Saturday, October 31, 2015

Movie Review: "Poltergeist" (1982) by David Pretty

This is gonna be a fairly in-depth analysis and, as such, I'm gonna dip inordinately deep into spoiler territory. Watch first and then read this later!  

Along with the original Night of the Living Dead, Poltergeist was one of the first horror movies to scare the bejesus out of me "thanks" to a pay cable free trial Halloween weekend back in 1983! Although it's often dismissed as a "horror movie with training wheels", the film is still pretty intense and never fails to give me the wiggins every time I watch it.

Right off the bat, the film lures us into a false sense of security with its ample humor and scenes of suburban bliss. In fact, there's nothing more nefarious at first than a biker being pranked by some kids and an intense television remote control battle. It feels as if the events of E.T., which came out that very same year, happened just up the block.

In fact, between the dramatic shots of artificially-roiling inbound clouds and chaotically-familiar dinner scenes which evokes shades of Close Encounters, many cinephiles still maintain to this day that Steven Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist and not Tobe Hooper. A very strong case can be made for this, if only because the low-fi sensibilities that characterized Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre is scarcely evident here. Having said that there are quite a few sequences in Poltergeist which are downright grueling but I'll talk about that a little later.   

Pretty soon we're introduced to real-estate developer Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams). They're typical Eighties parents, enjoying a casual puff of weed while reading such scintillating classics as Reagan: The Man, The President. In spite of these contradictions, you get the distinct impression that these are good people, mainly because the two actors have such perfect chemistry together. Between their authentic banter and a complete lack of pretension, it actually feels as if we're eavesdropping on a real-life married couple.    

A dated biography certainly isn't the only thing that makes Poltergeist a visual time capsule. Witness the bedroom of the two youngest Freeling kids, which is a treasure trove of Eighties-era kitch forever preserved in celluloid amber. Every time I re-watch the film I have a blast doing an inventory of the C-3PO light switch, the Rubik's Cube, the vintage Clue game and all of the classic Star Wars swag. This level of detail and authenticity never fails to immerse me in the film and within fifteen minutes I feel like a nervous kid again. 

Speaking of kids, they're just as well-cast as the leads. Oliver Robins is appropriately awkward, vulnerable, imaginative and inquiring as Bobby. Dominique Dunne is a coiled bundle of attitude as the Freeling's teenage daughter Dana. And little Heather O'Rourke is sweet and lovable beyond all measure as Carol Anne. Her performance during Tweety's burial starts out heartbreaking but before things threaten to become too saccharine she blurts out "Can I have a gold fish now?" with the sort of turnabout, unrestrained sunniness that only a child can muster. 

When odd things start to occur, they're rolled out with tremendous restraint and discipline. The skeletal tree just outside the kid's room looks like it's alive. Bobby's drinking glass spontaneously explodes and his cutlery looks like it was molested by Uri Geller. Kitchen chairs start sliding around and self-stacking. Stuff like this keeps adding up and adding up like a creeping, dread-filled version of Chinese water torture.     

I love how the conduit for all of this spookiness is the omnipresent television set, which was literally the centerpiece of every single household in the Eighties. Sure there's some none-too-subtle social commentary about television being a negative influence and how it creates a disconnect between parents and kids, but that's not the point. The point is that every single nuclear family in the Eighties gathered in their living rooms together every single night for a daily dose of low-grade radiation. And after seeing Poltergeist, people didn't look at their T.V.s quite the same way ever again.

I gotta take a moment right now to give props to the film's impeccable sound design. I love how creepy, disembodied voices start to bleed into the television's white noise static. It's very minimal at first, almost unconscious, but as soon as you hear it, it'll send shivers down your spine, especially when Jerry Goldsmith's super-creepy sing-songy lullaby kicks in. By the time little Carol Anne turns back to her bleary-eyed parents and proclaims "They're here!" you'll be completely invested in what happens next.

When things start to go south, it happens quickly and without reprieve. Between the harrowing tree attack and the closet-portal sequence, your nerves will soon be shot. There are some really good practical special effects used to achieve these things and, for the most part, it works. Only when the script tries to over-reach with the haunting of Carol Anne's room, do the limits of optical compositing fail the script. Nice audio touch with the T.I.E. Fighter fly-by, though.

It might seem like a cliche now, but the appearance of Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team of paranormal investigators was both a welcome and unexpected addition to the film upon my first viewing. The best part is, Spielberg and his co-writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor use this as the perfect excuse to dish up some spooky lore. Zelda Rubinstein is such a powerful character that Beatrice Straight tends to get overshadowed, but this is a mistake. She great in her own right, serving up the perfect mix of gravitas and conviction to make a potentially silly role seem perfectly believable.

