Friday, February 03, 2012

The Films of 1982: Poltergeist

 

"It knows what scares you."

- Poltergeist (1982)

The words quoted above are spoken by Poltergeist's resident psychic medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) near the climax of this harrowing film.  They reflect -- with near-perfection -- the nature of this horror classic from the great summer of 1982. 

Poltergeist is a film that knows not only what scares you, but how to scare you.  If E.T. (1982) represents the softer side of Steven Spielberg, and  suggests his trademark ability to make you see the world from a lonely child's perspective, then Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Spielberg accomplishes the same impressive feat...only with a darker, harder, more malicious  and mischievous edge.

Poltergeist deftly, ruthlessly. and perpetually frightens audiences by reminding them of those irrational (and yet somehow palpable...) things we feared so much as children: a noise from under the bed, a closet door cracked open, an approaching thunderstorm, or other bedroom, night-time terrors.  For me, the one that terrifies me no matter how many times I see the film is that damned clown...

What seems perhaps less apparent is that Poltergeist also terrifies from the perspective of a parent, something I did not fully account for and internalize, perhaps, until my screening of the film this week; the first time I had seen Poltergeist since Joel was born. 

Previously, I had always considered the film a kind of call-back to juvenile fears associated with going to sleep, of being conscious in the dark and alone in bed with only one's thoughts (and fears) for company.  Now, I also realize how cogently Poltergeist plays to the fears of adulthood: the irrational fear that a child could be injured by a terrain that, in daylight, seems perfectly safe. The danger of sleepwalking, for instance, near a backyard pool.  This brand of irrational fear plucks adult insecurities and anxieties that our parenting is not good enough, not careful enough to prevent cruel acts of fate.

There's absolutely no question that Poltergeist terrifies and thrills, even thirty years later.  For me, that's always the prime and primal test of the good horror film.  Does it get the blood pumping faster?  

Even as I answer that interrogative in the affirmative, however, I'm conscious that Poltergeist achieves a greatness beyond mere genre thrills because of the double social critiques it explores with such dedication and humor.  Specifically, Poltergeist lodges some well-placed shots at the ubiquity of television -- here a portal for spectral evil -- in American life. 

And, though I realize this will be a controversial statement, the film also knowingly questions the growing Yuppie mentality of the 1980s, an era of "greed is good" ushered in by the election of President Reagan in 1980.  Reagan's laissez-faire economic policies stressed the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of morality. Regulations designed to protect consumers were cut, and big business was allowed, virtually unencumbered, to test the outer limits of the public welfare and good.  In many ways, we are still paying for Reaganomics today.  It's the poltergeist that haunts our economy, even in 2012.

For me, this double-faceted, carefully embedded social commentary results in a great film. Poltergeist is no political diatribe, no partisan horror film trying to cheaply score points.  On the contrary, this movie is nimble and playful as it terrorizes us, and taps into the prevailing Zeitgeist of the increasingly affluent, but also increasingly unequal 1980s.  Here, spectral revenge "trickles down" upon a suburban family, the aptly-named "Freelings," who have profited,  unknowingly, from a corrupt system that disenfranchise the many but makes the few obscenely wealthy.

Writing for The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby expressed well Poltergeist's unique and entertaining equation. He called the film a "marvelously spooky ghost story" and one that was "also witty in a fashion that Alfred Hitchcock might appreciate." (June 4, 1982).  In Time Magazine, Richard Corliss categorized Poltergeist as a "sly comedy" supporting the "proposition that violence on TV...or precisely, in it, can have an influence on children who watch it." ("Steve's Summer Magic," June 1982, page 56)

Creative authorship of Poltergeist has been much debated.  Did Tobe Hooper direct the film, or did Steven Spielberg take the helm?  I've always leaned towards the belief that Hooper deserves the lion's share of the credit for Poltergeist, at least in terms of visualization and atmospheric tenor because the film shares two important trademarks with his other films, namely that the narrative does not, in any way, shape or form, restore order to the universe at the end (and such restoration is a trademark of Spielberg's film).

Secondly, specific images and compositions in Poltergeist, as also seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) highlight the notion that the world has grown disordered and unnatural, under a "malefic influence." Again, this is a virtual trademark of Hooper's canon.  Think of the upside armadillo in the highway or the corpse atop a gravestone in Chain Saw.  Those images find distinct and unique corollaries in Poltergeist.  A woman is attacked by a ghost and pushed...to the ceiling.  A family's pet bird is found dead on its back behind the bars of its cage, and so forth.

If one is so inclined, one can also gaze intently at the films of Spielberg and observe how he uses product placement and pop-culture imagery to craft a sincere commentary on how it feels to be a child in the 1970s or 1980s.  Consider how he deployed images of "good" monsters like the Hulk or Greedo in E.T. (1982) to sort of "pave the way" for an acceptance of E.T. in Elliott's life.  By contrast, Poltergeist rather firmly carries its tongue in its cheek in terms of how it views the pop culture.  The primary mode here is not treacly sincerity or sentimentality, but ruthless, cutting satire.

Watching Poltergeist, I'm reminded of Hooper's particular gifts as a filmmaker, as ably described by L.M. Kit Carson in the 1980s:

 "De Palma and...Romero had only recently corkscrewed fresh blood into the horror genre...but they were sophisto guys who'd kept the "it's-only-a-movie" deal with the audience.  Hooper was a new deal -- simply this; no deal.  Hooper was a scare-director who was methodically unsafe, who the audience (you) finally just couldn't trust...He'd go too far, then go farther...and go farther again, and kick it again...then get an extra kick, then it's over...then one more kick...No deal, friend."  (L.M. Kit Carson, Film Comment: "Saw Thru." July/August 1986, pages 9 - 12.)

