All Hail the Popcorn King, a documentary about Joe R. Lansdale directed by Hansi Oppenheimer, was intriguing to me as a fan of horror and western fiction and movies of all types. Though I haven’t read a lot of Lansdale’s work, he’s a name I’ve been seeing in anthologies for years as I’ve made my way through the different genres. It didn’t seem to matter which one I was getting into, Joe’s stories seemed to be there. And they’ve always seemed to be among the best in the book.
Aside from assorted stories here and there over the years, the only book I’ve read cover to cover from Lansdale was Driving to Geronimo’s Grave, and Other Stories, which I reviewed in 2018 for NetGalley and Subterranean Press. That review can be found here.
There I found a wild assortment of material, from Great Depression fiction to Western stories and the occasional dip into science fiction. I could see that Lansdale didn’t seem to stick to any one genre. That’s a fact that is emphasized in this documentary, where “Joe Lansdale is a genre unto himself”. They stress how Lansdale does not pigeonhole himself into any one area but writes what needs to be written to make the story work for itself.
The tone of the documentary grabbed me right from the start, with the Western/country theme music and the Texas old town mystique. It turns out that Joe’s daughter Kasey did the original music for this documentary, and she’s quite good as an artist herself, adding to the mystique of her father’s career. She reminds us that her father is the “best known unknown author”.
Though Lansdale’s career can’t be covered in depth in one hour, this one does a pretty good job of giving us a snapshot. Major works covered here were the Hap & Leonard series, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Cold in July. Quite a variety of people are interviewed from different walks of entertainment life, such as Joe Hill, Chuck Wiser, Bruce Campbell, Christopher Golden, Amber Benson, and Mick Garris.
We also got quite the interesting tale about how The Drive In was created and written. We hear about how Joe’s wife Karen made this incredible popcorn based in lard that Joe describes as “greasiest least healthy popcorn ever made in the universe with Kroger grease”. As a result of eating that stuff, Joe would endure what he called “popcorn dreams”, which would bring him the strange imagery and things of nightmares that made their way to the narrative. As Joe describes the story that follows, it shows “the need to believe in the face of facts that tell you otherwise”.
Joe mentions his upcoming novel, Big Lizard, that he’s co-writing with his son Keith, who says of his dad, “the stuff that sounds the most ludicrous is the usually the accurate thing when it comes to Dad”.
The parts with actor Bruce Campbell were the most entertaining, as Bruce talks about working with Joe on the movie version of Bubba Ho-Tep. “…even Elvis Presley could be forgotten in an old rest home, with cancer on his penis…” He talks of how after filming that, they’d become family friends which they’ve remained to this day. Campbell also talks of how genuine Lansdale is, “Joe can actually kick somebody’s ass…” Bruce Campbell says “…how many writers can take you out?” Here he’s talking about how impressed with he is at Lansdale’s extensive martial arts knowledge, which gives him an air of true authenticity when using this stuff in his writing.
Whether he’s telling a story of two friends in Texas that share a common ground despite being from different walks of life, or a tale inspired by water moccasins and lard soaked popcorn, Lansdale always keeps it interesting and unique, with a flavor of the authentic.
As Christopher Golden says, “I know lots of writers that are full of shit…but joe is a no bullshit guy”. As fanciful and outlandish as Lansdale’s stories get, he stays real in the heart of the narrative and this is what keeps his stories going and readers wanting more.
I found myself drawn in to All Hail the Popcorn King right away, as the music set the tone within seconds of hitting “play”. From the start, we become immersed in Lansdale’s hometown in East Texas, and the documentary keeps that feeling throughout. I found it engaging as it was comfortable, giving me the feeling that his stories are derived from the place that a “regular guy” would come from. It gives the viewer a taste of what it would be like to actually read one of Lansdale’s books, and made me want to rush out and start collecting them.
This makes for a five-star rating for the documentary itself, with great potential for lots of stars in the near future after picking up several Lansdale novels and collections. I know that I will certainly be adding more Lansdale to my to-read pile after watching All Hail the Popcorn King, and I might even try to find some greasy popcorn to eat while reading.