Down Within the Darksome Well

Film Fanaticism, Meta Dread, and Popcorn (1991)

Studio Three Film Corporation

A place there is below, from Beelzebub
As far receding as the tomb extends,
Which not by sight is known, but by the sound

Of a small rivulet, that there descendeth
Through chasm within the stone, which it has gnawed
With course that winds about and slightly falls.

Dante, Inferno: Canto XXXIV

The ancient Greeks often wrote of Cocytus, the wailing river. Dark, deep, agonizingly gray, it wound through Hades, meeting neatly with its sister river, Acheron—where souls were ferried from the peripheries of Earth to the kingdom of the dead. Void of life’s pleasantries—an inverse of the delectable, lively, olivaceous Mount Olympus—the underworld was a shadow realm; or, as the Bible calls it, the “common grave of mankind.” 

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cocytus refers to the ninth circle of Hell, reserved for the treacherous. There, it is a lake, though derived from the same source of the other infernal rivers: the tears of a statue called the Old Man of Crete, a monument of sin. It is in Cocytus that Lucifer dwells, his body entombed in icy water, his three heads gnawing at traitors of lore: Brutus, Cassius, Judas Iscariot. 

Inferno is a dreamscape mapped by Dante Aligheri and his guide Virgil, with descriptors that evoke long shadows and congealing mists and improbable beasts. It is not so far from the dream world that opens Mark Herrier’s 1991 slasher Popcorn, with silicon masks sat in shallow pools of liquid, a child’s face cast in blue flame, a man’s head on a serving platter—alive in one flicker and decayed in the next. Alan Ormsby’s script even cites Dante directly: just after the dream sequence, a woman named Suzanne (Dee Wallace) receives a phone call. “Remember who the ninth circle of Hell is reserved for,” says a growling male voice on the other end. 

Suzanne’s daughter, Maggie (Jill Schoelen), interrupts the phone call, running to the kitchen in disarray. It was her dream we witnessed in the film’s opener, a dream she now recites into a handheld tape recorder: “Close up: his eye gleams like volcanic lava. Sarah stands transfixed, like a deer in a car’s headlights.” Maggie is an aspiring screenwriter, and so dreams are yeast for creation. Dante, too, used dreams for material. La Vita Nuova, a poem of courtly love published in 1294, recalls a dream where he visits the deathbed of Beatrice Portinari—a woman who both inspired the poem and served as guide in Paradiso, the concluding verses of the Divine Comedy. The poem says of dreams and love: 

Of those long hours wherein the stars, above,
Wake and keep watch, the third was almost nought,
When Love was shown me with such terrors fraught
As may not carelessly be spoken of.

It’s a funny thing: love. Dreams are made of it, finely and ephemerally stitched. Films are made of it, too, but are longer lasting. The way we love film is like something divine. Cults sprang around Aphrodite and Poseidon and Hephaestus, on the shores of Paphos and the harbors of Kition. Congregations not unlike students of cinema in their own altars: hand-cranked projectors casting stories to screen like silhouettes on amphorae. Devotion, hysteria; bacchanalian worship.

But exaltation invites scorn, as idolism invites sin. In Popcorn, Maggie and her fellow film students sit in a classroom and plan a new ceremony: an overnight “horrorthon,” complete with gimmicks and props. A liturgy that, unbeknownst to Maggie, will soon land her in a hell both inevitable and eventual. Where what we adore is what eats us alive. 

O Muses, O high genius, now assist me!
O memory, that didst write down what I saw,
Here thy nobility shall be manifest!

Dante, Inferno: Canto II

The classroom scene in Popcorn is not only the film’s stage-setter, but also its most immutable moment. There’s laughter when classmate Toby (Tom Villard) suggests the horrorthon, leading to a series of barbs about the Police Academy franchise, the relevance of Bergman’s oeuvre (and its “fleshy ambiguities”), and Escape to Witch Mountain—before attention is turned back to the initial proposition. 

“What makes you think people are gonna pay six bucks to see some crappy old movie they wouldn’t even rent for 99 cents?” asks one student. A question that reverberates now, in this era of streaming uncertainty, as box office dwindles and collective experience seems a totem of time lost. 

Their teacher, Mr. Davis (Tony Roberts), promises that this horrorthon is not a lark but an appreciation—a way to both honor the past and sow seeds for the future. They won’t just screen these films—with titles like Mosquito and The Stench—but enact gimmicks of yesteryear, like “Odorama” and “Shock-O-Scope”: 4D pageantry singular to the theatrical experience. They plan to hold the horrorthon in the aptly named Dreamland, an old live theater later converted to a cinema that will be torn down three weeks after the event. It’s a last hurrah—for B-movie celebration and the theater itself. And their horrorthon isn’t just for fun, but a way to raise money for their future student films. 

The event as they plan it is both in service of the past and a precursor to ‘90s slasher horror to follow. As commemoration, it pays tribute to William Castle’s “Emergo!,” when glowing skeletons slid down ropes into audiences viewing House on Haunted Hill. Or Castle’s other gimmick, “Percepto!,” when theater chairs vibrated during screenings of The Tingler. The fictional films-within-the-film pay respects to the work of Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas and Nathan H. Juran, where nuclear threat looms large, bugs turn giant, and paranoia invokes action. There are nods to German Expressionism and Psychedelia galore. And Possessor, the fictional avant-garde horror film made by a mysterious filmmaker called Lanyard Gates that serves as Popcorn’s central mystery, is pure snuff. As the students learn, Gates made it in response to his earlier films, which were laughed at and mocked, to his shame. For Possessor, he filmed all but the last scene; at its world premiere, he acted out the final reel live, killing his family and then trapping the audience inside the theater and burning it down. The film was then lost to time…until it turns up in the trunk of Dr. Mnesyne, the owner of a film memorabilia shop who is helping with the horrorthon.