Poltergeist is a perfect reflection of this particular Hooper aesthetic.  In terms of logic and narrative, the film should resolve almost immediately after Tangina triumphantly declares "This house is clean" and order is restored to the universe. 

Of course, that  doesn't happen. 

We get one more kick, then another kick, then another, until all sense of grounded logic and reality is gone, replaced by heart-pounding terror.  Where Spielberg ends his lyrical and emotional cinematic efforts in triumphant narrative resolution, Hooper's endings (in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) tend to be super real or surreal, over-the-top, and sometimes virtually independent -- or even contradictory-- to conventional narrative expectations, as I wrote in my book, Eaten Alive: The Films of Tobe Hooper (McFarland; 2002).  Tobe Hooper's bargain, as the passage above indicates, is no bargain.  That's why Hooper's films, despite some notable lows, also feel unfettered...fearless...dangerous.

But perhaps creative "authorship" is not the point about Poltergeist.  As I wrote above, the film knows exactly what scares and how to scare us too.  That ability is forged in the film's ability to understand us as a people, and who we were in the year 1982, a year of economic uncertainty and the dawn of a political movement that lasts to this day.

"You can't choose between life and death when we're dealing with what is in between..."

In the comfortable suburb of Cuesta Verde, the Freeling family becomes unnerved when young Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) begins to communicate with the television set. 

One night, after what seems like an earthquake inside the house, the child declares "They're Here," and refers enigmatically to "the TV People."

Not long after this event, a supernatural force punches a hole into the Freeling house and abducts Carol Anne, leaving her shell-shocked parents Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson) to seek help from a local parapsychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight).

An investigation of the house reveals "poltergeist" activity, and Dr. Lesh recruits a medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to "clean" the house and recover Carol Anne.  Ultimately, Diane must travel into another plane of existence (described as a "membrane" around our world) to get back Carol Anne from a terrifying spirit Tangina terms"The Beast."

Diane is successful on her dangerous odyssey, and Tangina declares the Freeling house "clean," but the nightmare is not over.  A terrible secret from Steve's boss, Mr.Teague (James Karen) about the real estate of Cuesta Verde puts a whole new spin on the Freeling haunting, and the spirits from the other world make one last, devastating attempt to reach our reality... 

"It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand. It's been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us, it is The Beast."

In the passage immediately above this sentence, Tangina describes the nature of "the Beast" that has taken away Carol Anne Freeling. 

If you re-read the passage, however, one might -- with a little bit of imagination -- apply the description not to a supernatural monster or spirit, but to the influence of television in American culture.  

 In many instances, television does appear to lie (r at least paint an inaccurate picture), and in many instances, advertisers direct their efforts to "fascinate" directly at children, who are psychologically unequipped to understand how they are being manipulated to believe certain things, or purchase certain products. 

Is TV "the beast?"  From a certain perspective, yes.

Poltergeist positions the television (and television transmissions) as a portal through which "evil" enters the American home.  It does so, importantly, as a wolf in sheep's clothing.  The images that open the film are of familiar American monuments and national landmarks.  The song that introduces the film is the National Anthem.  But the images are pixelated and indistinct, symbolizing the notion that something is rotten in the state of Denmark; that something has gone wrong in this purported paradise. What message is the television sending out to people?

Throughout the film, the television is made a figure for horror, ridicule and social commentary.  At one point, Carol Anne is watching a blank, static-filled screen, close-up, in the Freeling kitchen, and her mother tells her that the television will hurt her eyes.  Mom then switches the channel to a violent war film, with infantrymen firing machine guns and soldiers dying on the battlefield. 

This is better for Carol Anne's eyes? 

The implication of this moment is that TV is not a "safe" place for kids, whether or not it is a portal for spirits.  It's an insidious influence upon American culture and American youth.

This idea is reinforced in the dialogue of the film, which establishes that the Freeling haunting may end up featured not on 60 Minutes, but the cheesy (if popular...) "That's Incredible," a bizarre reality/magazine show of the era.  In other words, the suffering of an American family is fodder for the entertainment of the masses, but not a story to be taken seriously on a news program.  Another sequence reveals Steve and his neighbor locked in a war of TV remote controls, each attempting to establish "domination" over the airwaves, of the material that is being beamed into their homes.  Football or Mr. Rogers?

The final shot of the film, of course, represents the Freelings' total rejection of television and its influence in their lives. 

After leaving their haunted home, the Freelings go to a hotel, and push the hotel room's television set out on a ledge.  The last shot of Poltergeist is a long, slow withdraw or pull-back from that dark set, a shot which suggests, literally, that the American family must back away from this "beast" of television, lest it suffer the same kind of agony as the Freelings experienced.

I should note, especially because I'm fixin' to criticize President Reagan and his economic policies, that Poltergeist's commentary on television is, of course, a common conservative one.   Briefly state, it goes: television is too violent, too out-of-touch with our values, and actually a danger to many of those who watch it.  I don't know about you, but I've actually heard the TV media referred to as "The Beast" by some right-wing elements (and also jokingly on the Fox sitcom "King of the Hill.")

Given the connection between the evil of "the other side" and television, it is no accident in Poltergeist that the television's strobing white light is almost constantly reflected upon the faces of the film's principal characters, and that the self-same, strobing blue/white coloring and lighting scheme is used to render the closet "portal" to the supernatural realm. 

