Poltergeist asks some very primal and fundamental questions. What happens after we die? How far would you go in order to save a loved one? And just who really directed the film in the first place?
Produced and co-scribed by Steven Spielberg (along with Michael Grais and Mark Victor) and released in the same year his own E.T. swept away all rivals, Poltergeist caused controversy in that no-one believed that the credited director - Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper - actually had much to do with it. Spielberg still maintains that although he, himself, had ... erm ... a lot of creative input during the production and complete control over the post-production, Hooper held the reins. The world and his dog have other ideas, of course. And Hooper just tends to keep shtum on the matter. Certainly, to viewers that know Spielberg's work - ninety-nine percent of the world, probably - the movie is intrinsically his. It has his hallmarks all over it. From the middle-American suburban milieu and the incessant pop-culture references to the grass-roots authenticity of family life, and from the unannounced gate-crashing of the weird into the normal to the dazzling sights and lights that his characters become entranced by, Poltergeist is nigh-on quintessential Spielberg. In a Tobe Hooper film, unless they are injured and strapped down in the first place, characters tend to run screaming away from the main thrusts of the story. In a Spielberg film, they - and we - stand, hypnotised by things that are both scary and captivating. But, even in a more stylistic way, Poltergeist belongs to Spielberg because as well as being a tremendously effective ghost-train ride, it also meshes thoroughly in-character humour with the dark side in a way that Hooper's much more Grand Guignol, macabre black wit simply does not.
Ostensibly hand-picked by Spielberg for his balls-out intensity on Texas Chainsaw, but possibly more for his underrated fairground chill-fest, The Funhouse, Hooper was not a bad choice for creating suspense and genuine fear from everyday folk being thrust into a situation completely alien and unsympathetic to them. Without the guiding hand of Spielberg - who was on-set every day, and was a permanent fixture in the editing suite - Hooper's vision, we can be sure, would have been markedly different. And the fact that he tends not to be drawn upon the topic, coupled with the fact that his movies have always been snaffled away from him either by censors, poor distribution or even the Mob reneging on financial deals probably means that the whole thing has left a sour taste in his mouth.
But all this can be as it may, for the fact remains that Poltergeist is a classic of the genre.
When most horror movies around this time were pushing the limits of gore and latex effects at the expense of character and story, Poltergeist came as a breath of fresh air, albeit tainted by ectoplasm. The seemingly carefree and happy Freeling Family are settling very nicely into their plush home down in the heart of their neat and safe little suburban hamlet in the foothills of Southern California's Cuesta Verde. Dad, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), is the champion salesman for a real estate company with huge and decidedly “iffy” ideas for the expansion of their identi-kit tract-home development scheme, in which he and his family of wife, three kids, a dog and a dead budgie also reside. With a strange storm looming on the horizon, dining chairs that suddenly perform incredible acrobatics, a spot on the wall that becomes the dog's new master and an adorable 5-year-old daughter befriended by eerie “TV people”, it looks as though things are about to deviate from the path marked mundane with alarming rapidity. Just how far away from normal the Freeling's way of life is going to be driven is the subject of Spielberg's scariest film besides Jaws. When a pesky poltergeist kidnaps little Carol Ann (Heather O ' Rourke) and the children's bedroom becomes a gateway to another dimension, who you gonna call ... oh, no, wait a minute ... that's another movie, isn't it?
Dealing with the paranormal in much the same, all-encompassing manner as he did aliens and UFO's in Close Encounters OF The Third Kind, Spielberg embraces the concept of hauntings, things that go bump in the night and the, perhaps, even wackier theories revolving around the afterlife. In his universe, spiritual belief systems are not short-changed, however - the Freelings, especially Steve and wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), are portrayed as liberal-minded, yet neither is above a little snigger or two at the thought of a medium who can converse with the dead - but only a hand as deft as his could combine such esoteric notions with pure breakneck thrills and chills. Religion is neither championed nor ridiculed and the clever thing is that, no matter how unhappy or even hostile this particular batch of lost souls may be, there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel, the film actually promoting faith in life after death. Only The Omen and The Exorcist before it pulled off the same trick of terrifying audiences yet endorsing the idea that if you've got the Devil and his minions, then you must have the good guys from Cloud Nine, as well. Therefore, even the non-believers out there (like me) have to, at least on some basic level, concede to the scripture as well the script to fully appreciate the story's development.
