Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1982)

6. Poltergeist

Before 1982, Tobe Hooper’s claim to fame was “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Yeah, “Salem’s Lot” and “The Funhouse” didn’t come and go without notice. However, neither were genre defining classics. With the release of “Poltergeist” that summer, Hooper had another beloved horror hit to add to his resume. Produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, “Poltergeist” would become very successful. It would become one of the highest grossing pictures of the year and long remained one of the biggest films in the genre’s history. Frequently cropping up on lists of all-time best horror movies, “Poltergeist” was a genuine ghost story blockbuster. Thirty-three years later, it still endures.

The Freeling family have just moved into a pleasant new home in the California suburb of Cuesta Verde. Kids Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne happily co-exist while mom and dad, Steve and Diane, still have a healthy sex life. This idyllic existence is interrupted when, one night, Carol Anne begins to hear voices through the static of the television. Objects begin to move on their own. During a freak tornado, Carol Anne vanishes, sucked into an alternate universe existing within the house. Experts are baffled as the activity inside the Freeling house becomes increasingly more disturbing. In order to retrieve their daughter, the family will have to stand against the poltergeists that have taken over their home.

On paper, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s films don’t seem to have much in common. The frenzied horror of Hooper’s films and the whimsy of Spielberg’s pictures seem at odds. “Poltergeist” was, after all, released the same month as “E.T.”  But we shouldn’t forget that Steven Spielberg also directed “Jaws,” one of the great horror pictures. Debate continues to rage over who truly directed “Poltergeist.” Spielberg was apparently frequently on-set with Tobe often taking his orders. Yet it’s clear to me that “Poltergeist” is the result of both filmmaker’s distinct sensibilities. The Spielberg-ian nostalgia for idyllic American small towns contrasts nicely against the horrific set pieces Hooper unleashes throughout the film. Hooper alone probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off the charming family setting. Spielberg, meanwhile, may not have made as shocking a horror film.

That contrast has another purpose. When introduced, Steven and friends crowded around a TV. The youngest kids have a whole bedroom of toys, filled with recognizable brands like “Star Wars” and “Sesame Street.” The Freeling home is seemingly idyllic, as pleasant as the pre-fab community it inhabits. But the American dream is waiting to turn on you. The big screen TV provides a portal for the evil spirits to enter the home. The kid’s toys spring to life, dancing through the air and attacking. The swimming pool being built in the backyard fills with skeletons. The very walls of the suburban home spring to life, threatening to consume the family. Even a plump steak becomes an ominous object. The American dream is going to turn sour and totally make you tear your own face off. The force that pulls the Freelings back together, and allows them to overcome the malevolent spirits, is something simpler then the pleasures of their high tech homes: It’s love. Through it’s special effects driven story, “Poltergeist” creates a touching but not heavy-handed anti-materialistic moral.

Of course, the family learning the strength of their own love wouldn’t mean as much if the characters weren’t as lovable. “Poltergeist’s” strong cast is maybe its most underrated attribute. Clark T. Nelson’s Steven is introduced snoozing in front of the TV. Soon afterwards, he’s cheering with buddies in front of a rowdy football game. This may make him appear to be a slouching, sitcom style dad. However, once Carol Anne is taken, Nelson develops a strong side, holding the family together. JoBeth Williams’ has a surprisingly sexy side as Diane, which happily shows in the scene of the parents smoking pot and fooling around. She’s also the beating heart of the family, really feeling the trauma of being separated from her child while struggling to protect the remaining two.

The kids in “Poltergeist” are lovable without being unrealistic. Dominique Dunne’s Dana spends a lot of time thinking about boys, hanging out with friends, and teasing her younger siblings. A notable sequence is her dismissive reaction to a group of cat-calling construction workers. Oliver Robins as Robbie has seemingly irrational fears which doesn’t restrain his boyhood enthusiasm. Even Heather O’Rourke’s otherwise angelic Carol Anne makes funny request for pizza or shows a slight petulance. A small moment, that’s always stuck with me, is when Robbie and Carol Anne play around on a bed, tossing toys at one another. Dunne is very good while Robins and O’Rourke give organic, life-like performances.

