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‘Popcorn’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 02, 1991

Beware of horror films that begin with a bad dream -- they usually go on that way as well.

Case in point: "Popcorn," which has several good ideas that, unfortunately, go unrealized. Maggie (Jill Schoelen) is a film student who's been dutifully recording her nightmares -- hairy hippie with dagger, trussed maiden on altar, terrified child fleeing through flames -- only to see them unfold on screen when a '60s cult film, "The Possessor," is discovered by fellow students preparing a fund-raising "horrorthon" at an abandoned art deco theater called Dreamland. Wouldn't you know that "Possessor's" director was a weirdo who killed his wife onstage and then burned down the theater after locking the audience inside? Maybe he died, maybe he didn't, maybe he's back -- that's the central mystery, one that becomes crucial as Maggie's fellow film students start fading to black before their time.

This basic story line will not be unfamiliar to aficionados of the horror movie -- going back to such primary sources as "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" -- and, at best, it is given perfunctory twists. What little imagination there is in "Popcorn" comes from the B-films-within-the-film occasioned by the action unfolding over the course of the "horrorthon" in front of an audience that has seen "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" one too many times. Actually, these are fairly clever parodies of '50s horror/sci-fi staples and their gimmicks: "Mosquito" is in 3-D "Project-O-Vision," with a huge model bug buzzing through the audience at a climactic moment; "The Stench" is in putrid "Aroma-rama"; and "Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man" in seat-jolting "Shock-O-Scope." Characters die off as punch lines to these homages, which are interwoven with the main story and show an awareness of cult films, if not an ability to match them.

There is one spooky effect involving skin masks but "Popcorn" is undone by flat acting. Schoelen ("The Stepfather," "Phantom of the Opera") can muster neither personality nor much of a voice -- mostly she whines -- while Tom Villard never summons up much energy as her mysterious fellow student Toby, who may or may not be what he seems. Several other actors have deflated marquee value -- Dee Wallace Stone, Tony Roberts and Ray Walston -- but most of the cast is deservedly obscure. The most riveting presence: Mat Falls as the Rasputin-like cult director of "Possessor," a film horror buffs would probably prefer to "Popcorn."

A film is usually in deep trouble when its best moments are throwaways. As for the "Popcorn" title, it means nothing -- this film could just as easily have been called "Hot Dog," except only the second word would have been appropriate.

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