Sunday, May 31, 2015

Advert Artwork: The Monkees


At Flashbak: Rock and Roll vs. The Press!





"Whether you’re watching a real life rock documentary, or a movie about a fictional rock band, there’s one scene the films probably have in common: the press conference, or failing that, the interview scene. 

In scenes of this type, the artistic and activist pontifications of celebrity rock stars run smack up against the precepts of cynical journalism, and the results aren’t always pretty.

The tradition or movie convention of rock stars vs. the press probably begin with the fictionalized Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

There, Ringo Starr is asked a very important question by one reporter. Is he a “mod” or a “rocker?”  The famous answer, of course, is that he is a “mocker.”  

At Flashbak: Sci-Fi TV and the Story of Adam and Eve






"The Biblical story of Adam and Eve depicts the first human couple in history. The duo was created by God to live in the Garden of Eden, but expelled after tasting fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. 

The Book of Genesis enumerates the children and descendants of Adam and Eve, our ancestors in human generations.

But significantly, science-fiction television has often re-written the Adam and Eve story, perhaps because it is a tale of new beginnings, a kind of origin story.

The Adam and Eve paradigm appeared memorably on two episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964). 

In “Two,” an apocalyptic war has destroyed civilization, leaving only two survivors.  One is an American soldier, played by Charles Bronson. The other is a Russian soldier, played by Elizabeth Montgomery. 

In a ruined metropolis, these individuals eye each other suspiciously for a time, unable at first to let go of the hatred that fueled their global conflict.  Over time, however, the duo accepts their situation, and each other. 

In the episode’s denouement, the female soldier – wearing a wedding dress she has found in an abandoned store -- and the male soldier march off together. It is clear they will begin the human race a second time, as Adam and Eve Mark II.

“Probe 7 Over and Out,” another Twilight Zone episode, follows a very similar trajectory.  A male soldier, Cook (Richard Basehart) lands his spaceship on a habitable world, only to learn that his home planet has been destroyed in a nuclear war.  

As he familiarizes himself with his new world, Cook encounters another alien, a beautiful woman refugee from the planet “Norda.”  He introduces himself as Adam Cook.  She is Eve Norda.  They call the planet “Irth,” and share a seppla (apple?) in a garden.


Star Trek’s (1966 – 1969) original pilot, “The Cage” offers a variation on the Adam and Eve story too. Here, Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) is captured by the aliens of planet Talos IV. The Talosians hope that he will mate with another human, Vina (Susan Oliver) and that together they will become the father and mother of a new human race; ones destined to dwell on the desolate planet surface and perform the hard physical labor that the fragile Talosians cannot. 

Although the Talosians tempt Captain Pike with visions of Vina in different settings -- and indeed as different women -- he refuses to be an accomplice in the plan to create a race of human slaves.  One such fantasy involves Captain Pike and Vina in a picnic in a kind of garden, subtly evoking the Adam and Eve story.

Intriguingly, Star Trek’s second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" also features resonances of the Adam and Eve tale.  In this episode, Kirk must prevent the birth of a new super-human race.  The Adam and Eve of that race are Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. Dehner (Sally Kellerman), powerful “God” like beings with telepathic and telekinetic powers. Several scenes show Dehner and Mitchell in a garden, sampling alien fruit."


Outré Intro: The Monkees (1966 - 1968)


Due to the ubiquitous nature of TV reruns in the 1970s, I grew up knowing all about The Monkees (1966 - 1968) before I knew anything at all about The Beatles. 

My sister and I shared a Monkees album when I couldn't have been but six or seven. We both loved it.  I mean...loved it.  We put the album on the record player for hours and danced around our family room.  My favorite Monkee was Micky.

I didn't finally discover the Beatles till I was about ten years old, when I started listening to the group's albums on cassette, on a cross-country trip.  

And I didn't see A Hard Day's Night (1964) -- arguably the tonal and visual inspiration for The Monkees TV program -- until I was fifteen or so.

It's sort of weird to think about all this today: encountering these 1960s music acts in what is, undeniably, the wrong order. 

Today I judge The Monkees with a sense of warm nostalgia. The TV series and albums are a part of a golden childhood, I guess you could say.  

The Beatles, meanwhile, are a group that I encountered in my own way, and learned about on my own initiative (with a little help from my Dad).  Therefore I feel confident (in a critical and historical sense) about their value as artists.

But I still get a kick out of and love The Monkees on TV. 

It does sting a little, having seen and admired A Hard Day's Night -- probably one of the ten or fifteen greatest films of the 20th century -- and realizing that The Monkees, at least at first, was a corporate-created knock-off, designed to capitalize on George, Paul, John and Ringo's success on a weekly basis. 

The derivative aspect of the series -- four sixties era young guys in a band, going on irrationally exuberant comedic adventures -- is so craven that it's tough for me to overlook when assessing the episodes today.