The Freelings' odyssey can actually be viewed in any number of ways. It could be a quaint American fable of hope and love conquering all. It could be a modern-day Wizard Of Oz allegory of how corruptive TV can be to fertile young minds. It could even be a metaphor for the American War On Terror - post 9/11, even the home-town suburban Edens of Everywhereville are subject to fear, distrust and paranoia and the idea of bringing in hi-tech surveillance gear and specialist teams only seems to reinforce the US ethic of high-visibility overkill in response to a situation that it is terrified could blow up in its face. Or - and this is the best one, folks - it is just a damn fine horror film that is determined to throw every trick in the book at you in order to leave you spellbound, moved and extremely entertained.
Whichever, Poltergeist succeeds.
Childhood terrors, anxieties over family safety, the threat of home invasion - all grist to the mill for a film that “knows what scares you.” The nick-knacks and paraphernalia of cosy family life becoming possessed and subverted around us is another phobic itch that Spielberg teases and prods. When marital or sibling tension rears its ugly head, you can normally count on the telly, a favourite toy or simply sitting at the kitchen table to ponder as being something of a sanctuary, but not in the Freeling household. Here, even a cold slab of meat can become something sinister and consumed with wicked intent. The plot revelations of Indian burial grounds and switched cemeteries - “You sonofabitch, you moved the headstones, but you left the bodies, didn't you?!!!” - is neat and kind of epic in feel, but how much better and more unsettling would it have been if there had been simply no explanation given? Like why little Regan was picked on by the Devil in The Exorcist, the sheer randomness of such a thing would be enough to keep audiences chilled for a hell of a lot longer than the eventual supernatural upheaval that closes the film and ends any hopes for a property boom in the area. Perhaps this is why Poltergeist is often referred to as a “My first Horror Film” type of deal, with everything getting neatly resolved at the end and peace and harmony, well, the semblance of peace and harmony at any rate, returned. Like the best rollercoasters, its terrors can be packed away once you've regained the use of your legs, but, in a way, this can also detract from the lingering sense of unease. Spielberg, in those days, liked to end on a happy note, though, didn't he?
“We have already made arrangements to relocating the cemetery.”
“Oh, you're kidding. Oh, come on. I mean that's sacrilege, isn't it?”
“Well, why not? I mean ... we've done it before.”
Craig T. (Mr. Incredible) Nelson is one of the most likeable actors in the cosmos and his erstwhile, fallible and mozzy-attracting suburban dad is the most unassumingly atypical of heroes you could ask for. Again, he is the Spielbergian archetype - the working-Joe everyman whose mission isn't to save the world ... just his family. And to watch the ball-game on TV, uninterrupted, with his mates. His protective capabilities aren't even all that reassuring, his rescue of Robbie from the tree hardly what you'd call skill-honed. But Nelson invests Steven with such believable charm that even his snappiest of moments, or his cynical response to the eccentric mystic Tangina's arrival on the scene come across as mild and still innately good-natured. Thus, when we see him in absolute extremis - hauling on that rope to limbo or venting his fury at James Karen's Mr. Teigue for mass gravestone-robbing - we can really sense that this is just a normal guy who has been taken passed his breaking point. Spielberg doesn't do macho men. Even Indy is credibly vulnerable as well as valiant, but Steven Freeling, alongside Roy Neary, is one of the filmmaker's most grounded and sympathetic characters. However, he is upstaged in every way by Texan-born JoBeth Williams who, despite being extremely attractive - even enough to arouse certain temptations in the spooks, themselves, once she lies back on the bed after recolouring her hair in the bath - is amazingly three-dimensional. With layers of her personality constantly being shed and new facets bubbling to the surface all the time, she, like all mothers, is the strength of the unit. But what makes Diane so memorable is not so much her expected determination to find her little girl and protect those dearest to her, but her lapsed bohemian attitudes that come sneaking back to claim her after the kids have gone to bed. Definitely a child of the sixties and the sexiest MILF in the neighbourhood, Diane is nevertheless steadfast in her conviction that nothing in this world or the next is going to stop her from saving her babies. Although I still find the situation and everyone's bizarre aversion to actually calling-in the police - which, to be honest, no matter what supernatural shenanigans have been going on, you would do if your child had vanished - slightly too convenient for the cause of the story, Williams is outstanding in her inter-voidal contacts with Carol Ann and little moments such as when she plucks up the courage to gingerly open the bedroom door just in case, only to have the malevolent force slam it shut again amidst a cyclone of existential fury, and she is swiftly reduced to sobbing an apology to it, become profoundly affecting. Even the scene when the spirit of Carol Ann actually moves through her, which could have been disastrously cheesy, is rendered magnificently uplifting just by her own authenticity in the role. We do feel for her. Plus, she looks great running around the house in just a T-shirt and panties during the go-for-broke finale.