The static blue of the television and the spectral blue of the TV set represent, literally, two heads of the same monster,  the self same thing: portals to places that can steal your children away from your influence.  Both venues can overtake your life and both can be evil if allowed to run rampant.

The argument here is certainly debatable, at least.  TV signals are beamed into our hearths and our homes, and we don't have control over the content of those signals.  And since television is frequently utilized as a "babysitter" for children in an age where two parents work full-time at careers outside the home, we must wonder: what is the impact of this "beast" on our impressionable young? Poltergeist plays wickedly with this notion without ever seeming too serious, and ends with the visually-established notion that the best thing to do is kick the boob tube to the curb, literally.  I love it when a filmmaker uses form to mirror content, and that occurs again and again in Poltergeist.  Over and over, the TV is made a symbol of evil's entrance into suburbia.

"You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!"

If you're a fierce  proponent of the Saint Ronnie legend in the GOP that cherishes Ronald Reagan as a veritable God among men and new founding father of American values, you may want to skip the next portion of this review.  

Still here?

All right.  When Reagan was elected in an absolute electoral landslide in 1980, he enacted a laissez-faire approach to the American economy.  Laissez-faire means, literally, "let it be."  One of the four cornerstones of Reaganomics was a reduction of government regulation so private parties were free to enact economic transactions without significant interference or oversight.  Reagan espoused with fervor the notion that government regulation stifles market competition.   In accordance with his values,  he streamlined and eliminated many regulations in the energy, transportation, and most importantly, banking sectors. 

The thing about letting the market decide, of course, is that the market doesn't boast human morality.  It can select economic winners and losers based on supply and demand, but it can't make a determination if the winners utilized ethical means to achieve domination.  Some people argue that the government has no right to interfere in economics, but of course, the free market revolves around the bottom line, and corporate pursuit of the bottom line is often downright unethical.  We'vee have seen this truth played out again and again vis-a-vis Enron, Worldcom, Countrywide, and so on.  Businesses simply cannot be trusted to police themselves in terms of moral and ethical  behavior. 

I don't know why this fact comes as a surprise to people.  As a nation, we boast law enforcement officials and a judiciary (also arms of the government), because, quite simply, we believe the citizenry can't police/regulate itself on an individual basis.  Contrarily, it needs policemen to back up our collective sense of moral and ethical rectitude.  Likewise, some regulations are absolutely necessary to keep businesses honest.  After all, corporations are (made up of) people, my friends, to quote somebody often in the news these days.  And people don't always pursue "right" when they are pursuing profit.  And please don't quote me any fantasyland Ron Paulisms about how the market will punish wrong-doers.  Tell that to the executives at many banks who, despite unethical procedures, kept their million dollar bonuses while investors lost pensions and life savings. 

Now, truth be told, you can't really blame Ronald Reagan alone for all the banking de-regulation that nearly brought this nation to economic ruin four years ago.  Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton share a measure of responsibility.  But Ronald Reagan was the herald and spokesperson for the movement, and is often remembered explicitly for the so-called "anti-regulation" Presidency.  Today, Republican candidates hold him up as an example of what they wish to do in terms of cutting so-called "job killing" regulations.

It is that image of Reagan as anti-regulator, as laissez-faire advocate -- that ghost, if you will -- that Poltergeist plays upon.  Early in the film, for instance, Steve Freeling is seen reading a biography of, you guessed it, Ronald Reagan, titled  Reagan: The Man, The Presidency.  You get the feeling Steve is reading the book because he holds up Reagan (and his pillars of economics) as a role model.

Indeed, when we see Steve attempting to sell a new home near Cuesta Verde to prospective buyers, he slips (unconsciously, we presume)  into slick spin, business-speak and Gordon Gekko-ism.  "The grass grows greener on every side," he ridiculously suggests, attempting to sell the real-estate as if there is no downside to it. 

And, of course, as the film reveals, there is a downside to it.  The market has "permitted" Mr. Teague to cut corners.  In building the homes of Cuesta Verde, he moved a cemetery.  But it was too expensive to move the actual corpses under the ground.  So he only moved the headstones, but told no one.  And boy did the profits go through the roof!  The market chose a winner here, right?

Our protagonist Steve is an upwardly mobile but essentially decent guy, a family man.  But he is also responsible, we're told, for 42 percent of sales of new homes in Cuesta Verde.  He is thus complicit in Teague's crime, sacrilegiously building new homes over the discarded bodies of the dead.  Again, in the free market, means don't really matter; the ends do.  But the spiritual infestation of Steve's house reveals that reality doesn't necessarily work according to the whims of the free market and the devotion to black ink and the bottom line  There is, literally, a spiritual price for unethical, immoral behavior.  Steve's house is foreclosed upon, spectrally speaking.  The original owners want their land back.

So what Poltergeist actually implie is that we are all accountable when we benefit from a corrupt system.  The Freelings go through hell because they profited from an unseemly business practice at Steve's firm.  Given this, Steve's choice of heroes, Reagan, is certainly a crux of the movie.  If you think I'm reading too much into the film, or stoking some partisan hatred of Reagan, ask yourself why the book appears in the film at all  Why not a Kennedy or Eisenhower bio?  Choices such as Reagan: The Man, The  Presidency are not accidents, and contribute to a full understanding of the film's themes. 

Consider also the name "Freeling" seems to pivot off this idea of laissez-faire run amok, the notion that the family may think that's its middle-class that success is "free."..but it isn't.  There are consequences one when cuts corners, when free enterprise is allowed to run amok, unrestricted.  Here, those disenfranchised by illicit real estate deals "punch a hole" into the Freelings' house, making their voices and concerns heard most memorably.  Occupy Cuesta Verde?