I'm sure other fans of The Monkees feel differently, and I respect that.

The following introductory montage to The Monkees reveals a bit of what I'm talking about. The imagery is absurd and irreverent; a bit surreal and a bit whimsical. It showcases the four members of the band in all kinds of costumes, in all kinds of scrapes.

The band-mates ride in cars, on bikes, on motorcycles and even a skateboard. They dress as cowboys, as cave-men, as matadors and so forth.  

The montage is a colorful, kinetic display of unfettered, un-repressed, imaginative youth.  

Indeed, the montage could easily pass as an early-1980s music video, for all the linear sense it makes. There's a surreal angle (like the first shot, of Davy's head hitting a bell...) to it as well.

So, in short order, we meet each of the Monkees.  First up is Davy.



Then Micky.




Now we're back to the group doing zany things...






And we meet Peter, next.



And finally, Mike.









Here's the montage in living color:

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Pteranodon" (October 12, 1974)


Kim, matriarch of the Butler family, suddenly falls ill during the Season of the Winds.  She runs a high fever and suffers from extreme lassitude.  Gara, matriarch of the cave family, believes she can help.  She knows how to cure the illness -- which threatens to be contagious -- but needs some rare ingredients for her remedy.

Accordingly, Gara sends Gorak and Mr. Butler off to collect a turtle egg.  Lok and Katie, meanwhile, must collect pteranodon eggs.  The prehistoric family knows the pteronodons as “Ardock,” and is aware that procuring the resource won’t be easy.  The plan is to make a “giant vitamin” that can heal anyone who gets sick.

Predictably, the pteranodons don’t wish to have their eggs taken, and chase Lok and Katie to remote Animal Island.

Meanwhile, Mr. Butler and Gorok come across a dinosaur boneyard during their quest, and Gara must grapple with a giant turtle.



This episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), “Pteranodon,” is a decent one in part because it doesn’t feature, simply, the men solving the crisis-of-the-week.  Here, the female characters are prominent, particularly Gara.  She makes the medicine to save Kim, and also, in the denouement, battles the aforementioned turtle. 

Thus far, the series has focused a great deal on Gorak and his exploits, so it is nice to see Gara get her share of the action, and character development too.  It’s also rewarding that the episode reveals she is both smart and knowledgeable (developing the remedy), and strong and brave (defeating the turtle).



The most tiresome aspect of the episode involves the jokes Katie tells.  She keeps making wise cracks about dinosaurs or prehistoric animals being ugly.  It’s a one-note kind of thing, and not very funny.  I’m sure we look absolutely gorgeous to the dinosaurs, right?  I get the idea is that Katie is supposed to have a wicked sense of humor, but the jokes aren’t varied, and don’t stick the landing. Her running commentary very quickly becomes old hat.


Still, “Pteranodon” is an entertaining episode, and one that deepens the characters.  We feel concern for Kim, who faints and falls ill, and respect for Gara, as she treats her friend.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Year of the Dragon" (October 16, 1976)


A top chemistry student, Julie Chen (Jeanne Jo) is embarrassed by her Chinese heritage, and her Chinese father (Victor Sen Young) who lives in Chinatown and conforms to the traditions of his homeland.

When Chen wins a top chemistry honor, and is to be given an award at a high school assembly, she takes steps to prevent her proud father from attending.  Mr. Chen learns that his daughter is ashamed of him, making matters worse.  Rennie tries to convince her that she is doing both her father and her friends a disservice, but Julie will hear none of it.

But when Julie falls down a well, her father comes to her rescue.

And when he falls down a well, Isis comes to his rescue….



The Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976) presents another weird episode here. In “Year of the Dragon,” we meet the extremely touchy Julie Chen, who gets offended every time a student or teacher asks her anything about Chinese culture.  She says she is tired of being expected to know everything about the Chinese people from “Charlie Chan movies” to “chop suey.” 

The only problem is that no character in the program treats her this way at all.  So Julie just comes off looking extremely sensitive and touchy.  Week after week, we have seen Mrs. Thomas and her students treat all people with high levels of empathy and compassion, so Chen's anger and resentment is weird.  It basically comes off as her problem, which may or may not have been the episode's point.

Julie also has a lot of bad luck.  She runs away from those who want to be her friend, fearing they will mention her Chinese traditions.  The first time she runs away, Julie lands in an auto junkyard and nearly gets crushed in a junked car.  The second time she runs away, Julie falls down a well and is trapped.



Then, the episode ends in cloyingly cheesy fashion as Mr. and Mrs. Chen make stereotyped “Pidgen English” jokes about Mr. Mason’s inability to use chopsticks correctly.  This moment is legitimately off-putting.

