The Films of 1982: Poltergeist
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.
One night, after what seems like an earthquake inside the house, the child declares "They're Here," and refers enigmatically to "the TV People."
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.
Is TV "the beast?" From a certain perspective, yes.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.