B-horror movies are almost synonymous with old movie palaces as many forgotten drive-in or grindhouse gems tend to show up at 35mm film festivals in movie houses like the Music Box or the Redford Theater. Equally trendy are horror movies like Demons or Messiah of Evil where the old fashioned movie palace itself is the setting for the scares and bloodshed. Some however are as dedicated to being frightening as they are channeling a bona fide homage to a bygone era of showmanship.
Case in point: director William Castle who with films like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill served up gimmicks to offset the corniness onscreen such as buzzing theater seats or flying a plastic skeleton over the audience. Though his final productions veered closer to real horror than the cheesy camp still celebrated by cult horror fans today, the man is forever remembered as a pioneer of B-horror as a form of live theater.
Two years before Joe Dante offered up his PG rated nod to William Castle with the 1993 John Goodman horror/comedy Matinee, a tiny little R rated cult horror/comedy known as Popcorn arguably and almost completely informed Dante’s film before quietly disappearing into almost total obscurity. Part slasher movie, part loving ode to William Castle, Popcorn predates the self-referential meta-horror ala Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer and yet is largely unknown to horror fans due to the troubled production marred by reshoots and changing hands and poor box office reception. After replacing writer-director Alan Ormsby (Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things) with Porky’s actor turned director Mark Herrier, Ormsby and screenwriter Bob Clark (Black Christmas) both took their names off the film.
For all of the film’s tongue-in-cheek virtues, movie-within-movie black comedy including nods to the likes of Them! and Scent of Mystery and meta humor, Popcorn tragically bankrupted distribution company Studio Three Film Corporation and for years was only available on an Elite Entertainment DVD sourced from a third generation VHS tape, until now. Recently resurrected by Synapse Films in a brand new 2K digitally remastered limited edition blu-ray. Despite being only available through Synapse’s website at an expensive price tag, that a blu-ray special edition exists at all after years of fans vying for a restoration that never seemed to come to fruition is kind of miraculous.
That’s not to say the film isn’t without flaws. Tonally there’s a bit of inconsistency between Ormsby’s previously shot footage and the newly shot Herrier footage, veering between surreal Clive Barker-eqsue horror and overtly silly camp. The villain itself is a remarkably grotesque shape shifting master of disguise who can be terrifying and at another point kind of goofy. Part of the problem is the film seems, based on the trailers, mis-marketed as seriously scary when the film in question couldn’t take itself less seriously if it tried. It doesn’t help that the music in the trailer is far more frightening than anything in the synth score in the finished film by Paul Zaza.
Outside of veteran actors Ray Walston and Dee Wallace Stone from E.T., there’s not a lot of star power behind Popcorn either. I have to wonder what the film might have been if lead actress Amy O’Neill wasn’t hastily replaced mid-shoot with Jill Schoelen, who comes across as a poor woman’s Winona Ryder here. Stranger still is that the film was shot entirely in Jamaica due to budgetary reasons and the location of the theater, somewhat explaining why everyone in the film listens to Reggae and why there’s a live Reggae band in the film. In any event, the film’s makeup effects still stand the test of time against a low budget and there’s some fun surprises littered throughout.
Like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is far more clever in channeling of the 1950s B movie tropes than its reputation suggests. The charm of forgotten B movies playing in an old movie house is infectious and displays a genuine fondness for the theater experience. Early on, there’s a montage adorning the blu-ray menu of college students cleaning out and souping up the old movie house, sweeping up the garbage and bringing old dusty 35mm projectors back to life again.
Having worked on cleanup myself of the Redford Theater after late night shows more than once, these scenes struck a chord with me and more than anything express the joy of working in a non-profit antique movie house. If Popcorn gets anything right, it nails this sense of fun in preserving a dying yet beloved experience of movie palace filmgoing that anyone who has set foot in places like the Redford or Music Box can relate to. While some will debate which film does it better, Popcorn or Matinee, the love the filmmakers have for the single-screen movie palace is undeniable.