As prophecy, the classroom scene foretells the metafiction trend of more popular ‘90s horror, using homage as foundation. As John Kenneth Muir wrote in his book Horror Films of the 1990s, “In self-reflexively gazing back at genre conventions and gimmickry, [Popcorn] actually, in very post-modern fashion, anticipates such nineties films as Wes Craven’s Scream.” Indeed, you feel Popcorn in the seminal film class scene from Scream 2 in 1997, when a cadre of ‘90s teen stars (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joshua Jackson, Jamie Kennedy…and, inexplicably, Timothy Olyphant) opine about the worth—and lack thereof—of cinematic sequels. Just as Popcorn’s teens mock the very genre of film they live within, so do Craven and Kevin Williamson’s characters—most of whom will meet gruesome fates by story’s end, punishment for their doubt. 

The postmodern pulse of Popcorn was a symptom of the ‘90s, played to finer effect in game-changers like Pulp Fiction (1994), Get Shorty (1995), Irma Vep (1996). And though Craven is synonymous with horror metafiction, Popcorn—rarely mentioned—predates his conventions. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) came out three years after Herrier’s film; Scream (1996), five years after. Even Army of Darkness (1992) was post-Popcorn

Which is not to say that Popcorn led the charge—its inelegance and meandering slasher plot are somewhat fatal strikes—but is merely a cog in the postmodern machine, of a piece with a narrative tradition one can trace back to the early days of literature; to Achilles Tatius and Ki no Tsurayuki; to The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote

The obsession with self-construction is not just inherent to the text of Popcorn, but to characters who dream themselves into myth. Who aspire to create so as to exist. That is the onus of metafiction, is it not? The great oxymoron. Because to suggest self-awareness is to ensnare oneself in the inherent destructiveness of fable.

And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said: “Master, what is this which now I hear?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?”

And he to me: “This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise.

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them.”

—Dante, Inferno: Canto III

Masks are pervasive in Popcorn. They are the first thing we see, molten and multiplied; faux-skin so real that their lifeless mouths might open and sing like a Greek chorus. The film’s framing device is centered on a killer who offs the film students and teachers, wearing these masks—perfect replicas of the characters so as to discombobulate when he kills them. The masks obscure identity and intention; traitorous to trap traitors. 

Masks are synonymous with certain cults, too—the Phoenician and Punic masks worn in ritual performance in Cyprus; masks worn by priests worshiping Demeter Kidharia; wooden masks used in the sanctuary of Artemis Korythalis in Sparta. Even in conspiracy—like the Rothschild Ball, Deer Island, Eyes Wide Shut—ornate obfuscation is aligned with ritual. It’s no wonder they are artifacts of horror, too: Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, Jigsaw, the Strangers, Ghostface. 

Popcorn is about the loss of identity, and so its killer is similarly masked. But Maggie is, too, in a sense. As we learn, her dreams are in fact memories of the past. Her real name, like her dream name, is Sarah…Sarah Gates—she is Lanyard’s daughter. Suzanne is her aunt and not her mother, and they’re both survivors of Lanyard’s movie massacre. Toby, who brought the horrorthon to life, is the killer. His mother was a member of Lanyard’s film cult and he was there for the Possessor premiere, too. He survived with grave burns and now plans to finish what Lanyard started: burn everyone present for the horrorthon alive in their seats as Possessor plays one last time. With particular emphasis on Sarah, the traitor. 

Film fanaticism in Popcorn is punishable by death. It’s not so far from the truth. To love film is to be a victim of such devotion; to relish in trivia known by so few, at the whims of Vinegar Syndrome announcements, Criterion lists; at the fingertips of fellow devotees ready to rip your skin should you step out of line, wear it like flesh. If you know too little, if you know too much—threaten dominance and prepare for a deathmatch.

It is exhausting to love something. It is punishing to share that love with others. It is perverted to imagine oneself as creator—not the subject of worship but the purveyor of sin; the Old Man of Crete. Tears of blood and rivers of gore. Put on the mask and get ready to burn. Venomous passion is your shield in the Colosseum. 

And yet…to love film, in all its permutations, is to see something others do not. The theater of life: dovelike and arrant. The bluest rendering. Elysian Fields. The darkness, too—the blots of ink between stars, where forever lies. Vacant space only those with eyes for mise-en-scène might see into. It is bewitching, this elixir. It is like nothing else. Cinema, well-rendered, is a window to utopia. 

Toby traps Maggie in a metal dress, immobilizing her. The audience, believing this a part of the show, laugh and whoop as she pleads for her life. But then, in an act of passion, her love interest Mark (Derek Rydall) swoops in from the rafters on a wire track, loosening a giant mosquito prop in the process. The prop falls from the ceiling, electrocuting Toby and killing him. He who attempted to weaponize cinema, killed by a relic of the past; the sweet salve of meta. Maggie and Suzanne survive, absolved from errant sin—begotten from Hell.

The mask obscured the vision. Cultish devotion—or obsession with what doesn’t matter: moral panic, plottish precision, tidy endings—the fatal crack. But respect for the road ahead laid long ago, unbridled but imperfect love for craft, self-reverence over self-reference…it’s Charon’s ferry on the Acheron, that passageway back to Olympus. Where one sits and sees—and then creates.