boasts some clever ideas accompanied by some well-staged scenes. In particular, director Mark Herrier and writer Alan Ormsby (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things) capture some of the nostalgic movies they homage in their movies-within-a-movie setup. Throughout Popcorn, scenes mirror what’s happening in the B-movies screened for the characters’ film marathon. With clear homages to B-movie master William Castle, Herrier and Ormsby ensure there’s a playfulness to their slasher movie. It’s hard not to appreciate a scene where a large prop mosquito impales a character while an atomic-infused killer mosquito movie plays in the background. In addition, Popcorn’s mystery movie, Possessor, and it’s reference to a snuff movie within a movie adds another interesting narrative layer. The climax has its fingerprints over a couple of Scream 2 moments.
It’s hard not to appreciate a scene where a large prop mosquito impales a character …
Yet unlike the movies that followed it, Popcorn struggles to balance its clever meta concept with more traditional horror elements. Too much of the early movie feels lacksadaisal as Herrier and Ormsby introduce us to characters who aren’t all that interesting. Moreover, Popcorn lacks scares or a sense of urgency – horror buffs will appreciate some of the clever shots but they’ll likely never be on the edge of their seat. In part, this stems from tonal inconsistencies. That is, it feels like there could have been scary and suspenseful, but it’s more focused on light silliness. A week score and one truck-sized gap in logic exacerbate these problems.
Popcorn Missing a Compelling Villain and Interesting Characters From Its Nostalgia
One of the criticisms leveled at Popcorn is that its slasher components are clunky and drag down the movie’s meta humor. This isn’t an entirely unfair observation. After all, this early 90s slasher populates its story with dull characters whose sole purpose is likely to add a bit of a body count. Amongst the young primary cast, Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) gives a flat performance that barely registers. It doesn’t help that the screenplay puts little effort into any of its characters. Horror veteran Dee Wallace (The Howling) shows up in a small role that adds little. And congratulations to Ray Walston for the strangest – and mostly unnecessary – cameo appearance.
And Herrier and Ormsby really overexpose their villain.
In spite of its intriguing movie-within-a-movie setup, Popcorn is also missing an intriguing antagonist to really stick its slasher elements. Thought its Possessor reveal fits with the subgenre trope, the actor in the role plays the character more for laughs. Simply put, the performance is too broad. And Herrier and Ormsby really overexpose their villain. Less is more sometimes. And it’s too bad because the mystery movie adds one of Popcorn’s only truly creepy elements.
Popcorn Mostly Nails Its Early Meta Approach to Horror
No, Popcorn isn’t a perfect movie. It’s not necessarily a great movie either. Amongst its problems, the slasher overexposes its limited villain in a story with a few gaps in logic and an iffy score. Still one can easily Popcorn’s fingerprints on movies that would soon follow. A handful of scenes from Scream and Scream 2 share DNA with Popcorn. In fact, this is often clever movie where several scenes outreach the limits of its slasher-based story. At the very least, horror fans will find a fun slasher with a bit more on its mind than a body count.