We were wondering if you had experienced any... disturbances?

One of the most intriguing facets of Poltergeist remains that, in terms of visualization -- much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- this film is obsessed with the idea of order overturned.  Here, the overturning is in suburbia, not rural Texas, but the idea is the same.
For instance, the suburban trees of Cuesta Verde are lifeless, leafless things that look sad and out-of-place because real estate development has gone wild. 

Then, Carol Anne's little bird, Tweety, dies unexpectedly, and later, we see the bird's grave overturned in the dirt when a construction  bull-dozer sweeps through the Freeling's yard.  Another shot shows us the shadow of the bird's corpse being lowered into a toiled, a small metaphor for the fim's central thesis about respecting the dead.  In short order, we also see overturned bicycles on the street and thunder-clouds roiling over suburbia.

The overall impression here is of a storm coming.  That this previously wholesome realm of surbubia has been overturned by something dark and dangerous.  Depending on how you interpret the film, that "something" is either vengeful spirits (who have been wronged), or bad business malpractices which have literally upset the balance of the supernatural world.

Finally, Hooper courageously ends Poltergeist with matters disordered.  Teague's business practices haven't changed, and so there is no restoration of order in the film. 

Rather, the Freelings end up fleeing their home, never to return, as neighbors watch in horror at the madness unfolding upon their property.  Mr. Teague is left screaming "lies! lies!" like a cowardly ninny, though the nature of his trespass is now plain.  He cut corners and now the dead themselves are rising up against his immorality.

Interestingly, one shot in Poltergeist seems to get to the heart of this disorder in paradise.  We see Steve and Mr. Teague walking together on a pastoral hill.  In front of them is a long, white picket fence...universally the symbol of Americana and small towns.  Then, Hooper changes perspectives, and suddenly we see tombstones blotting out the white picket fence. 

After another perspective change, we see the full picture: the white picket fence is dilapidated and in need of repair, and it borders a vast graveyard.  Read that image symbolically, and combine it with the "fuzzy" images of national monuments in the film's opening scene, and you begin to detect the breadth of Poltergeist's social commentary.  The film reveals that something has gone awry in Reagan's America.  Priorities -- morality itself -- has been misplaced for yuppie-ism.

Sometimes, people write me and tell me to leave the interpreting/analysis out of my reviews, and just reveal whether or not a movie entertains.  For me, of course, "entertainment" is the beginning of a discussion on film theory, never the final destination.   It's plain that Poltergeist is entertaining.  You certainly don't need me to tell you that.  The film features heart-felt performances, astonishing visual effects, a great score from Jerry Goldsmith, and a wicked sense of humor. 

But beyond the film's entertainment value, the film conforms to the best tradition of the horror genre.  Poltergeist asks us to look in the mirror at ourselves, and ask questions about the role of television in society, or the wisdom of letting the "free market" determine morality.  These values, coupled with Hooper's devotion to the meaningful and trenchant use of film grammar, render Poltergeist immortal...classic.

This 1982 film makes us ask, at last: when we see "the light" do we acknowledge it, or "stop where we are?"  Do we "turn away from it" and "not even look at it," or do we confront the things that make us uncomfortable about ourselves and our very human nature? 

Despite its various and sundry New Age touches, Poltergeist is very much a Christian film.  It asserts that our behavior here will have repercussions in the afterlife.  That message sometimes get lost in a decade when "upwardly mobile" doesn't meaning saving your soul, but enriching your bank account.

18 comments:

  1. My parents mistakenly let me see this movie when I was 5. It was an honest mistake and they were truly responsible people otherwise.

    The scares were visceral enough to leave impressions on me these thirty years later. I don't have an aversion to clowns, as other do. Although that scene scared the bejeezus out of me. Toby Hooper will do a number on you...especially if you're a grade-schooler. I remember seeing Chainsaw Massacre on network tv right around dusk and was terrified.

    In the 80s, I slept with the covers over my head most nights.

    Incidentally, the only other director who had this affect on me was one film by David Lynch - The Elephant Man. I feel like I need to be in a group therapy session over that one. Again, network tv broadcast to thank for that one. Ironically, Lynch is one of my favorite directors of all-time. I love almost everything else but TEM. That was too much.

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  2. "Secondly, specific images and compositions in Poltergeist, as also seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) highlight the notion that the world has grown disordered and unnatural, under a "malefic influence." Again, this is a virtual trademark of Hooper's canon."

    This is so true. The last time I watched Poltergeist I noticed that the living room after the activity starts- begins to turn very cave-like. It seems to get smaller and smaller and darker and darker.
    The late night scene where Diane and Dr Lesh connect over a flask (canteen) they may as well be in front of a fire inside a cavern.

    I always notice this "underground" cave like quality in Hooper's work. Things get primitive. It doesn't feel anything like Speilberg to me in those moments.

    I always want to write about this movie but it's just so BIG I don't know where to start. Now I feel I don't have to. You've said it all superbly here. Incredible post on an incredible movie!-Unk

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  3. Hi Phil K and Unk L.

    Phil: You're right that Poltergeist is/would be very disturbing for children. The film is downright terrifying. I can't believe it's actually rated PG, and not R. This is a movie that always scares me!

    Unk: I love your observation about the living room in the Freeling house growing progressively darker and darker, becoming the modern equivalent of a cave, the lights the analogy for a campfire. That's brilliant interpretation, and I intend to steal that bit of analysis next time I review Poltergeist! Just kidding. I'l credit you before I steal it. :)

    But I think you're absolutely right, and also absolutely right that the film feels far more of a piece with Hooper's canon than Spielberg's. I think many critics and audiences don't see this because they are blinded by the obvious: the film features children and takes place in the suburbs...clear corollaries with E.T.