Now that no one’s trapped in a well, it’s easy to make fun of your own culture (and others’ perceptions of it), I suppose.  This ending kind of misses the point.  The whole story wasn't about how it is okay to mock your own culture if you feel others are doing it.  The point was to show how you can balance your own cultural traditions and still embrace American culture too.

Still, it’s a good thing Isis is around this week, and she uses her powers of stop-motion animation to lower a ladder down to Mr. Chen in a well.  She offers this incantation: “Oh broken ladder with rungs too few, restore thyself as good as new!

Only two episodes of Isis left. Next week: “Now You See It…”

Friday, May 29, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Area 51 (2015)


Oren Peli -- director of Paranormal Activity (2009) -- returns to the found-footage format with the new horror film, Area 51 (2015). 

I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Paranormal Activity because of the less-than-stylish, downright unsubtle staging of some key scenes there, not to mention the use of CGI front-and-center in the final, important, shots. 

But the good news is that Peli has dramatically improved in terms of how he utilizes visuals. Area 51 -- while not a high-water mark in the found footage format -- is nonetheless a solid horror film of this type that may even leave you wanting more.

In particular, the film’s third act explores an underground installation in Nevada -- the base below Area 51, as it were -- and leads the viewer through a series of imaginative and disturbing discoveries.  

This aspect of the film is riveting.  Some of the last act revelations are really fascinating, and seem to set up a larger mythology or world. I know I wouldn’t mind re-visiting it in a follow-up film.

Also, Area 51 features an innovative and original idea or central metaphor in regards to those beings who are incarcerated at Area 51.  The film likens the aliens imprisoned there to terrorists trapped in Guantanamo Bay. 

They have been held for a long tong time, and quite possibly been mistreated…but those facts don’t mean you want them released, either.

Area 51 takes a while to really get going, and features some early scenes that don’t build character or contribute to the overall narrative. You may also walk away from a screening with questions about security at Area 51…which seems remarkably lax given the prisoners there.

But still -- where it counts -- Area 51 is successful.  The film features some good jump scares, and there are some downright creepy scenes in the last act to challenge your sense of reality.


“Something is pulling me towards the base.”

A young man, Reid (Reid Warner) believes he was abducted by aliens while at a party with his friends, and three months later becomes obsessed with the idea to breaking into Area 51: the secret military base that UFO-logists believe houses a flying saucer, and possibly its extra-terrestrial crew.

With two friends, Ben and Darrin (Darrin Bragg) in tow, Reid drives to the base, and makes contact with an informant named Jelena (Jelena Nik) whose father worked at Area 51 before the government allegedly killed him. 

The group follows a plan -- using Freon suits -- to breach security at the installation and get inside, though Ben refuses to break in, and remains in the car.

The others manage to get inside Area 51, and start heading down a seemingly endless staircase towards the bottom levels of the mysterious facility…



“It would be easier to rob a bank than to break into Area 51.”

“Why does America deny UFOs?” One character asks in Area 51, and it’s a good question, actually, that informs a lot of the action in the film.  Reid boasts a personal reason for wanting to see the inside of the base, but Darrin’s reason is even better. He doesn’t like being lied to about important things. He wants to know the truth.

The question then becomes: is it better not to know the truth in this situation or live without knowing?  Does the government -- by maintaining the prison facility for the aliens -- have the best interests of the American people at heart?

Since Area 51 explicitly connects the UFO base to Guantanamo, we can extrapolate deeper meaning here. 

We know that a lot of the “combatants” at Guantanamo Bay were people sold into captivity by their country-men for a monetary reward, for instance, and that none have yet stood trial so that we can accurately and legally determine their guilt or innocence.  And this is after fourteen years or so of imprisonment.  The people trapped there are thus permanent prisoners, without hope, and apparently without legal recourse

Area 51 suggests that after nearly seventy years trapped in that subterranean cell, the aliens there are working their own cunning plan to get out; a plan for which they require the assistance of Reid. 

The scenes that discuss -- or rather speculate about the aliens -- are among the film’s best.  “They’re not cute,” one character asserts.  Instead, these beings can remotely cause migraine headaches, and probe your body and mind.  They exist in a kind of white-on-white world without end, without beginning, without upside-down and right-side up.  All these ideas come into play, little-by-little, in the film’s last act.  One of the creepiest scenes involves an elevator to the bottom floor of Area 51, where there is an apparent sleeping quarters (and play room!) for the captive aliens exists. The film also takes you inside an alien saucer, with interesting results.


In a way, all found-footage horror movies are about seeing something that has never been seen, and perhaps shouldn’t be seen.  Things like the Blair Witch, a rituals of the Illuminati (The Conspiracy), or even Bigfoot (Exists, Willow Creek). 

The question of the format’s plausibility arrives in the fact that often-times characters put themselves in real danger to see these (dangerous) things.  As Area 51 notes, “Looking and experiencing are two different things.”  