“Carol Anne - listen to me. Do not go into the light. Stop where you are. Turn away from it. Don't even look at it.”
The kids are splendid too. Obviously little Heather O' Rourke, the object of the spirits' attentions all along, is the main focus of the film, and it is genuinely impressive just how much power she does actually wield over the mood and tone of the overall experience, despite being missing, or relocated, for a large part of it. Just the sound of her little voice filtering through the white-noise static of the TV plucks at the heartstrings. But it is, perhaps, that awful realisation that her “friends” from the other side have come back for again (“No more,” she pitifully implores) that garners the fiercest desperation from the audience. Oliver Robbins' gap-toothed, storm-counting, Star Wars-besotted Robbie is another well-observed bratling who stays just the right side of annoying. You get the idea that if it weren't for the somewhat more important issues taking place in the home, he would actually be proving quite a handful. His mutant-sap-covered visage when he first hears his sister's voice relayed through the tube is tremendously dumbstruck - in a film governed by wide, uncomprehending eyes, his actually go the extra mile. His battles with the mischievous clown-doll (by the way, who in their right mind would actually have such a hideous thing in the first place?) are the stuff of every child's nightmares - Spielberg once again reaching back into his formative years and the lingering impressions that they made. But there is a glee to such scenes as this and the tentacled terror that comes for the kids later on that, dare I say it, feel more like they sprang from the less discerning and more sadistic imagination of Tobe Hooper. Thus, despite the scale-tipping evidence that it was Spielberg who called the majority of the shots, there is still the shreds of the Chainsaw-man's influence during the movie's more gratuitous and evil moments.
“But hauntings don't usually revolve around living people.”
“Then we don't have much time, Dr. Lesh, because my daughter is alive somewhere inside this house.”
The Freeling counter-offensive is bolstered by the paranormal team of Dr. Lesh and her two assistants, Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (actually Steven Spielberg's real-life assistant Martin Cassella). But their proud claims to have witnessed and recorded objects travelling a few feet over a seven-hour duration aren't exactly going to impress a family whose entire house has become a spooks' playground. The now-classic scene when Steven opens the door to the focal point of the haunting and reveals virtually the entire contents of the bedroom whistling around like an infernal merry-go-round is exactly the sort of Spielberg playfulness we expect to see ... written large. But whilst the two lab-jockeys end up as happen-stance victims, or moreover bystanders at the threshold of the maelstrom, Beatrice Straight excels as Dr. Lesh. Everyone remembers Zelda Rubinstein's squeaky-voiced House Clearance, but it is Straight's awe-struck but crusading parapsychologist that really holds the film together with a thin but unbreakable conviction. Her calm demeanour - she is both a believer and a scientific sceptic, if there could be such a combination - is warm and reassuring. Even when she, herself, becomes unglued - a plastic, horse-riding Hulk doing a mid-air impersonation of the Lone Ranger and some trans-dimensional tennis-ball tossing seriously challenging her work ethic and modus operandi - there is much comfort to be had from her shaky-hand confession to being “absolutely petrified.” That little hip-flask and those massive eyes behind her glasses become sign-posts that we have definitely entered a new and far more dangerous Twilight Zone than the 1962 episode from that immortal TV show entitled Little Girl Lost and penned by Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, that partly inspired the film.
“Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don't give it any help, it knows too much already.”
