The year 1991 wasn’t a great year for horror films, especially original horror films. In fact, it was absolutely dominated by abysmal sequels. 976-EVIL 2, Alligator 2, Child’s Play 3, Howling VI, Nekromantik 2, Freddy’s Dead, Omen IV, Puppet Master II (and III!), Silent Night, Deadly Night 5, Trancers II, and Sorority Babes in the Dance-A-Thon of Death were all released that year. Whew!
In this humble viewer’s opinion, there were only four noteworthy horror flicks released in 1991: The People Under the Stairs, Sometimes They Come Back, Body Parts, and Popcorn. That being said, Popcorn is easily the worst of the lot.
Don’t get me wrong! The film has a great premise. A college film club decides to throw a horror film fest in order to raise funds for their school department. While researching movies to show, they discover a long lost cult film called Possessor; the story goes that the director of the movie, Lanyard Gates (note: killer name), showed the film back in the 70s and actually murdered his family on stage during the final act before burning down the theater and killing all the occupants. The crew decides against showing Possessor, but on the night of their film fest, members of the film club start dying, and one of the students is convinced it’s Lanyard Gates, back from the dead and responsible for the killings. It’s one part Summer School, one part Matinee, one part Phantom of the Opera, and one part Stage Fright (1987). Like I said: great premise.
The movie also has a great pedigree. It was written by long-time Bob Clark collaborator Alan Ormsby, produced by Clark, and stars genre staples such as Jill Schoelen, Dee Wallace Stone, Ray Walston, Tony Roberts, with a stand-out performance from the late Tom Villard. This movie should be horror gold!
The problem is, the film just stinks of cheapness. I mean, a really bad stink of cheapness. I understand the film was produced on an extremely low-budget. I can’t find numbers anywhere, but I also can’t read anything about Popcorn without the point being made that was very low-budget. Even with that handicap in mind, there are still several aspects of the movie that make me crinkle my nose.
First, there’s the dialogue: all of the dialogue seems to have been added in post, and it’s all off just enough to be noticeable and irritating. Mind you, the film features an only American cast who all speak English, so it was a confusing choice that makes for a very distracting watch. Combine the terrible dubbing with a shoddy script and the film almost takes on a comical tone. Sure, there are some parts of the film that are meant to be humorous and introduce a little levity. Yet the rest of the normal interactions still feel so goofy because of the aforementioned audio and script issues.
Then there’s the film stock. The entire film looks muddy and foggy; the blacks look more dark brown, edges are unsharp, and the whole thing just kinda has this made-for-TV haze over it. It doesn’t look too great. I always wondered about this: how come some really low-budget movies — like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was filmed by some college students for $140K — can have such vibrant, rich colors and sharp focus, and other films — like Popcorn, which I have to assume had a fairly bigger budget — can look so bad.
Lastly, the music. The entire film was shot in Jamaica, which is doubling for California — presumably for tax reasons. Since most of the movie takes place inside of the theater, they’d be able to pull off the switcheroo pretty flawlessly… if the soundtrack weren’t comprised solely of reggae tunes. It’s such a bizarre and baffling choice that I’d be surprised if part of their tax break for filming in Jamaica didn’t include the stipulation, “soundtrack must feature ONLY reggae tunes.” Now, reggae is great (Toots and the Maytals all day, baby), it’s just that this particular musical choice makes this goofy and uneven movie all the more strange.
Poor film stock and quirky music choices aside, I do really enjoy Popcorn. Any movie that features characters loving film, appreciating film, celebrating film — that’s a movie after my own heart. And as I said before, Tom Villard gives a stand out performance. The fact that he was able to turn in such a solid performance considering what he was working with really shows what a talented actor he was.
Popcorn may not be the best horror movie, but it was definitely one of the top four horror movies of 1991, and that’s gotta be worth something.
Terrible, unnecessary dubbing? Check!
Fun, yet entirely out of place soundtrack? Check!
Great villain with tragic backstory? Check!