All Hail the Popcorn King (2019)

The first time I heard the name Joe R. Lansdale was back in 2002 when some friends and I got together, had a few drinks, and watched Bubba Ho-Tep. I didn’t know who he was and was mostly excited about seeing a new Don Coscarelli film, but I’ll be damned if Lansdale wasn’t suddenly on my radar. It was quite a few years later, though, before I finally sat down and read something he wrote. In 2006 I had my mind warped by Lansdale’s own comic adaptation of The Drive-In for Avatar Press.

When I finally read The Complete Drive-In collection, my brain melted. It was one of the most imaginatively brutal stories I’d ever read. That was followed quickly by the steampunk western pulp insanity of Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal and I realized that, like Coscarelli, Joe R. Lansdale was a Goddamn American Treasure.

In the time since then, I’ve read a chunk of his comics work, some short stories, and over the past few years I began exploring the Hap & Leonard series, coinciding with the premiere of the excellent, canceled-too-soon Sundance TV series.

And yet, I really didn’t know anything about the man.

That’s all changed now, thanks to Hansi Oppenheimer’s excellent documentary, All Hail the Popcorn King. In it, Lansdale shares stories from his life and career in Nocagdoches, Texas while a wide range of artists and fans, including Joe Hill, Mick Garris, Brian Keene, Bruce Campbell, Don Coscarelli, and more, share what they love the most about the man and his work.

Growing up in East Texas, Lansdale wanted to write from before the first grade, when he started reading comics. Then, when he read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars at the age of 11, he knew he had to be a writer. The series of interviews make one thing exceedingly clear: Lansdale is a natural born storyteller. My favorite story in the film is the tale of living across the road and up the hill from the local drive-in theater when he was a small child. From his house he could watch, but couldn’t hear, the cartoons that would show before films, so his mother would narrate them. It wasn’t until later, when he eventually saw the same cartoons on TV that he realized she had been making things up as they watched.

Although that just narrowly edges out the “popcorn dreams” story, but I won’t spoil that one!

Along the way, we get insights into the origins of Lansdale’s iconic Hap and Leonard series, the writing of Bubba Ho-Tep and the making of the film, what inspired The Drive-In, his dream job writing Tarzan (initially finishing an unfinished Burroughs manuscript before writing his own original works), and more. Then, taking me completely by surprise, it turns out Lansdale has developed his own self-defense system – Shen Chuan: The Martial Science – and holds numerous black belts in other martial arts disciplines.

When everything’s said and done, All Hail the Popcorn King paints a vivid picture of an iconoclastic creator who isn’t just a talented writer, but seems to be a genuinely good person, to boot. The interviews included here are in such a down-to-earth, conversational manner that you can’t help but just get drawn in by his charisma and sense of humor. If you’ve never read anything by Joe R. Lansdale, I can’t imagine watching this and not being compelled to go grab the first book you can find and dive right in. Hell, I’ve read a fair chunk of his work and this made me want to go back and reread everything while scouring bookshop shelves for the ones I haven’t found yet.

If I had anything to complain about, it’s that All Hail the Popcorn King comes in at just under an hour, and I wanted it to keep on going. Lansdale is a personality that clearly can spin yarns for days if you let him, and I’d have been more than happy to just keep listening for hours. Luckily, there’s a limited edition DVD on the way with bonus featurettes that should satisfy.

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