Friday, October 18, 2013

When You Buy a Bag, You Go Home In a Box :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Mark Herrier's (and Alan Ormsby's) Popcorn (1991)

Haunted by a specific, surreal, and reoccurring nightmare filled with flames and smoke, a little girl named Sarah witnesses a long-haired man with a scraggly beard stab a woman to death on what appears to be some kind of sacrificial altar; and then this self-described 'Possessor', with clear homicidal intentions, chases after the fleeing witness to finish this ceremony until our protagonist, Maggie (Schoelen), wakes up shaken but not stirred. A film student at the local college, Maggie is consumed by these images, with every intention of translating them to film for her senior thesis. Meantime, her mother, Suzanne (Wallace), has also been haunted by a crank caller, who raves on and on about the "Nine circles of hell" reserved for people like her. And her day gets worse when she overhears Maggie translating her latest dream into a tape recorder, with each more lucid than the last, making certain ghastly details more clear. And she really freaks out when her daughter reveals the name of the girl seen in the dream; almost as if she knows who she's talking about -- he typed ominously... 

Late for class, Maggie shrugs off her mom's oddly desperate request to look elsewhere for inspiration. Once on campus, she bumps into her soon to be ex-boyfriend, Mark (Rydell), who hasn't been getting enough attention lately due to her obsession with the dream, which also kinda establishes Maggie's Virginity Clause, the ultimate 'get out of jail free card' for this type of body count flick. (Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as a Virginity Clause.) Dumped and dejected, she moves on, and here, we meet her fellow student filmmakers; a small eclectic bunch that will provide plenty of fodder when the blood starts flying. Needing to raise money for their thesis projects, head film geek, Toby (Villard), convinces Professor Davis (Roberts) that an all-night horrorthon is the answer. But it's not an easy sell to the others because the proposed triple-feature occupies the bottom of the cinematic bell curve. Why would anybody pay top dollar to see these cine-turds when they can be rented for much less, someone rightly points out. Ah, but this is where Toby plays the ace up his sleeve, revealing they can't experience the gimmicks that accompanied these films, ala William Castle, at home. This clinches it, much to Toby's delight. 

Commandeering the old and abandoned Dreamland Theater, scheduled for demolition in a few short weeks, the group turns to Dr. Mynesyne (Walston), an eccentric collector, who loans them the antiquated equipment needed to pull the festival off. And with his help, they will be able to show The Mosquito in 'Projecto-Vision!' (-- basically 3-D with the added Emergo-esque bonus of a giant mosquito prop wired-up to fly over the audience), Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man in 'Shock-o-Scope!' (-- a Percepto knock-off with the theater seats wired-up to shock the audience at strategic points), and then finish things off with The Stench in authentic 'Aroma-Rama!' (-- a little different than John Waters' scratch 'n' sniff pads, where they actually pump in foul odors through the theater's air-conditioning vents). 

And after a big pep talk from the good doctor about the glory days of showmanship (-- that had me ready to help pitch in), and a(n oddly) Reggae fueled montage sequence, the theater is quickly whipped back into shape. But while cleaning up, the group unearths an old film can. And things take a decidedly sinister turn when they spool up the contents to take a look: As the film unfolds, we're treated to an extreme close-up of a bloodshot eyeball, followed by a familiar looking bearded gent, with penchant for picking his nose and spitting up blood, who chants his name, the Possessor, over and over again. And as we cut to a sacrificial chamber, and the Possessor draws a blade to do his dirty deeds, obviously, this all bears a strong, improbable resemblance to Maggie's dream. And Maggie is so overwhelmed and wigged out by these images she promptly seizes up before passing out...

First things first: If I had access to a time machine, I would not go into the future to see how the world turns out. And I would not go back and watch the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Nor would I go way back in time for a dinosaur safari. (Well, maybe. Sure, Who wouldn't?) No. I would set my personal Way Back Machine to 1959 so I could see and experience The Tingler in authentic Percepto. And on the way back, there's a pretty good chance I'd make a pit stop in 1979 to catch John Carpenter's Halloween at a Drive In somewhere. And that's what Popcorn is; a strange mash-up of a 1980s era slasher movie mixed with the cinematic gimmickry of the 1950s topped off with a Phantom of the Opera chaser. 

Popcorn also marked a reunion between filmmakers Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby. Back in the 1970s, these two collaborated on a string of very effective, no-budget horror flicks like Deathdream, Deranged, and the totally under-appreciated and overly-maligned Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things. Clark did the directing and producing, Ormsby providing the screenplays and make-up F/X, and occasionally appeared in front of the camera. (He was such a glorious turd in Children.) When the '80s rolled around, the two amicably went their separate ways; Clark going on to infamy with A Christmas Story and the Porky's franchise before crashing and burning with a series of insipid comedies ending with those Baby Geniuses films, while Ormsby scored a modicum of success penning the remake of The Cat People and pretty good coming of age tale with My Bodyguard.

Teaming back up for Popcorn, Ormsby took this proposed script (co-written with Mitchell Smith) of murder and mayhem at a film festival to Clark, who sold the idea to several investors when he agreed to produce it with Ormsby set to direct. But things got off to a rocky start when a lack of budget found the production moved to Jamaica (-- explaining the Rasta soundtrack, which feels out of place, but is really, really good, and all the costumes at the film-festival to hide the ethnicity of the majority of the audience). But three weeks into filming, these backers lost all faith in Ormsby, forcing Clark to fire him off the picture, which irrevocably destroyed their friendship. To finish, Clark brought in Mark Herrier, one of his actors from Porky's, who mopped up what turned out to be, by most accounts, a fairly unhappy shoot. This upheaval continued when the lead actress was also fired and replaced by Schoelen. Things got so bad the dismissed Ormsby opted for a pseudonym for his writing credit (Tod Hackett). And when filming wrapped up, Clark asked for his name to be removed from the credits altogether. And yet, somehow, despite all this tempestuousness, Popcorn manages to preserver. The ultimate end result isn't all that great, mind you, but there's a definite guilty pleasure to be found here.