    But if one digs just a little deeper, you see that Poltergeist boasts a radicaly different sensibility than other Spielberg films (just as Gremlins, by Joe Dante, also does...).

    I always say that Tobe Hooper had the misfortune to be the first big "name" director to work on a Steven Spielberg production, and worse, see his movie come out the summer of E.T. Nobody asks if Dante directed Gremlins, or if Donner directed Goonies, or if Johnston directed JPIII. But Hooper has certainly had to put up with a lot of unnecessary speculation vis-a-vis Poltergeist. It's very unfair, especially since the film really does boast so many Hooper trademarks...

    Thank you both for excellent comments that add to the discussion of this week's film from 1982, Poltergeist!

    best,
    John

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  4. Anonymous1:02 PM

    In 1989, while in Los Angeles with friends, one of them had us follow along as she sought out and we found Marilyn Monroe's wall crypt grave. Both sad and creepy, the real sobering moment was accidentally finding nearby young Heather O'Rourke's wall crypt grave in the same cemetery. She had just died the year before in 1988 at the tragically too young age of 12. That is what I always think of when I see this film.

    SGB

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  5. Excellent cult review, John. You certainly captured its context and time. The socio-economic, too. I remember standing in line for this and the energy of the audience before, during, and after was tangible. I think you can see the Spielberg influence in this, but it's ultimately a Tobe Hopper film (especially if you watch it more than once).

    Some of the younger film bloggers I read have mentioned this work as part of their recent retrospectives. Unfortunately, some look and grade this purely as a fright-fest (a few ranking it lower because it doesn't have enough jump scares like recent fare for their scale). This is why I really appreciate your look at things. The depth you achieve in your reviews is what separates you from the pack, my friend.

    Well done. Thanks.

    @ SGB: the place you visited in L.A. is the Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood Village (right next to the Avco Center Cinema theaters). It's the final resting place for a number celebrities in a number of the arts. From the two you mention to others who died before their time like Natalie Wood and Dorothy Stratten. George C. Scott is buried there, in an unmarked grave. Music personalities, too. Minnie Riperton, Dean Martin, Roy Orbison, Janice Joplin, and Frank Zappa (also unmarked). For this, that graveyard is probably one of our more bizarre tourist spots in the city.

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  6. Part I

    I don’t want to burn any bridges here but ...I have something of a Randian, Libertarian streak in me. Sorry, John. We can’t all be perfect.

    Now, do I plainly disagree with your opinion of Laissez-faire economics and the need to police free enterprise? Eh, yes and no. But that particular issue isn’t important at this junction. Better yet, I often value art – cinema – precisely when taking critical jabs at ideals to which I hold true, especially when it’s done so playfully and mischievously. Not sure if that makes any sense. I guess what I mean is that it’s always healthy to entertain opposing perspectives, but further rewarding to be entertained by said perspectives as well. This film’s multi-layered commentary continuously hits its target with such delightful fashion. A payload of one-two punching subtext, Poltergeist is one of the cleverest horror movies ever made, and your analysis of its inner workings is spot-on.

    By deconstructing – or through reverse-engineering – the upper middle class suburbia-cosm, there is indeed a constant ribbing of America’s then economical high-roller pursuit that trickles down through the film into every nook and cranny until even bits of seemingly throw-away dialogue warrants a moment’s pause: “You know what happens when you over-feed goldfish? They grow up to be sssharks!” In perfect tandem so too continues Spielberg’s examination of the Baby Boom generation.

    Context and subtext mesh perfectly during the scene in Mr. and Mrs. Freeling’s bedroom, the very one featuring the Reagan biography, as the couple exhibit a pot smoking hippie lifestyle micronized within the model of wholesome Capitalism – youth of the late 60s counter-culture who grew up, gave in, got jobs and nested a consumer family in idyllic 80s suburban bliss. Later, after Diane’s first direct experience with a paranormalized dining room, she prepares her husband by telling him to “reach back to your past, when you used to have an open mind,” summoning the free-spirit mentality of their young adult years as a means to deal with the actual spirit infestation of their house. At almost every turn Poltergeist constructs a work of pop-art through setting, characterization and visualization.

    The film has been criticized by some as being a blockbuster (and therefore poor) excuse for a horror film – for just being noisy and effects-driven instead of evoking subtler moods and atmospheres, and creating “genuine” scares through quiet moments of tension. At least at face value, I tend to view Poltergeist as a family adventure into the supernatural, but one fittingly pushed to horror movie edges. It works in part because it’s a ride, because it’s designed as a theme park attraction of ghost and ghouls.

    Also, I love special effects. I love the optical processed light show that drives this haunted house story above and beyond the usual heard-but-unseen spook fest. Yes, sometimes less is more, but there are other times when audiences should be thrown headfirst into the fantastic. And while such blockbuster antics often result in a hollow, superficial experience, it’s the sincerity of the characters that keeps Poltergeist anchored while devilish humor and clever commentary keeps it nimble.

    Actress JoBeth Williams deserves special mention. Hers is an exhausting performance that could have easily buckled under the sheer volume of its emotional extremes, yet she runs the gauntlet without losing a single measure of authenticity. When Carol Anne’s soul briefly passes through her mother, Williams sells it perfectly. You absolutely believe the emotional realism of what could have been a silly moment, given the outlandish circumstances.

