Horror fans are a pretty forgiving lot. And they're not above being pandered to upon occasion. How else do you explain the success of Stranger Things, a show designed from the opening credits to trigger a Pavlovian response to all things '80s horror. But even more satisfying is the "movie-within-a-movie" concept, a rarely used creative conceit that reflects the audience's love of cult flicks and trash pics right back into their greedy little eyes. There are a few better-known examples (Joe Dante's Matinee, Lamberto Bava's Demons) and then there's Popcorn (1991), which, despite an almost catastrophic production history, winds up being the best of the bunch. Shot entirely in Jamaica (which explains the otherwise inexplicable reggae band jam session mid-film), Popcorn burned through its original star Amy O'Neill and director Alan Ormsby after a few weeks of filming. When production kicked back into gear the only elements remaining from Ormsby's work were the campy recreations of classic horror and sci-fi films playing on screen during an all-night-horrorthon staged by the film's characters. The rest of Popcorn is a lively but predictable slasher flick in which a devil-worshipping ex-filmmaker returns from the grave to re-stage the final scene from his notorious coup de grace. Jill Schoelen, the cute as a button star of The Stepfather and Robert Englund's underappreciated Phantom of the Opera, takes over the lead role of Maggie, as aspiring filmmaker herself using her recent spate of bad dreams as fodder for a screenplay. But when her mom (Dee Wallace) begins to act strange upon hearing the details, Maggie begins to suspect her visions about human sacrifice might actually be memories instead. In a case of particularly bad timing, Maggie's class decides to put on a fundraiser for the fledgling film class. The horror movie marathon consists of three corny movies, all taking advantage of gimmicks from the William Castle playbook, including a giant flying mosquito, electric shock devices hidden under the seats and a big finale involving "Odorama." But the show is interrupted backstage by the appearance of a deranged killer who elaborately knocks-off the students, saving Maggie for his own special finale in front of a live audience. The first half-hour or so plays like Porky's meets A Nightmare on Elm Street, which actually makes sense after you watch the extras on Synapse Film's new special edition Blu-ray. But it's painful to sit through, with an atonal PG-13 vibe and plot points shooting in distractingly random directions. But once the horrorthon kicks in, the movies-within-the-movie provide a brilliant distraction for the scattershot problems inherent in the main plot. Each segment is a loving tribute to its particular genre, whether it's giant bugs or scientific experiments gone wrong; only the final feature, a Toho-inspired nature run amok flick called "The Stench," gets shortened into an inconsequential afterthought. And, actually, the success of these spoofs buoys the main plot, injecting a ticking clock factor into the murder set pieces and providing the killer with more tools for the trade. The cast is a likable and familiar bunch, with a number of veteran actors from other horror franchises including the aforementioned Dee Wallace along with Kelly Jo Minter from Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and The People Under the Stairs. But it's Tom Villard, a reliable source of '80s TV comic relief until his untimely death in 1994, who gets the choice role, acting underneath layers of latex involved in the film's signature make-up effects. Popcorn's enthusiasm for the genre overcomes the weaknesses of its script. And like any good horror movie, it's probably better enjoyed with a crowd. Synapse's previous steelbook release finally makes it way onto standalone Blu-ray, carrying over its own marathon of extras. The big draw is Midnight Madness: The Making of Popcorn, a warts-and-all documentary that addresses pretty much everything fans want to know in 60-minutes. But for more detail there's a case and crew commentary track, interview with actor Bruce Glover, trailers, TV spots and a still gallery.
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