Seems this "Possessor" short was the magnum opus of one Lanyard Gates; head guru of a film cult back in the 1960s. (Based loosely on Coffin Joe himself, José Mojica Marins.) Turns out the viewing public didn't care much for this brand of avant-garde, and thus, rejected and ridiculed, an irate (and soon to be revealed as completely unhinged) Gates answered his critics with The Possessor, where, during its premiere, he dumped the last reel, sealed the theater, and staged the climax live, killing his wife and daughter, and then set the theater on fire, taking the trapped audience with him as they all perished in the ensuing inferno. Convinced there must be a connection between the film and her dreams, Maggie confronts her mom, asking if she ever heard of Gates. At the mere mention of his name, Suzanne freaks out again but fails to convince Maggie to withdraw from the festival when she refuses to say why. Later, the crank caller, now claiming to be Gates, coaxes Suzanne to the Dreamland, alone, where, after a few suspenseful turns, she is attacked and hauled off into the darkness. 

From there, the body count begins in earnest as the night of the Film Festival arrives. Maggie, stuck in the ticket booth, is a little annoyed when Mark shows up with another girl. But this distraction is quickly quashed when the next person in line asks if they'll be showing The Possessor. Convinced it's Gates, Maggie loses him in the crowd as the first film cues up. She finds Toby in the projection booth, who agrees to help look for Gates but only manages to get himself locked outside the theater. Meantime, as the festival progresses, the other film students are picked off, one by one, rather gruesomely and film specifically. (The professor is harpooned on the mosquito prop, another student is electrocuted, while another is asphyxiated.) One should also note the killer hauls each victim off to a secret lair, where he makes a mold and mask of the deceased, using these disguises to lure the others to their deaths. One of the victims, the teachers pet 'natch, manages to unmask the killer before expiring, revealing the horribly scarred visage of a burn victim. 

But is it really Lanyard Gates? Or is someone else using him to exact their own revenge. And after a brief hiatus to reunite with Mark, Maggie finally puts all the clues together, realizing she was Sarah Gates all along, and Suzanne is really her aunt, who shot Gates, and managed to escape the burning theater with her in tow. Those dreams weren't dreams at all, just repressed memories fighting to get out. But it may already be too late. Because whether the killer really is her father or not, this maniac is bound and determined to re-stage the end of The Possessor; only this time, it will end as it should have ended fifteen years ago, with Maggie dead and the filmmaker triumphant.

One of Popcorn's biggest problems is emblematic of the genre it apes; problems amped up to some pretty ridiculous levels. Yeah, your Suspension of Disbelief gland will definitely be overtaxed with this one as our killer is not only a master of disguise, who can match voices with uncanny accuracy, but is also a master puppeteer (-- he uses a copse as an ersatz marionette to escape detection), whose grand plan could've been completely derailed if any one of the festival attendees gets lost trying to find the john or stumbles into the lobby at the wrong moment, bringing this baroque nonsense to a premature end. (And how he managed Tina's deflating death still baffles me, too.) The margin for error is non-existent, but, eh, I can dig it. And there is a fairly decent mystery unfolding here, with enough clues to peg Maggie's true identity and who the killer really is. 

And credit to Herrier, too, for wringing some actual suspense out of this nonsense, especially when poor Bud (Danare) struggles to reach the controls while he watches the conclusion of The Amazing Electrified Man, realizing he’s dead by the end if he can’t pull the plug. And the climax is a real crackerjack as the killer meticulously and methodically recreates the end of The Possessor as he entices the theater audience on, who thinks it’s all part of the show, so they ignore Maggie’s pitiful cries for help.

Would the film have been better if Ormsby had seen it through to the end? There's a definite argument to be made. For where the film really excels is during the lovingly staged homages to old school schlock provided by our trio of creature features. Those were all Ormsby, who completed them before being canned. The Mosquito is a standard giant monster on the loose frolic, where the bug starts with livestock and works it's way up the food chain. There’s a lady scientist, who falls in love with the Armed Forces representative before the monster is blown to kingdom come. Ormsby really hits it outta the park with The Amazing Electrified Man, where a death row inmate (played beautifully by Bruce Glover) volunteers for some unscrupulous scientific experiments. There is much sci-babble as the mad-geniuses inject him with a serum that will allow him to survive the chair. Something goes horribly wrong like it always does and the convict is turned into a human battery, who can kill with a touch of his electrified fingers. Sadly, we only get a brief glimpse of The Stench. It appears to be a Japanese film, badly dubbed into English. Alas, the film is cut short when the killer cranks up The Possessor to recreate our final, fateful, scene.

And speaking honestly, these transition pieces actually prove more entertaining than the mystery unraveling out in the lobby. Not exactly a resounding endorsement, but Popcorn hasn’t grown stale for me yet.

Popcorn (1991) Century Films :: Movie Partners :: Trans-Atlantic Pictures / EP: Howard Baldwin, Karl Hendrickson, Howard Hurst / P: Ashok Amritraj, Gary Goch, Torben Johnke, Sophie Hurst, Bob Clark / AP: Shaun Costello / D: Mark Herrier, Alan Ormsby / W: Mitchell Smith, Alan Ormsby / C: Ronnie Taylor / E: Stan Cole / M: Paul Zaza / S: Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Dee Wallace, Derek Rydall, Malcolm Danare, Ivette Soler, Kelly Jo Minter, Ray Walston, Tony Roberts

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