Slasher Saturdays: Popcorn

Popcorn, Official Trailer, YouTube, 00:07

What was it with all of the super meta films of the ’90s? I love them, don’t get me wrong. It’s just why were there so many? My personal thought is it was a direct result of the overly formulaic slashers of the ’70s and ’80s. Obviously not every slasher from those two decades stuck to specific formulas, recently we looked at the giallo films that broke the mold. Franchises like Texas ChainsawFriday the 13th, and most importantly A Nightmare on Elm Street slowly started unwittingly becoming parodies of themselves. So the natural flow seems to point in the direction of non-IPs naturally taking a parody/meta route shortly after. Films like Funny Games and Scream would seemingly kickstart this new meta trend, but there’s another meta horror film that doesn’t really get talked about as much. This could be because it’s tenuously meta or maybe because it’s just okay; the film we’re talking about for this Slasher Saturday is the 1991 film Popcorn.

The marquee of the theater that is hosting the movie marathon
Popcorn, Official Trailer, YouTube, 00:25

Popcorn follows a group of college students who run a film club, that is not taken seriously by the other clubs on campus. In the hopes of bringing eyes to their club, professor Mr. Davis (Tony Roberts) and 40-year-old student Toby (Tom Villard) decide throwing a horror movie marathon would be enough to get people talking about the club. Rather than just showing some random slasher films, the decide to have a triple feature of themed films: Mosquito (in 3D Project-o-Vision), The Stench (in Aroma-Vision), and The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man (in Shock-o-Scope). When the movie marathon starts, so do the killings. Can Maggie (Jill Schoelen) and her friends survive the night? Or will their life be turned into a real-life slasher film? Popcorn is directed by Mark Herrier, with vignettes directed by Alan Ormsby, and is written by Tod Hackett (Alan Ormsby).

So Popcorn is cheesy as hell. There’s little blood, little character development, but it’s still interesting enough to be engaging. Part of my main issue after watching this film was whether it was a slasher or not. There are some typical slasher tropes, but what the film truly suffers from is a lack of kills and an overly expository killer reveal. On top of that, the killer’s motivation and connection to Maggie is pretty flimsy. The true shining star of Popcorn is the films within the film and their over-the-top cheese factor.

Let’s talk about the killer reveal, first. Throughout the film Maggie suspects infamous cult filmmaker Lanyard Gates (Matt Falls), yeah, his name is Lanyard, to be the killer. Lanyard held a screening of one of his films and was subsequently laughed off stage. From that point, Lanyard decided he would give the audience a film they could never forget. At his next screening, Lanyard gave the audience a live ending to his film by killing his family on stage and then setting the theater ablaze. His body was never recovered. We find out the killer isn’t actually Lanyard, rather it is…Toby! It turns out Toby’s mother was in the film cult run by Lanyard, and they were both in the theater when it was set on fire. That’s when Toby reveals his true face, completely covered in burns and parts of his face held in place by medical staples. It’s truly horrific, and very much out of left field, especially for a slasher. It almost feels as shocking and history-making as the big reveal in Sleepaway Camp.

Toby’s kills are fine, but where Toby, and this film, truly become frightening is with the faces. Being very familiar with the cover for Popcorn, I was wondering why someone was removing their face. Even halfway through the film, I was wondering if the cover of the film even had anything to do with it. When Toby has Maggie held captive he reveals his many masks; every time he kills someone he makes a latex mask of their face and it is absolutely terrifying. One moment, in particular, gave me a nightmare after watching it, when Toby is expositing to Maggie he shows her how he puts on each individual face and voice. As he does this we see how every’s face looks normal, while the edges of the mask reveal his burned face. Add on top of that when he plays with the rubbery edges of the mask and you get a truly haunting image.

Toby raises a sword as he attempts to kill Maggie in front of an audience
Popcorn, Official Trailer, YouTube, 01:00

Unfortunately, the world would lose Tom Villard just a few years after Popcorn. Villard is the true saving grace of this film. For so much of the film Toby kind of disappears in the background, which done by a lesser actor would have not worked as well. Villard’s performance of Toby is one of the greatest in horror history. When he plays film bro Toby he’s quirky and nerdy in a very endearing way, and when the switch flips and Villard turns into villain Toby it’s a complete transference of anger and rage. Villard is the butter that binds Popcorn, and losing him was not just a loss for our genre, but for the world as a whole.

If I had to pick the best kill, because let’s not forget this is a slasher film, I would concede that it is a difficult task. Not because each kill was unique and brutal, but because they just kind of…happen. Mr. Davis gets impaled by the giant mosquito, which was used for the 3D Project-o-Vision gimmick for Mosquito. Bud (Malcolm Danare) gets strapped down to his wheelchair and attached to the board controlling the electric shocks for the Shock-o-Scope from The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man gimmick. Even though I jotted all of the kills down in my notes, they don’t really feel necessary to discuss. The most unique kill would probably have to go to Mr. Davis, as I’ve never seen someone impaled by a giant mosquito.

William Castle has been hailed as horror’s greatest showman. While his films spoke for themselves, and spawned many remakes in recent years that resonated with audiences, he always had a trick up his sleeve. There are many films Popcorn pays homage to, but the true inspiration of the film is William Castle. Each of the films shown at the marathon has a gimmick to them and this goes hand in hand with how Castle used to get butts in seats. We see one of the characters having filmgoers sign a life insurance policy before entering the theater, which is a reference to the 1958 film Macabre. Percepto was used for The Tingler, which like The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, would shock (or buzz) the seats of audience members with the hopes of truly immersing them in the experience. There was also something Castle did called The Punishment Poll, which would allow the audience members to actively decide the fate of the characters on screen. Now, this connection to Castle is flimsy, but this could possibly be referenced in how Lanyard and Toby put on a live show for the audience.

A fish tank is full of latex faces
Popcorn, Official Trailer, YouTube, 01:15

Even though the kills were just fine, there is something about Popcorn that I really liked. I’ve always been obsessed with William Castle’s strange mind, so seeing these direct references really struck a chord with me. Popcorn was a film that was always on my list, but something kept me away from watching it. I’m glad I finally decided to sit down and cover this one for Slasher Saturday. Rarely do I want to purchase a VHS copy of a film for my collection, and this film is definitely going to be one I purchase on VHS. This should be in everyone’s Halloween rotation, I know it’s definitely going in mine.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.


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