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The Nostalgic Attic: Poltergeist (1982)

30 August 2013

Poltergeist (1982)

"Mosquito ever suck on you, son?"

I really do feel sorry for Tobe Hooper. His breakthrough film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, set a benchmark in horror so high that it should have opened every door possible to him over the years that followed it. Eaten Alive just didn't connect with the audience in the same way Chain Saw did, despite going for a completely different tone and feel to it. His TV film, Salems Lot, put him back in public favour, but it wasn't until Steven Spielberg set the pieces in motion for him to direct Poltergeist that things really took off. With a string of big budget flops following quickly, it was back out into the wilderness for Hooper by the end of the 80's, and sadly he has never managed to 're-invent' himself for newer audiences in the same way that the likes of George Romero or Wes Craven have. 

Poltergeist sets the tone nicely in its opening credits with blond young poppet Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke; Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Poltergeist III), who has suddenly become prone to sleep walking, stands in front of a TV and begins to talk to the snow covered screen as her family sleeps. Her father, top real estate guy on-the-block Steve (Craig T. NelsonThe Osterman Weekend, All The Right Moves, Action Jackson)  and young mum Diane (JoBeth Williams; Stir Crazy, The Big Chill, Poltergeist II: The Other Side) don't think too much of it, but have concerns that she could possibly fall into the swimming pool they are digging. The following night, during a violent storm, the TV begins communicating with her again, and something ghostly passes from the screen into the bedroom wall, with Carol Anne proclaiming, "They're here!" as the whole house is rocked by a seemingly isolated earth quake.

It's not until a few days later when Diane notices the furniture re-arranging itself and Carol Anne sliding across the floor that they believe something much more is going on with their suburban home. At first the family think it's benign, but things quickly turn sinister that night when the creepy old tree that has been frightening young Robbie ( Oliver Robins; Airplane II: The Sequel, Don't Go To Sleep, Poltergeist II: The Other Side) seems to come alive and grab him through his bedroom window. During this attack, Carol Anne is sucked through her closet door and into the 'other side'. They figure out quickly that she has been snatched from them when she begins to talk to them through the TV set. Aided by the paranormal experts Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight; Endless Love, Network), Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson) they decide it is multiple ghosts, or 'poltergeists', that are causing the disturbances, and that the family are genuine in their claims. 

Dr Lesh decides they need the help of a medium, and calls in the very strange and very small Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein; Anguish, Teen Witch, Poltergeist II: The Other Side). She explains that the one keeping Carol Anne from returning is known as 'The Beast', and he is feeding off her light. Meanwhile, Steve discovers from his sleazy real estate boss that their house is built on top of an old graveyard; when they built the house they moved the graves but left the bodies. Tangina has a plan that might work, but the family need to act fast if they want to save Carol Anne from being lost in the Other Side for ever...

Poltergeist was a huge hit when it was released in summer of 1982, and over 30 years later it is still a massively popular film, and not just with genre fans either. It is well constructed, with the whole film feeling like a really great roller coaster. It has it's highs and lows, and finishes off nicely with a great climax. We get an atmospheric opening (The star spangled banner juxtaposed with the inherent creepiness of the TV static is great, setting up the unease behind the picket fences nicely) that sets us up for the paranormal extravaganza that soon follows. The ghostly events start small; forks become suddenly bent out of shape, the dog seems to be playing with an unseen person on the bed. Things soon escalate, though, and before you know it, giant demonic creatures are lurching out of doorways and corpses are popping up through the unfinished swimming pool.

It's this level of spectacle that really makes Poltergeist stand out within the supernatural sub genre.  When compared to the minimalism (effects wise) of the likes of The Innocents or The Haunting it probably crosses that line of how the power of suggestion can be scarier, but it is sure entertaining for what it does. It taps into that child-like mentality of what can be spooky; a doll that you like during the day is your biggest fear at night, monsters that could be potentially hiding under your bed or in your closet, etc. It grabs these notions and runs with them to the furthest point, until you literally have a scene with a kid being strangled by his clown toy whilst under his bed. It's Spielbergs way of ensuring the roller coaster has the appropriate jumps and shocks, something he had been fine tuning since Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And like those films, Poltergeist pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in a PG film. We get multiple scenes of children being terrorised by entities, a man peeling his own face off back to the skull, the implication that the ghosts want to rape the mother during the climax, and various other moments that would have parents these days hitting the fast forward button for their precious little kiddies. Spielberg certainly knew how to grease the wheels when it came to the MPAA.

The script, written by Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, does a fantastic job with setting up characters and location. The family have the typical 'all American' feel to them, with just enough new wave sensibilities and flaws to make them interesting. Parents smoking weed? Not often you see that in a mainstream film. These little character quirks and humour help us settle in quickly, and like many other great Spielberg films from that era, features kids that aren't completely annoying. During the quieter moments, the dialogue on the nature of death and the afterlife are kept interesting, and the film never really loses that sense of humour that it starts out with. The acting from the leads is solid, with both JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson putting in  great performances. Beatrice Straight is also good in her role as the paranormal researcher, and Zelda Rubinstein is her usual quirky self with some memorable lines. We get a nice cameo from genre favorite James Karen as the real estate guy, which is always nice. Dominique Dunne plays the eldest daughter, Dana, and gets some great lines throughout. Sadly, she was murdered by her boyfriend not long after completing the film.