In a related note, JoBeth Williams is one-hundred percent convincing in the ghost staircase scene when the spirit of Carol Ann passes through her. I absolutely adore the quiet scenes she shares with Dr. Lesh and her on-screen son Bobby. Not only do these moments provide stellar little tidbits of character development, it also lulls the audience into a false sense of security. Indeed, these moments are a little oasis of calm to  contrast with the next set-piece of ooga-boogery.

And let me tell ya, folks, the next scene is a really doozy. When Marty (Martin Casella), one of Dr. Lesh's assistants, goes into the Freeling's kitchen for a midnight snack I never in a million years expected to be subjected to what I witnessed next. Poltergeist was rated PG after all, so thirteen-year-old me really wasn't really expecting anything particularly gory. But when that leftover streak started crawling along the counter top and Marty start to pick a fight with his own face, I nearly lost my lunch.

"No fair!" I remember shouting at my television set back then. It wasn't haunted but it certainly felt like a Loki-esque liar, tricking me into seeing something that I really shouldn't have seen at that age. When I learned years alter that Poltergeist was supposed to get an "R" rating but Spielberg used his clout to get a PG without so much as a single trim, I wasn't surprised. Eventually this would catch up to the wunderkind director when the trifecta of Poltergeist, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom eventually necessitated the creation of the PG-13 rating two years later.

We do get a slight reprieve not long after when Steven Freeling is dragged to the top of a beautiful vista by his unscrupulous boss Mr. Teague, played to slimy perfection by James "Return of the Living Dead" Karen. Craig T. Nelson is great in the scene, conveying a palpable demeanor of mental and physically exhaustion with a healthy dollop of skepticism. Set in the incongruous backdrop of pre-fab, cookie-cutter suburban perfection nestled in the cradle of some gorgeous rolling hills at dusk, Teague's inadvertent hints about the dark nature of Cuesta Verde real estate development really gives this scene a palpable sense of creeping dread.      

Another quantum leap of terror occurs when Zelda Rubinstein shows up as the diminutive, cartoon-voiced southern belle medium Tangina Barrons. If you thought that all of the the tree attacks, spooky manifestations and face-rippings were terrifying then just listen to a few of her spiritual monologues. They're delivered with such conviction and intent that they put all of the previously-seen spectacles to shame. Honestly, she's like a horror movie version of Yoda.

The final delve into the closet portal is powerful and intense. As the movie goes on, you begin to realize that the whole thing is like a high-mast version of the classic Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost". With just a few simple touches, like the nasty coating of ectoplasm on the rope, Hooper and company completely sells the effect. The first time I saw this I was like "I know nothing about ghosts but, y'know, that totally makes sense". I was completely on board.

Speaking of being on board I had no concept of a false ending back then. I love that the screenwriters had enough respect for the audience to show us that the Freelings were still planning to move out of the house. But then I started to wonder why they weren't getting out of Dodge RIGHT THE FUX NOW. Sure, Tangina proclaimed earlier that "This house is clean" when Diane retrieved Carol Ann from the afterlife but then I started to wonder why the movie wasn't over.

But then it really hit me: 'Oh...My...Gawd', I thought to myself. 'IT'S NOT OVER YET.'

And it wasn't. Hooper, Spielberg and the rest of their evil minions then proceeded to bludgeon my fragile eggshell mind with fifteen more minutes of unrestrained terror. The spirit dominating the house makes one final bid to pull the kids into their realm. They're aided by a possessed clown doll that permanently warped my appraisal of any adult that voluntarily chooses to walk around in public wearing white face paint and red squeaky noses. That's right, it wasn't Tim Curry's Pennywise that ruined me on clowns, it was that fucking harlequin doll in Poltergeist.   

But that was nothing compared to what happens next. Diane is nearly killed with the classic rotating room gag which was later used to great effect in 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street. When Diane barely manages to escape with her life she runs next door get help but slips in the mud and falls into the muddy stew that is their partially-dug in-ground pool. She quickly discovers that she isn't alone in a truly disturbing scene that harkens back to Karen Allen stumbling into the Hall of Mummies in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released just one year prior.

Yes, the Spielbergian influences are clear but the sustained level of torture that JoBeth Williams goes through at the end of Poltergeist brings the trials and tribulations of Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the forefront of my thoughts. Also, witness the amazing rack focus used by Hooper and his cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti when Diane finally manages to get back upstairs and is forced to run what looks like a marathon to get to the end of the hall and rescue her kids.

Was Spielberg more responsible for shots like this and not Hooper? Honestly, who cares? What matters is that this collaboration resulted in a classic horror film. It balances fanciful and occasionally humorous whimsy with unremitting horror better than any other movie I've ever seen.

Even to this day, Poltergeist is a very tricksy and subversive flick. It isn't excessively gory and tends to comfort the viewer somewhat with ample humor and familiar domestic scenes. But when it takes the kid gloves off, were subjected to enough eerie lore, self-mutilations, ghostly apparitions, real-looking corpses and chill-inducing lore to make for a fun and memorable thrill ride.

   Tilt: up.

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