We all want to experience something out of the norm.  I have always felt this way (and I think Fox Mulder has always felt this way too): If we can just discover or experience something that society tells us isn’t real -- the Loch Ness Monster, aliens, what-have-you -- then we have proven, in some sense, the possibility of God.  There would be more in Heaven and Earth than our current stage of scientific development allows for, and thus we could, again, give ourselves the freedom to believe in magic.

Think about the categories of found footage films, so far.  We’ve seen movies about the supernatural (The Devil Inside, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Paranormal Activity, Final Prayer), aliens (Alien Abduction, Extraterrestrial, Dark Mountain, Area 51), urban legends, historical mysteries, and cryptids (Willow Creek, Crybaby Bridge, Devil’s Pass), and so forth.  All these categories involve proving the existence of something heretofore not captured on film.

Area 51 is about that journey of belief in sense.  Reid believes the answers regarding his abduction are in that base, but he’s really answering bigger questions.  Are we alone in the universe? What secrets do the aliens have?  Has the government known, all along (or at least since 1947) the truth about extra-terrestrial life?

In one stellar scene, Reid and Darrin engage in a home break-in, and the suspense is overwhelming.  They do so because they want to have that “belief” experience, and they expose themselves to real danger to get it.  They cross a line to reach that experience, and as the movie continues, they keep crossing lines. 


When delving into these issues, and taking a camera into Area 51’s research laboratories -- finding white alien blood and strange anti-gravity devices in the process -- Area 51 succeeds as a work of art. You want to keep watching, even though you know it’s all faked, because you want to see what’s revealed too.  Your curiosity gets the better of you.

At other times, though, Area 51 is a letdown. There’s a lot of running in and out of rooms, up and down staircases, and so on, and the frenetic action substitutes in some way for narrative development and even thematic closure.

Many found footage movies run out of steam after about 75 minutes, but Area 51 actually increases in interest during the last five minutes, and that’s why I noted in my introduction that you may wish for more.  There’s a feeling here that the viewer is close -- extraordinarily close -- to fascinating answers about aliens and their nature.  But then the movie steps back, and in true found-footage tradition charts the last moments of its primary characters instead of new horizons.

In this way, Area 51 ultimately ends up being trapped by the conventions of the found-footage format, rather than stretching its boundaries.  Still, this is a better “alien” found footage movie than either Extraterrestrial (2014) or Alien Abduction (2014), and there are moments here where you’ll be glued to the screen.

Movie Trailer: Area 51 (2015)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

From the Archive: Poltergeist (1982)

 

"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-three 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 2015

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-down armadillo on 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 (or 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 static-saturated television image 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 thus 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.

Briefly stated, one might summarize Poltergeist's point in this way: 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 the evil of television, it is no accident in Poltergeist that the TVs strobing white light is almost constantly reflected upon the faces of the film's principal characters, and that 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!"


When Ronald 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 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. Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton all share a measure of responsibility on this matter too. But Reagan was the herald and spokesperson for the movement, and is often remembered explicitly for the so-called "anti-regulation" Presidency.

But 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.

We've have seen this truth played out again and again vis-a-vis Enron, Worldcom, Countrywide, and so on.  Big Business simply cannot be trusted to police itself responsibly in terms of moral and ethical behavior. Not when there's oodles of cash to be made.  I don't know why this fact comes as a surprise to people, or offends people. As a nation, we boast law enforcement officials and a judiciary, 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. It isn't anti-business to say that business also requires oversight.

Some regulations are absolutely necessary to keep businesses honest. And please don't quote me any Rand Paul-isms 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. How did the market punish those guys, again?

It is this image of Reagan as anti-regulator, as a laissez-faire advocate -- that ghost, if you will -- that Poltergeist plays deliberately 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-isms.

 "The grass grows greener on every side," he ridiculously asserts, attempting to sell the real-estate as if there is no downside to it.  That was a key aspect of the 1980s and Reaganomics  We could have it all.

In Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988," the authors write: "He said it was possible to have it all - to cut taxes and increase spending and at the same time fight terrorism, roll back Communism and the threat of nuclear war, all without risking American lives. Reagan seems to be offering a miracle cure."

And, of course, as the film reveals, you can't have it all.  There are downsides.  Your great new house? It's built on a lie, and on a cemetery.

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.  Doing that cut too deep into his profit margin.

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.  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 implies 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 the appearance of Reagan: The Man, The  Presidency are not accidents.  Instead, they contribute to a fuller understanding of the film's themes. 

Consider also  that 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.


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


One of the most intriguing facets of Poltergeist remains that, in terms of visualization -- and 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 toilet, a small metaphor for the film'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 practices 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 America. Priorities -- morality itself -- are 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.

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