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  7. Part II

    Now...concerning the ongoing debate as to whether Poltergeist belongs to Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg, I for one remain split down the middle. Perhaps in part because Hooper has since become an underappreciated director of his time, in recent years have I noticed a bit of a backlash to the idea that Poltergeist was a Spielberg meta-helmed film. I understand the sentiment, but also think it a bit naïve for any cinephile to not recognize Spielberg’s creative hands all over this project. Yes, there’s the obvious: the ordinary converging with the extraordinary, the aforementioned suburban family motif, the everyday family dynamics, the kids’ bedroom littered with popular movie merchandise (C-3P0 light switch!) ...but there’s also evidence down to the film’s minutia.

    Consider how Steven Freeling’s real-estate boss, Mr. Teague, is a clear crossover from Amity Island’s Mayor Vaughan (actors James Karen and Murray Hamilton are even similar in look and appearance) as both men cut corners for economic boom while others pay the price. Again during the scene with Steve and Diane hanging out in they're bedroom, the movie their watching on TV is the 1944 A Guy Named Joe, a favorite of Spielberg’s that he himself later remade as Always. The scene you spoke of where Diane notices Carroll Anne watching static on the kitchen counter TV and then flips to an old war movie, the movie in question is the 1951 Go For Broke, which, at that very moment, features a solder dying with the infamous Wilhelm scream that’s been team Lucasberg’s running in-joke throughout their careers.

    Diane’s hysterical fit amidst a muddy swimming pool of floating corpses goes hand-in-hand with Marion in the Well of Souls as she likewise loses her shit when bombarded by the dead. In fact, Raiders of the Lost Ark shares much of the same with Poltergeist, as both films go all out with phantasmagorical finales; Raiders being proof positive that Spielberg, too, can go berserk -- all bets off -- before closing on a note of uncertainty.

    The actual, technical direction of Poltergeist, to me, remains as inconclusive as ever. Hooper was given official credit but there are scenes in the film that, if not directed firsthand by Spielberg, were none-the-less taken wholesale from his playbook of visual storytelling. Take for example the scene where the four characters -- Steve, Diane, Tangina, Dr. Lesh and her assistant Ryan (“Kiss my ass! Numba two!!”) huddle up in the upstairs hallway outside the kids’ bedroom door in attempt to communicate with Carroll Anne. The entire 2 minute plus scene is done in a single take, using a deep focus lens, with the camera slightly panning up or down as certain characters step into center frame, before finally pushing in on the door knob as it‘s about to be opened. That style of staging and blocking is Spielberg through-n-through.

    It was also Spielberg who co-edited the film with longtime partner-in-crime Michael Khan and their signature kinetic shot-flow rings loud and clear during the climactic moment that begins with the giant Beast skull emerging from the white light and ends with mother and daughter as one, crashing through the inter-dimensional membrane and bouncing off the living room floor. Spielberg is everywhere in this movie. But, then again, so is Hooper.

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  8. Part III

    As much E.T. and Raiders I see in Poltergeist, I also see Lifeforce*. I see Hooper’s passion for the grotesque -- cue gawky assistant Marty tearing off his own face, a boy eating tree or the weird intestinal portal in Carroll Anne’s closet that wraps its tentacles around small children. And I agree that the gravity inverted sequence that has Diane scrambling up the ceiling is distinctly Hooper’s in its manic punishment of a female lead protagonist.

    In his book ‘Directed By Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster’, author and critic Warren Buckland addresses sections of Poltergeist then follows through with a shot-by-shot statistical breakdown, using E.T., Jurassic Park, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot as stylistic points of reference. Though Buckland’s analysis, by his own admission, is largely incomplete, he still concludes that the film’s directorial authorship leans slightly closer to Hooper.

    In addition to the story/co-written script and detailed characterization, I would argue that Spielberg, at the very least, storyboarded much of the film as well, leaving Hooper to his own devices when executing principle photography but also giving him free conceptual reign when designing and articulating the film’s imagery of horror mayhem. Of course, the most logical conclusion is that ideas and aspirations from both filmmakers simply overlapped and further merged into a single, unified creative vision. And all the better for it. Poltergeist feels not like a conflict of filmmaking talent, but a communion.

    One of my favorite aspects of the film is its form shattering resolution that you nicely expound upon in your review; indeed, the order of the universe left un-restored. Sure, it breaks all credibility: the notion that the Freelings would spend another night there, with the husband working late, the wife relaxing in a bath and the kids left alone in the very room invaded by a monster the night before, is utterly ridiculous. Any real life family would have hightailed it outta there immediately after rescuing their daughter from the nether-realm. Yet credibility is broken for a higher purpose altogether, for a far nobler artistic cause.

    Because Poltergeist has two storylines, the first of which follows the family as they're torn apart and then resolves triumphantly as they're reunited stronger than ever. But the movie refuses to let us off that easy. There's a thematic through-line to be accounted for -- the house deserves its own denouement as well. And in the process I love how the movie becomes sentient, turns on its audience in full wrath and then figuratively eats itself, bringing down the curtain in absurd but equally lyrical grandeur, with the poor Freelings barely escaping with their lives; nothing is said or even felt upon entering their motel room. There's nothing left to feel. The madness segues to numbness. Only the banished TV set on rollers bookends and epitomizes the film in visual form.

    In my opinion, Poltergeist out-smarts and out-performs Close Encounters and E.T. on almost every level. For Hooper, it remains his best film...

    * = Lifeforce coming in at a close 2nd. Seriously, I love that movie.

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  9. Cannon,

    You don't have to worry about burning any bridges with me, my friend.

