Documentary Releases: All Hail the Popcorn King (2020) - Reviewed

With over 50 novels and 500 short stories under his belt, Joe Lansdale is an accomplished writer to say the least.  He has dabbled in a wide number of genres – including science fiction, Western, mystery, horror, and suspense – and has won the coveted Bram Stoker Award ten times, along with a number of others accolades.  Out of all of his achievements, his quirky novella Bubba Ho-Tep is perhaps his most widely recognized one, having been turned into a film starring Bruce Campell in 2002.

All Hail the Popcorn King is a documentary that explores Joe Lansdale as a person and examines his impressive catalog of work.  Directed by Hansi Oppenheimer, the film is a crowd-sourced, low-budget work featuring interviews with everyone ranging from Lansdale’s adoring fans to Bruce Campbell himself.  While it’s undeniable that “the Popcorn King” deserves praise, the finished product is a mixed bag of feel-good moments and amateur filmmaking.

The documentary succeeds in depicting Lansdale as an incredibly diverse individual that goes to the beat of his own drummer.  Keeping his roots in East Texas rather than moving to New York or LA when fame struck, the film presents the author as a down-to-earth, relatable man in his interviews.  When he takes us through his hometown, reminiscing about the days when popcorn cost a nickel at his local movie theatre, we see a sincerity and enthusiasm for simpler times that makes him endearing.  Combined with the film’s exploration of his martial arts background, Lansdale’s eclectic interests and personality shine through here; he is the perfect combination of warmhearted and tough as nails.

Unfortunately, All Hail the Popcorn King has a number of issues that stand out.  The majority of the interviews in the film are phone interviews that oftentimes outstay their welcome.  Still images pertaining to these interviews are shown on the screen during these moments, but after hearing multiple phone interviews in tandem, the viewing experience begins to feel very passive and disengaging, as if the audience was watching a PowerPoint presentation during an informal conference call.  There were far too many missed opportunities for an editor to trim the fat and improve the pacing.  Despite its 55-minute running time, the lack of tight editing makes this film tedious.

The amateur nature of this film doesn’t end there.  Many of the interviews are presented in cheesy CG backgrounds to give the appearance that they are being shown at a drive-in or on a vintage television screen.  One sequence heavily features the “page peel transition” between cuts, which is nearly as cringeworthy as the notorious star wipe.  In conjunction with the oftentimes shaky handheld footage and background noise-riddled audio, this feels more like a student film edited in iMovie than a polished piece made by professionals.

The filmmaker’s passion for Joe Lansdale is undeniable, and the film is a heartfelt examination of this unique and talented individual, but All Hail the Popcorn King is mostly a one-dimensional, amateurish effort that would have been better suited as a bonus feature on a DVD than a standalone work.  There is nothing inherently wrong with a film being low-budget, but the consistently bad choices displayed over how to present and assemble the meager materials they had make it a lackluster documentary overall.

--Andrea Riley