Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Poltergeist

Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper.
Written by: Steven Spielberg & Michael Grais & Mark Victor.
Starring: Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Michael McManus (Ben Tuthill), Virginia Kiser (Mrs. Tuthill), Martin Casella (Marty), Richard Lawson (Ryan), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), James Karen (Mr. Teague).

There is a strange symmetry between Poltergeist and a movie that opened just one week after it in the summer of 1982 – E.T. Steven Spielberg directed E.T and he co-wrote and produced Poltergeist, and there have been rumors that Spielberg actually directed much of the film himself – not credited director Tobe Hooper. The two films were shot concurrently, on the same street, and when there were delays on E.T. – and there were a lot – Spielberg would spend time on the Poltergeist set. Neither he nor Hooper have ever commented on the rumors – but in a way they don’t need to. We know what a Spielberg film looks and feels like – and we know what a Tobe Hooper film looks and feels like, and Poltergeist certainly feels like a Spielberg film. Comparing the film to E.T. is interesting, because they kind of feel like opposite sides of the same coin – both the positive and negative sides of suburbia, even if ultimately both films end up in a fairly good place (which is one of the reasons you know you’re watching a Spielberg, not a Hooper, film).

Poltergeist takes place in seemingly perfect suburbia. Unlike the family in ET, which is breaking up, the family in Poltergeist is outwardly strong. The father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful real estate agent – selling home in the very development that he and his family lives. The family has three seemingly perfect kids – the teenage wisecracking teenage daughter (Dominique Dunne) and the adorable little girl, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) – and a son right in the middle. The most interesting character in the family is the mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams) – and when does that ever happen? At first, she seems like typical, movie suburban mother – like the ones that are often in Spielberg movies. But the movie gives her some subtle depth. She’s undeniably more sexual than most mothers in the movies, she still smokes pot (in a great scene, where she’s smoking pot, and her husband is reading a book on Ronald Reagan, bringing these children of the 1960s full circle). The Freeling family is seemingly a perfect, sitcom like nuclear family – other than these touches, that the movie subtly sprinkles through the movie. Like the fact that it is revealed that the teenage daughter is 16, and later than Diane is 32 (do the math), or the jokes that teenage daughter makes about sex (she is away with her boyfriend for much of the action, and remarks “Oh yeah, I remember that place” when she is told they will be staying at a local hotel – a remark that causes her mother to eye her dubiously, but chooses not to say anything). Still, the family has the appearance of perfection, even if they are in fact more flawed than that.

In E.T., the outside force that eventually visits the family – especially the kids – is one of good. He even helps to heal the children, before he heads back to space and reunites with his fa,ily. In Poltergeist, the outside force is one that quite literally tries to destroy the family. It all begins with little Carol Anne and a fuzzy TV screen, which she says she can hear people talking. Strange things begin to happen in the house – and eventually Carol Anne will go missing – sucked into whatever is haunting the house. This sets up what we think is the climax – where a strange woman, with psychic powers (the wonderful Zelda Rubinstein) helps the family fight off whatever is haunting them, and get their daughter back. But no, the movie isn’t over yet.

The weakest scenes in Poltergeist are the ones where they have to try and explain why everything is happening. Of course, it’s because of corporate greed and land developers taking short cuts, etc., which is all pretty standard stuff, and to be honest, all more than a little dull. It’s one of the flaws in these movies that they always feel the need to explain everything – which I never think is necessary, but whatever – I seem to be alone on that. The special effects sequences, which would have been revolutionary back in 1982 have, of course, aged – but that doesn’t mean they are no longer effective, at least for someone like me (my wife is the opposite – I have pretty much given up watching any old movie with her that has special effects, because she cannot get over how fake they look compared to the “new” special effects, which often look more fake to me. Different strokes, etc.).

But for me, as good as the special effects sequences, and as intense as the movie gets, it is the rest of the movie – the quieter scenes that I truly found most interesting. Perhaps it’s because I have never really been too scared by the supernatural movies like this, since I have a hard time believing in ghosts. However, I did find the movie endlessly fascinating for how it views suburbia, and the similarities and differences between it and Spielberg’s other movies.

Poltergeist ends with a joke – order has been restored, the family remains intact, etc. In the end, Spielberg offers the audiences a little bit of comfort after confronting them with the perils of suburbia and denial (because really, this is a family that lives in denial much of the time, not wanting to deal with their issues). Spielberg does this sometimes – comes right up to a point where he may say something daring, and then pulls back. Still though, Poltergeist works. It works as a horror movie, as intense entertainment. And it works as something a little bit more than that as well.

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