    We don't have to agree on political leanings/philosophies to discuss movies or TV shows.

    And I, like you, enjoy films that challenge my own perception or philosophy of those things. One such effort is Zardoz -- a sci-fi film I absolutely love -- and which makes a well-placed conservative argument against sort of liberal utopian family planning. I see the film's point, And I admire the film for making it so well.

    I learn when I engage with other viewpoints too. As far as Ayn Rand goes, I can take that philosophy so far and no further: there's an aspect of "enlightened self-interest" that I think works in terms of human nature, and which underlines Star Trek, for instance. Ayn Rand was a fan.

    By the same notion, I think that if an objectivist society is a goal, then we all must begin life at roughly an equivalent starting line. Which could be done, actually. (What I'm saying is, I hate the hypocrisy of people that says affirmative action candidates for college are wrong philosophically, but the same people champion legacy candidates, because they come from rich families). If we have an objectivist society as a goal, then we must get rid of contradictions and hypocrisies like that.

    It's kind of weird how liberal, conservative and libertarian philosophies are all intertwined together in so many ways, and how it's impossible to say we are simply one or the other. For instance, I admire the libertarian stance on gay marriage. I think government should get out of the way, and out of the marriage business all together. I'm also conservative about money. I don't spend what I don't have. But I guess you'd say I'm liberal in the belief that big business just can't police itself effectively. We've seen the negative effects of deregulation too many times.

    Also, and more importantly, I hope you don't believe that I think I'm perfect. I don't. I have plenty of flaws. Plenty. Ask my wife.

    I think you were just joking, but I hope I didn't somehow give the impression here that I AM RIGHT IN EVERYTHING, FOR THE AGES, IN ALL THINGS. I don't believe that. Like all of us, I remain a work in progress.

    So that takes care of the inter-relational part of your comment.

    On Poltergeist: I agree 100 percent. You wrote: "one of the cleverest horror movies ever made." Yes. We agree. It's in my top ten of all horror movies, without a doubt. So brilliantly constructed and executed, for the reasons you say. I like your description of it as "reverse engineering" the middle class of the 1980s.

    I also agree with you about JoBeth Williams. Her character goes through a lot (and I mean A LOT) in the film, and yet Diane comes across as a believable, fully-dimensional human being. In many ways, Williams' sincerity anchors the picture.

    Great comment!

    best,
    John

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  10. Le0pard13:

    Excellent comment, sir. You wrote: "Some of the younger film bloggers I read have mentioned this work as part of their recent retrospectives. Unfortunately, some look and grade this purely as a fright-fest (a few ranking it lower because it doesn't have enough jump scares like recent fare for their scale)."

    Man, that's a depressing thing, isn't it? Poltergeist is scary for a lot of reasons. From the playing on childhood and parental fears, to the mounting suspense as Tangina comes in, to the jolt when that "Beast" comes through the portal at Steven, I'd say the film is pretty unimpeachable in terms of scares.

    This reminds me a little bit of the time I screened aliens for my 18 year old nephew, and he was disappointed. It didn't scare him at all. When I read stories like this, it makes me question my assumptions of "universal" appeal for some of these films. Perhaps even Poltergeist and Aliens are subject to the ravages of dating/aging. I don't know.

    I still love the film, and think it is a top notch thriller.

    I agree with you, and with Cannon (in part 2 of his comments), that Spielberg is also "present" in Poltergeist. I don't think he was an absent or unimportant figure, only that in terms of the overall vibe the film more closely resembles Hooper's output.

    And Cannon -- my god, I also love Lifeforce (1985). (Although I'd have to place behind Chainsaw and Poltergeist in his canon...). I'm going to have to review that film 0-- Lifeforce -- here, soon....

    best to you both,
    John

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  11. “Also, and more importantly, I hope you don't believe that I think I'm perfect. I don't. I have plenty of flaws. Plenty. Ask my wife.”

    I don’t think that you think that you’re perfect. I hope you don’t think that I think that you think you’re perfect. I don’t think that, and I don’t think that you think it either. However, I had almost made it the whole week without the image of Sean Connery in a red diaper running through my mind. Almost. So, thanks a lot for that.

    Yeah, Lifeforce. Definitely write something up for that one. Also, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on last year’s the The Thing prequel.

    Oh, and I never joke. Never.

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  12. Cannon:

    All right, jokester...

    Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz, Zardoz...

    The Thing (2011) comes up this Tuesday for review! I need to see Lifeforce again, it's been a while (and to get Sean Connery out of your mind, just imagine Mathilda May in Lifeforce...).
    All my best,
    John

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  13. Poltergeist scared the shit out of me as a kid. But now as an adult, it just doesn't do it for me anymore.

    My problem with Poltergeist is that it's an incredibly positive, optimistic, safe horror film. Not only does nobody die in the film, but the film confirms there’s an afterlife. You survive death. There’s that so very Spielbergian scene where Beatrice Straight talks about going into the wonderful light with Jerry Goldsmith’s John Williams-ish “La La La” music playing in the background. You die? Oh, it’s alright. There’s an afterlife to go to! The film has that ‘Spielberg Glow’ to it that just makes me want to puke.

    Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper, sure, but it's not a Tobe Hooper film. It's a Steven Spielberg film directed by Tobe Hooper. What's neat about Insidious, a pretty effective horror flick, is that it's basically Poltergeist re-imagined as a Tobe Hooper project with all the Spielbergian influence removed.

    And, yes, Lifeforce is amazing. It's the best "Naked-vampire-alien- chick-turning-people-into-zombies-and-bringing-about-world-armageddon-film" ever made. Tobe Hooper has made some great horror flicks, like The Funhouse and Salem's Lot...