Also worth mentioning is the fantastic and very memorable score by Jerry Goldsmith. He was nominated for an Academy Award for it, but lost out to the other big Spielberg hit, E.T. Oh well. The special effects also went away with awards, and deservedly so. Some haven't aged so well, such as the electrical hands that are animated traditionally coming from the TV, whilst others still look great. The moments such as the spirits coming down the stairs and 'the beast' rearing his ugly head through the closet still have that spooky impact. The film deserves praise for pulling off some great practical gags too, such as when all the furniture is re-arranged when the camera pans away for a moment. Timing and craft goes a long way.

It's pretty much a given that when discussing Poltergeist that the talk will turn to who directed this film. In case you weren't aware, there has been much debate since even before the film was released over who was calling the shots; Hooper or Spielberg? Spielberg had wanted to direct it, but he had already signed on to do E.T., and was legally obliged not to be working on another directorial project at the same time. He had written the script, and wanted to ensure he saw it through to completion in a way he was happy with, and went as executive producer. According to many reports on set, he was the one who approved camera set ups, answered queries from cast, and was the one who oversaw the editing and post production. It has been alleged that Hooper wasn't 'mentally well' during the shoot, and may have needed the guidance. Whatever way you look at it, the film feels very much like a Spielberg-directed effort, from how the kids perform right through to the camera work and lenses used. Either way, we as an audience still get a fantastic film, but you gotta wonder what goes on behind the scenes sometimes. Tobe walked away into what looked like a great contract with Cannon Films and produced some massive budgeted films such as Invaders From Mars and Lifeforce.

I saw parts of Poltergeist when I was very young (maybe 5 or 6) when my dad was watching it on TV one night. The one scene I vividly remember seeing and getting more than a little freaked out with was the moment when Marty comes down the stairs from the bedrooms with what looks like teeth marks in his side. It was enough to send me back to bed terrified. The fact that we didn't get to see what it was that did it was more than my little imagination could handle. The old MGM tape box (the one above) also bothered me quite a bit in my early years. Something about those hands reaching out to each other in the light and smoke sparked my imagination in ways that a picture of a monster never would. It's seldom you get to say it, but Poltergeist is a film that holds up just as well as the first time I saw it; it's perfectly crafted, got great special effects, has the right level of creepy for a PG film, and most importantly, it's terrific fun.

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At 5 October 2013 at 06:29 , Blogger Doug Roos said...

I love this movie. It's a classic. The behind the scenes stories are interesting although I remember the cast saying Hooper was the one really calling the shots but who knows. No matter what, it's an incredible film, and it has a great freaky clown too.

At 9 October 2013 at 08:16 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Agreed, though the research I did before writing this seems to indicate that Hooper was abusing substances, and in unfit state to direct. This comes from alleged crew members. But hey, who cares. It's still a great film. The clown still gives me the willies.

At 29 November 2013 at 01:20 , Blogger Wes Moynihan said...

A comprehensively brilliant review JP, really enjoyed it. Yeah, the debate on who directed Poltergeist will run on and on. I wish I had my copy of Joseph McBride’s Spielberg biography at hand to see what McBride has to say, but I think it’s generally accepted that Spielberg was extremely hands-on during the shoot. Personally, I see a lot of Tobe Hooper’s style in the film, those kinetic camera movements and that final crane shot, but I’ll accept that the film really is cut from the same cloth as Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. I love that scene where Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams share a joint – I love the intimacy of it, and one of my favorite memories of the film (and I don’t see it enough these days) is the scene where Beatrice Straight’s character explains to the son about unruly spirits – “They just…hang around, watch TV, watch their friends grow up, feeling unhappy and jealous…” - a wonderful bit of writing. Thanks for posting the pre-cert sleeve, it’s always been one of my favourites, and would seek it out every time I went to the videoshop, it’s a tremendous mysterious image and far better than the generic poster. I too have great memories of seeing the film on TV in the late 80’s, my Dad leaving me stay up late to watch it on BBC1, when staying up late when you were a kid seemed like a massive deal !

At 2 December 2013 at 06:14 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes. It's actually a really good script, and I'm kind of surprised Spielberg didn't pen more of his own productions (though as he says, it's hard enough wearing the director/producer hat, adding the writer one into the mix too is only asking for trouble). The sleeve was always one of my favorites, though I understand why the original poster design is so popular. The VHS cover definitely sparks the imagination, and certainly is more scary/disturbing than the poster.

Sounds like we had similar experiences with this films growing up!

At 29 May 2014 at 11:50 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

It's an excellent movie through and through. It's also the rare franchise starter completely let down by its sequels. The second one is watchable but that third movie REEKS.

At 29 May 2014 at 12:29 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yeah, and unlucky for me as I saw Part 3 first. I haven't seen it since I was a kid, but having Gary Sherman helming the flick is making me want to re-visit it. He is one of my favorite genre directors.


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