But, as good as Straight is at becoming the stepping stone for us to perceive this hidden side of nature, as Diane puts it, one of the greatest and most spine-tingling monologues in horror movie history comes courtesy of diminutive, pixie-like psychic Tangina, played by the inimitable Zelda Rubenstein. Having been brought into the investigation by the team of exasperated and terrified boffins who, at their wits' end, have realised that their scientific equipment and insistence on rationalising the whole thing is about as effective a solution as tossing a pebble into the path of a tsunami, she moves through the house and makes a rapid and eerily spot-on, no-charge evaluation of the situation that the Freelings find themselves prisoners of. Taking Tangina's hand and cooing softly in that memorably creepy Southern drawl, she tells the family exactly what they are facing. With Goldsmith's score sweetly and painfully accompanying her descriptions of other dimensions and the souls trapped between them, a scene of hauntingly plausible possibilities plays out, highlighting the simple but irresistible draw that Carol-Anne's beautiful life-force has over these lost and lonely ones. It is almost a lullaby ... until Rubenstein's voice and Goldsmith's score take a sinister down-turn and Tangina is compelled to explain just how truly diabolical the little girl's predicament really is. “There is another presence in there with her,” she says, “it keeps her verrry close.” Immediately the blood begins to chill, the helplessness of the parents when informed of their little one's plight so horribly acute that it can't help but remind of us those suffering the counsel of police and social workers when their child has been abducted. Her profile of the presence is chillingly prescient of a paedophile internet stalker - “It lies to her. It tells her things that only a child could understand.” And then Rubenstein takes it to the next level altogether. “To Carol-Anne, it simply is another child. But to us ... it is the Beast.” Whatever fun we had been deriving from Spielberg's electric light and sound show evaporates, leaving a feeling of purely cold dread and the deliciously shivery tickle of the hairs rising on the back of your neck. Of course this is manipulative stuff, but, by God, it works. The marriage of theme, performance, music and outstanding camera-work (from action-specialist Matthew F. Leonetti) pays off with grand results, and the scene remains one of the genre's most electrifying.
But Spielberg still can't resist sending her up as well. When Diane quite correctly calls her bluff about having done this sort of extra-dimensional rescuing mission before, her pudgy face screws up and she is forced to admit, in the face of the Beast, that no, she has not. “You're right. You go,” she delightfully concedes as the pair stand poised on the border of oblivion. It is an expertly crafted moment that diffuses the tension just slightly, enough to provide that exquisite touch of character and humanity in the face of such apparent madness.
“Steven ... don't let go!”
Poltergeist also represents another geist - the genre Zeitgeist of pre-CG special effecsts cavalcade. With ILM providing virtual non-stop whirligigs - from stop-motion and latex grotesquerie to complex optical and matte shots - the film literally bombards us with visual invention. The evil tree that comes to life and perfects a vicious smash 'n' grab of poor, clown-phobic Robbie; the flesh-ripping hallucination that puts an end to the midnight munchies for paranormal investigator Marty; the Close Encounters-style light show that seems to suffuse the house every time something spooky occurs; the bedroom that becomes as crowded as a CG-tinkered Mos Eisley with toys literally filling the air as though Pixar had left their back door open; the spindly, pterodactyl-faced ogre that bars Diane from the kids and the gaping, vaginal tunnel that is hell-bent on sucking in a petrified brother and sister - the film just doesn't let up with its procession of memorable images. A feather in Spielberg's cap is that the movie embraces both ends of the otherworldly spectrum. We get the nasty all right, but there are also the moments of wondrous, open-mouthed observation, when even the cast are reduced to becoming mere onlookers, agog at the unexplainable magnificence of it all. The long line of ghostly lights moving down the stairs like a flight of co-ordinated fire-flies that the video playback then reveals to be a procession of souls that are tantalisingly bathed with just too much light for us to be able to study them in any detail, and the simple, but extremely effective white/blue fizzing phosphorescence that stands as the portal from our world to the next via an otherwise innocuous cupboard. So many occasions in Spielberg's filmic universe reduce people to dribbling-mouthed incredulity - Brody, Hooper and Quint when they first catch a glimpse of the Mighty White barrelling through the ocean, Roy Neary and just about everybody else at the end of Close Encounters, Indy when he turns a corner and faces a sea of wicker baskets (!), Drs. Grant and Sattler seeing their fossils in the flesh, as it were, in Jurassic Park and, of course, teary-eyed moppet Elliot as his turd-shaped friend from far away finally goes home in E.T. - but Poltergeist just has to be the ultimate stop-and-stare festival. His recurring motif of mankind standing helpless in the face of majesty both natural - the shark - and supernatural - everything seen here - is always tempered by the fact that he sees his characters managing to come to terms with such existential powers and, essentially, able to overcome them. In this respect, the filmmaker remains one of the most optimistic of his, or any, generation. It was inevitable that he would eventually rail against such stereotyping by unleashing the double-whammy of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List upon audiences, who didn't want to see such imagery yet couldn't tear their eyes away from it. But Spielberg will always be more renowned for his flights of fancy and Poltergeist, no matter how dark and troubling its themes of child abduction and ghostly manifestation, really is child's play when compared to the monstrousness that he showed us Man, himself, is capable of.
