[Review] 'All Hail the Popcorn King' Gives an Insightful Look Into the Life of Joe R. Lansdale with Love & Adoration
I’m embarrassed to say that my first encounter with Joe R. Lansdale’s writing only came a couple of years ago...
...I was definitely aware of him, thanks to Don Coscarelli’s masterpiece Bubba Ho-Tep, but had somehow never gotten my grubby mitts on one of his books. Then one day I came across a copy of The Drive-In while meandering through the dusty stacks of the massive sci-fi and fantasy collection of the library where I work. To put it bluntly, the book knocked me flat on my ass. After blasting through the next 158 pages of horror and hilarity, I became a born-again Lansdale-convert. As has been the case for so many other aficionados of his work, once I got that first taste, I was hooked.
In her documentary All Hail the Popcorn King – the title of which readers will recognize as a line taken from The Drive-In – writer/director Hansi Oppenheimer (Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements) does a tremendous job of capturing the love and adoration fans have for the author, while also giving us a fascinating look into Lansdale’s life, his work, and some of the themes that run through it. This is no dry academic or overly critical view of the scribe and his prolific career; the documentary serves as a celebration of him and what his words have meant to so many people over the years.
One of the things about Lansdale that shines through when watching him in person is his genuine humility. There is no air of superiority about him, nor does his down-to-earth nature appear to be a put on for the cameras. He’s just a regular dude who likes telling people stories, and there is something incredibly endearing about that. In an interview at the beginning of the film, writer/director/all-around horror icon Mick Garris posits that Lansdale choosing to remain close to his roots by living in the small East Texas city of Nacogdoches is what’s kept him grounded. In much the same way that Maine appears to be a sort of psychic anchor for Stephen King, Texas has helped Lansdale never lose sight of who he is.
Lansdale is known for his tendency to shirk the conventions of whatever genre he’s working in, and Oppenheimer emphasizes how his interests and passions growing up influenced this essential element of his style. At one point the author talks about what a normal Saturday looked like as a kid. It would begin at the library where he would read all morning, poring over everything from the Iliad to John Carter of Mars. When lunch time rolled around, he’d pop by a drugstore and scarf down a burger before running over to the neighboring movie theatre where the young Lansdale would spend the rest of the afternoon devouring popcorn and that day’s double feature. Those Saturdays, combined with his love of comic books, helped expose the soon-to-be-writer to all sorts of different genres and styles of storytelling. Oppenheimer lets these anecdotes and remembrances from Lansdale illustrate how all of it mixing about in his head at such a formative time in his life helped form the eclectic voice he has today.
Oppenheimer also spends time examining some of the themes that permeate Lansdale’s work, the most obvious being his focus on respectful coexistence. In his stories, characters from drastically different social and political backgrounds find friendship and common ground despite their disagreements, as most notably in his Hap and Leonard series. It’s an admirable quality that seems to come naturally for the writer, and some of the best moments of the documentary are when his particular worldview is explored.
The documentary does have a few hiccups along the way. Maybe because of its tight runtime (the film clocks in at just under an hour) it suffers from some pacing issues here and there. Understandable considering the breadth of material Oppenheimer is trying to cover, but there are a couple of moments of reflection and insight that would have had more impact if given just a smidgen more room to breathe.
Overall, All Hail the Popcorn King is a wonderful watch. Oppenheimer injects a ton of heart and enthusiasm into every second of the documentary, crafting a wonderful tribute to an author that’s touched the lives of countless readers. Like King Cohen and That Guy Dick Miller, it shines a light on an influential storyteller who has been criminally underappreciated while urging the uninitiated to come see what they’ve been missing.
When I finally put The Drive-In down after that first reading, I kicked myself for not getting into Lansdale sooner. After watching this film, I suspect there will be plenty of others doing the same.
All Hail the Popcorn King will be releasing later this year from Squee Projects.
By Pat Brennan