Popcorn, a funky, B-movie adoring slasher pic from 1991, is one of those movies that was first discovered by so many fans on VHS that it tends to be forgotten that it played in theaters but it definitely did as I saw it on its opening weekend and liked it immediately. Prior to Popcorn's release, late night TV was deluged with commercials like this:
Upon hitting theaters on February 1st, 1991, Popcorn was fated to be overshadowed at the box office by one of the greatest genre films of the decade, The Silence of the Lambs, which arrived just two weeks later on February 14. Of course, Popcorn was never going to be a blockbuster - regardless of whatever competition it faced - but it looked especially puny next to the high-caliber frights of Silence. Silence was A-class all the way while Popcorn represented horror at its most B-level, right down to their leading ladies. Unlike Jodie Foster, Popcorn star Jill Schoelen - one of the last of the '80s Scream Queens, having starred in The Stepfather (1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (1989) - was a long way from Oscar gold.
But B-movies and their players have their own immortality and Popcorn has steadily built a fanbase over the years. Schoelen stars as Maggie, a film student haunted by fragmented dreams who comes to believe that Laynard Gates, a Manson-esque cult leader who attempted to burn his followers alive, is stalking her inside the old movie house where her class is hosting an all-night horror marathon. As in her other genre efforts, Schoelen makes a game, appealing heroine and the supporting cast has more personality than the average slasher ensemble.
This is likely due to the fact that, as opposed to the slasher films of the early '80s which had usually starred unknowns, new to acting, Popcorn's cast were all seasoned performers. Tom Villard (One Crazy Summer) was pushing forty when he played Toby, and the rest of the young cast - Ivette Soler (now a garden designer and consultant known as The Germinatrix) as Joanie, Malcolm Danare ("Moochie" from Christine) as the wheelchair-bound Bud, and Kelly Jo Minter (Summer School, The People Under The Stairs) as Cheryl - were all in their mid-to-late twenties and had many credits to their names. All were able to make their slightly written Popcorn roles seem a little fuller than they are.
And in the tradition of classic '80s slashers, Popcorn also included some old-school pros in its cast. Following in the footsteps of Donald Pleasence (Halloween), Glenn Ford (Happy Birthday to Me), Leslie Nelson (Prom Night), and Vera Miles (The Dorm That Dripped Blood), Tony Roberts (Annie Hall), Dee Wallace Stone (The Howling), and Ray Walston (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) joined Popcorn's young performers.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with Popcorn is that it isn't scary, something that's never good for a horror film. But Popcorn's affectionately observed mock movies, like The Amazing Electrified Man (featuring Bruce Glover) and Mosquito, are dead-on in every detail and the film's wittily conceived slasher scenes, which make lethal use of William Castle-style gimmickry, are worth a chuckle (in the annals of horror cinema, only Popcorn has a character speared by a giant prop mosquito).
Popcorn likely would've been a far better film had Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark, the duo responsible for '70s classics like Deathdream, had stayed with the production in their respective roles of writer/director (replaced during filming by the producers by Mark Herrier, the faux films are all that's left of Ormsby's work, but they show how key his contributions were) and writer and associate producer (Clark had his name taken off Popcorn's credits) but unfortunately we'll never know.
Currently, an effort is underway to not only reissue Popcorn on DVD (until that happens, I'll continue to closely guard my copy) but to also film a retro-documentary as well (check out their production blog here). As all the principal players involved in the film - save sadly for Tom Villard, who passed away in 1994, and Bob Clark, who was killed in a car accident in 2007 - are still alive and well, I hope it happens. In the meantime, check out this recent interview with Jill Schoelen at Late Night Classics. Popcorn may never have the kind of following that other horror films of similar vintage have garnered, but, like its hot, buttered namesake, it's still tasty company for movie fans.