“There is no death. It is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness.”
1982 was, of course, the year that Spielberg's other fantasy blew everything else out of the water. E.T. came, saw and quite clearly conquered the Earth with the friendliest, cutest, most heart-warming alien invasion you could imagine. John Carpenter's The Thing fared miserably by comparison - the public wanted “oooohhhs” not “aaargghhhhs” - and Poltergeist, receiving a very unwarranted “X” certificate from the UK censors (and only evading an R in the US after much protests from Spielberg gained it a reluctant PG), missed out on its most lucrative market simply because of the critter with the glowing finger. The film still did well enough, though, and was treated with mostly good to great reviews. The problem that many critics had with the film at the time, and possibly still do even today, for that matter, is that the originally terrifying idea - in its early days of intimate manifestation and family-threatening phenomena - is the only authentic element to back up the title. But Spielberg being Spielberg, especially after proving how much he loved cinematic roller-coaster rides with Raiders Of The Lost Ark the year before, couldn't then contain himself or his plot from then leaping into all-out supernatural warfare during a final act of almost unprecedented set-piece chaos. Really, if we're honest, it does go too far ... but by this stage in the game, we are happy to accept any amount of rotting skeletal gang-bangs, demonic beasts ripping through the fabric of reality and houses simply folding in on themselves as if being origami'd by some massive invisible paws. It is riotous and over-the-top, but it is also sensational value for money and a wild cathartic release from the pent-up panoply of occultism that has been plaguing our conscience ever since little Carol Anne first starting talking with the TV people .
I've written so much in reviews about the late, great composing genius Jerry Goldsmith that I feel like I'm some sort of PR man for him, but I'm going to have to wax lyrical about him once again as his Oscar nominated work for Poltergeist is a wonderful and bravura shock-wave of orchestral intensity that is yet another in a long, long line of sheer classics. Perhaps deliberately taking his cue from Lalo Schifrin's unforgettable children's lullaby from that other, lesser haunted house extravaganza, The Amityville Horror, he begins what will be a pure tour de force of menace, action and the macabre with a simple, heartfelt choral motif of devoutly innocent “la-la's”, a tune so sweet and reassuring that its subsequent kidnapping by all the hellish cacophony that Goldsmith's orchestra can conjure seems somehow blasphemous. But Goldmsith mixes the copious mystery and terror with some truly spectral interludes of wonder, awe and even hints of the same religious vogue that he created for The Final Conflict. There are also respectful nods to his score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture with passages of ominous majesty and pulsating electronic effects, such as his patented Blaster Beam effects-cue.
As with so many other films that he provided the scores for, Poltergeist would be a much lesser achievement without his music.
Added poignancy is the heartbreaking knowledge that little Heather O' Rourke was die tragically before completing the second sequel, Poltergeist III, and even poor Dominique Dunne, who played the elder daughter, Dana, was to pass away at a cruelly young age just after the release of the first movie. Somehow, watching them in the film sparks a deeper sense of “otherness”, especially O' Rourke, whose performance is utterly entrancing and deeply moving. But Poltergeist is essentially a fun-house ride that rockets along, veering from one fright to the next, building up momentum despite several deceptive lulls and culminating in a ferocious and wholly satisfying crescendo that well and truly gives it an epic feel. It may be sentimental, but it actually has very little of that patented Spielbergian sugar-coated whimsy that typified much of his pre-War Of The Worlds fantasias. The immediate sequel, Poltergeist 2: The Other Side, as unnecessary as it was, is still very entertaining, courtesy mainly of the creepiest cold-calling preacher since the tattooed Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter and the spiritual presence of real Indian Chief Dan George, but really the story stops here.
An absolute classic, folks and one that proved that, after Duel and Jaws, Spielberg's dark side was still an extremely potent force to be reckoned with. He may have been directing E.T. at around the same time, but there was definitely some mischief still swaying him from fully entering the light.
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