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  14. Hi Filip,

    I see your perspective. On the other hand, what Poltergeist does establish -- with some fear indeed -- is that, when angered, the afterlife can punch a hole into our reaity, and steal our children, our livelihoods and even our home. So I'd say there is a fear there.

    I enjoyed and was unsettled by Insidious, but I felt it played too many notes similar too Poltergeist's symphony; the older woman expert, the journey to another world, the beast in that world, holding a child prisoner. Bottom line, Insidious worked (for me, anyway), but it was clearly following Poltergeist's playbook.

    I also think that a lot of the fear factor in Poltergeist comes in from the tapping of childhood fears. A tree that looks like a person. A closet door open at night. A doll/clown/thing that, in the shadows of nighttime, seems to be alive. I think all of those fears are quite potent, and work well in terms of the film.

    I agree with you on Lifeforce. What a great, crazy movie. I'm also a huge admirer of The Funhouse and Salem's Lot.

    Great comment, and fascinating food for thought.

    best,
    John

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  15. "Sometimes, people write me and tell me to leave the interpreting/analysis out of my reviews, and just reveal whether or not a movie entertains."

    I can't tell you how sad that makes me. It's the same thing I hear from people any time I attempt to discuss a movie on a deeper level than "liked it/hated it."

    It's as if people are embarrassed by the idea that they might have actual thoughts and ideas in their heads. That's a huge part of the problem with this country -- we venerate ignorance as a state of grace. It's bad form to "show up" others by appearing intelligent and thoughtful. We lower the bar on all discourse to accommodate the least intellectual among us.

    Aaaaaannnnnnyway... off the soapbox.

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  16. Count Zero:

    I like your soapbox!

    And I agree with everything you wrote.

    It makes me sad too, that this is the case. Some people want to squelch debate about things that are ambiguous, and that very notion of silencing debate runs counter to the form of the horror movie, which concerns the transgression against the status quo or the establishment.

    There is indeed a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in this country. Today, if you're an intellectual, you're accused of being an "elite," I guess. And when I write negatively of Ronald Reagan and his policies, I'm apparently being "anti-American" or an "America-phobe."

    Because you can't be a real American and not like St. Ronnie, I suppose.

    It reminds me of what John Carpenter famously said -- during the height of Reaganism -- about this very topic. "There is real brain death in this country."

    Sometimes it feels like that in the national discourse, but then I connect here with readers such as yourself, or Cannon, or Phil, or Le0pard13, or J.D., of SFF, or Unk Lancifer, or SteveW, or Will, or SGB, or Filip, and I feel better.

    That's one reason I love this blog. Best and smartest readers and movie lovers, bar none. I'm so fortunate to have all of you drop by, and share your love of cinema and horror with me.

    best,
    John

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  17. Another great review. Poltergeist is the first horror film I ever saw. I too was very young to be watching it at the time, but it made such an impression in terms of its superb builds in tension, some fantastic horror sequences and the utterly believable family dynamic amongst its characters. (That love also carries over to its sequel, although Poltergeist III was a follow-up too far!)

    The themes you draw out here largely went over my head at the time, although they certainly resonate now. It's a movie I've had hovering in a very large pile of DVDs-to-be-watched at home, but it just leapt up that list thanks to your article, John. As you say, it is a classic of the genre, and this reader of the blog petitions you to most definitely leave the interpretation and analysis very much at the heart of your writing. Great stuff.

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  18. I first saw this film in it's original release when I was 13, and it did not scare me then. So I would disagree that this is a very scary film. Fun, well made, a thriller, but scary? Not to me, but then again, I'm jaded.

    There has been more controversy surrounding who should receive credit for this film than any other film that I can think of. Some interesting comments have been made by the cast and crew.

    Bill Varney (Sound Mixer):
    "He [Tobe] dropped by one or two times, but he had no input whatsoever as far as our (sound) work was concerned. Basically, Tobe didn't particpate at all."

    Mike Fenton (Casting Director):
    "Did he [Tobe] direct the film? Not that I saw."

    Willie Hunt (Production Executive who was working with United Artists but had supervised "Poltergeist" when she was with MGM):
    "Both people were on the set all the time, and Tobe was very much involved, as far as I could tell. But Steven was the creative force in my opinion; his stamp is on the film, even though there was a good, solid competent director there."

    And probably, the most important comment coming from Mr. Spielberg himself:
    "Tobe isn't what you'd call a take-charge sort of guy. He's just not a strong presence on a movie set. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump up and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of the collaboration. I did not want to direct the movie-I had to do 'E.T.' five weeks after principal photography on 'Poltergeist.'"

    "My enthusiasm for wanting to make 'Poltergeist' would have been difficult for any director I would have hired. It derived from my imagination and my experiences, and it came out of my typewriter [after re-writing the Grais/Victor draft]. I felt a proprietary interest in this project that was stronger than if I was just an executive producer. I thought I'd be able to turn 'Poltergeist' over to a director and walk away. I was wrong. [On future films] If I write it myself, I'll direct it myself. I won't put someone else through what I put Tobe through, and I'll be more honest in my contributions to a film."

    These comments are pretty damning. Even that said, if there was no controversy, if there was no doubt that Hooper directed this film. Texas Chainsaw would still be his best and most influential film. IMO T.C.M is clearly a superior film, maybe not technically, but as a pure, Grade A, 1st-class horror film, T.C.M has few peers.

    footnotes: http://poltergeist.poltergeistiii.com/really.html

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