Popcorn (1991) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 3

by Jovial Jay

Popcorn’s trailer says it best: “Buy a bag. Go home in a box!”

Popcorn is a wild riff on film and horror cinema, parodying genre films of the 50s while embodying the ethos of the 80s slasher film.

Before Viewing

The trailer for this supposed slasher film doesn’t kid around. In the first 20 seconds it invokes Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. It seems to place part of its film before these films. Something called “Possessor.” There are multiple shots of the lead actress, and a younger version of her, in what appears to be a dream. A movie theater called Dreamland features prominently as well, with a screening of a horror film that is being acted out on stage as well, apparently similar to what audiences do with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Horror scream queen Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) is featured prominently as well. Plus there’s also a visual homage to the Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera film, at the very end of the trailer. This should be interesting.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween


Popcorn title card.

After Viewing

Maggie (Jill Schoelen), a film student in college, has recurring nightmares of a young girl (which she calls Sarah) and a mysterious man with a flaming knife. Her mother Suzanne (Dee Wallace-Stone) wonders why she chose the name “Sarah” for the girl. Maggie doesn’t know, but figures the dreams will make a great film.

Her class, led by Mr. Davis (Tony Roberts) decides to hold a fundraising event, a “horrorthon,” where they will show old movies that relied on gimmicks to raise money for making their own films. The idea comes from Toby (Tom Villard) who thinks they should show “Mosquito” (in Project-O-Vision 3D), “The Amazing Electrified Man” (in Shock-o-Scope), and “The Stench” (in Aroma-Rama). The other 5 students all agree, and the group rents out the abandoned Dreamland theater, and gets props from Dr. M’s Movie Memorabilia shop, run by Dr. Mnesyne (Ray Walston).

Meanwhile, Suzanne has been getting strange phone calls from a mysterious individual. She obviously knows more than the audience, and heads to Dreamland with a gun, where she is attacked. As the students put the props together they discover an old film called “Possessor.” It’s an arty, experimental horror film by Lanyard Gates that matches up almost exactly with Maggie’s dream. Things start getting stranger at the Horrorthon when Maggie thinks she sees Lanyard Gates enter the theater, even though he’s supposed to be dead.

During the screening of “Mosquito,” a 1950s film about a giant mosquito terrorizing the desert, Mr. Davis is skewered by the prop mosquito being flown over the audience. The stranger that Maggie saw enter the theater, takes the body and makes a mold of the face, impersonating Mr. Davis. The killer then stabs Tina (Freddie Simpson), using her body as a marionette to “talk” with Maggie and her boyfriend Mark (Derek Rydall) when they try to track down Mr. Davis.

During the second film, “The Amazing Electrified Man” which is about a condemned prisoner being electrified and surviving with supernatural powers, Bud (Malcolm Danare), a wheelchair bound member of the class is electrified while using the Shock-o-Scope prop. Due to the overload on the prop, the theater’s circuit breaker is tripped and the lights go out. Maggie and Toby go into the basement to restore the power.


The old Dreamland Theater, a setting for a horror movie marathon and murder!

Elsewhere, students Leon (Elliott Hurst), Joanie (Ivette Soler), and Cheryl (Kelly Jo Minter) help Mark with some injuries he got in a fight with a tough guy. Leon and Joanie start readying the stink pellets for “The Stench,” a Japanese film about two spelunkers that unleash a horrible smell on the world. Leon goes to the bathroom and is confronted by a doppelganger of himself, that locks him in a stall with an explosive. Boom!

In the basement Toby reveals himself as the killer to Maggie. By this time she has realized that she is actually Lanyard Gates’ daughter, Sarah. Her “mother” is actually her aunt Suzanne who helped her survive the Gates’ death cult, where Suzanne shot and killed Gates. During the ensuing fire of the theater, a young Toby was horrifically burned, and seeks revenge on the young girl he feels responsible. He vows to show “Possessor” and re-enact the final scene live on stage as it was intended to be, killing Maggie and Suzanne. In an attempt to save her Mark accidentally knocks loose the giant mosquito, which impales Toby, and saves Maggie. The two lovers embrace.

He shot all of “Possessor” except for the last scene. When he showed the film, he played the last scene live on stage. He murdered his family in front of the audience.” – Mr. Davis


Maggie wonders who the mysterious killer could be.

Popcorn, while not the first work of horror metafiction, certainly kicked off the trend in the 90s. Metafiction is any work where the author purposefully shows the artificiality of the work by parodying the genre or departing from standard conventions and traditional narrative techniques. Its origins in horror cinema can be traced back to films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which itself parodies the B-movies of the 1950s while also subverting the genre in a drag-queen style show. Other’s point to Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, as a solid example of characters knowing the conventions, to some extent, of the genre in order to stay alive. The best examples come a few years after Popcorn with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the film that everyone points to as a solid example of meta-horror, Scream.

Scream is such a good example of the genre because the characters live in a world with horror films, and as such know the conventions like “Don’t go into the basement,” or “Don’t say I’ll be right back.” This only helps them a little bit, as the killer also knows these tropes and is ready to switch them up as well. The Cabin in the Woods is another film that self-consciously comments on the rules of the genre by showing the audience the inner workings of the film. It explains why the conventions of the horror film are there, thus creating a whole new subtext for the slasher films of the 80s.

Popcorn does not quite achieve this same level of cleverness. Although it definitely attempts to be clever, using a film class, and horror movie screenings to comment on the murders that take place therein. But something about it doesn’t quite work. It may be that for all the strange things going on, the film students are still oblivious to the dangers. Maggie doesn’t realize the killer is one of them. No one finds the odd behavior of other characters strange, especially the way Tina behaves when being puppeted by Toby. The film seems to spend the majority of its time parodying 1950s B-films and coming up with clever in-jokes that film students would tell, forgetting that it actually needs to be a good film.


A shocking reveal of the antagonist is also a subtle nod to The Phantom Of the Opera.

Assorted Musings

  • Jill Schoelen is no stranger to horror, having starred previously in four horror films: The Stepfather, Cutting Class, Curse II: The Bite and The Phantom Of the Opera (which is alluded to a number of times with the disfigured Toby as well as taking place in a “movie palace.”)
  • Tony Roberts starred in Amityville 3-D, the third and arguably the worst, of the haunted house franchise.
  • The students make some great puns, as one might have found in great action movies of the 80s. But some related to films, such as Toby calling the old movie theater “The House of Ushers,” as a nod to Corman’s adaptation of the Poe story The House of Usher. The theater also being called Dreamland, as the literal embodiment of Maggie’s dreams.
  • The films-within-the-films are all parodies of 1950s sci-fi and horror films, starting off strong with “Mosquito” which spoofs Them!, a film about giant ants running around the southwest, then “The Amazing Electrified Man,” which doesn’t have a direct analog, but could be a nod to Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and similar films of altered humans, and ending with the least seen “The Stench” which is really just a spoof of Japanese dubbed films in general. All films have a gimmick (3D with real props, shock-seats, and odor pellets) which were employed by William Castle as a draw to moviegoers to get them away from the new-fangled television. The Tingler (using Percepto) may be one of his most famous, which used mild electrical charges in the seats to spook the audience. Castle’s House on Haunted Hill used Emergo, where a real prop skeleton flew over the audience to match what was in the film. Scent of Mystery, a Mike Todd Jr production, used Smell-o-Vision, to introduce odors into the theater during the film.

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