That the audience loves the kids is important, as the film’s success hinges on the disappearance of Carol Anne. When the youngest child is drawn into the netherworld inside the home, the family is torn apart. Mother Diane sleeps in the living room with Robbie, the children’s bedroom turned into a ghostly horror show. The parents do what they can to calm their other kids but Carol Anne’s disappearance weighs heavily on everyone. Dana can barely stand to be in the home, disappearing for long stretches of the movie. It’s ultimately Diane who takes the greatest risk, lowering herself into the ghostly dimension in order to save her daughter. That’s the depth of a mother’s love but everyone in the Freeling home feels it.

While “Poltergeist” is very good, it follows the beats of the traditional haunting story fairly closely. Mid-way through the film, we meet a troop of parapsychologists, sent in to investigate the activity. As in “The Haunting,” “Legend of Hell House,” “The Entity” and many others. The investigators do provide some decent moments of their own. I like Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, who often sips from a hidden flask and provides comfort to Diane. Some of the film’s most iconic moments belong to Zelda Rubinstein as Tagina, the psychic. Rubinstein is, of course, unforgettable. Her small stature and unusual voice makes Tagina an immediately unforgettable presence.

If the early scenes of “Poltergeist” are defined by Spielberg’s sense of whimsy, sequences of horror more up Tobe Hooper’s alley take prominence in the second half. The first moment of straight-up shock in “Poltergeist” occurs when the ominous tree outside Robbie’s window leaps to life, smashing the glass, and dragging him outside. The way the boy slides inside the tree clearly recalls a giant eating a child. One of the film’s most notorious moments, which would traumatize a lot of teenage girls at slumber parties, involves one of the investigators tearing his own face off. While the gore is slightly exaggerated, more comic book-like then realistic, it’s still a surprisingly graphic moment for a PG rated movie. Then, of course, there’s the clown doll. It taunts Robbie throughout the film, the boy freaked out by the doll’s appearance. When the doll finally springs to life and attacks, it provides “Poltergeist” with one of its biggest, best jump scares.

Tobe Hooper had been working with low budgets up until this point. “Poltergeist,” however, was a big budget picture co-produced by Spielberg. The director had a way bigger sandbox to play in. Accordingly, the film features some noticeable special effects. There’s an unnerving, fleshy quality to the haunting. Vein-like tendrils emerge from Carol Anne’s closest. After Diane passes through the portal, she’s covered in a meaty, jelly like substance. This peaks when Carol Anne’s closest transforms into a hungry, alien jaw, reaching and devouring everything it touches. Some of these special effects heavy frights are effective. JoBeth Williams’ tumble around the bedroom is unnerving, making the haunting a very visceral threat. Other scenes are less effective, like a large face popping out of the wall. Yet other sequences hovering between creepy and potentially humorous, such as the wispy, puppet-esque appearance of the Beast. But by the time skeletons are exploding out of the ground, it’s hard to complain about “Poltergeist’s” reliance on special effects.

Beyond the power of familial lover conquering the false pleasure of modern convenience, there’s another lesson to “Poltergeist.” People disregard the dead. An early scene in the film has Diane preparing to flush Carol Anne’s recently dead canary down the commode. Aside from being a rather literal canary in the coalmine to the horrors to come, it also shows how callous people can be about the dead. Despite common misconceptions, “Poltergeist” isn’t one of those movies were a happy white family is threatened by the pagan horrors of the Indian burial ground. Instead, the suburb of Cuesta Verde is built over a normal cemetery. The anti-materialism theme pairs with an emerging anti-capitalism theme. The callous businessman, played by a pitch perfect James Karen, moved the gravestones but not the bodies. Unlike most ghost stories, which are characterized by a general fear of death, “Poltergeist” instead suggest a respect, a common courtesy, for the dead is more warranted.

Another enduring aspect of “Poltergeist” is Jerry Goldsmith’s fabulous score. The soundtrack begins and concludes with a children’s choir singing softly. The music roots the story in a place of childish whimsy while also suggesting the creepiness to come. The voices build towards a chorus of equally soft strings. While the main theme is hummable, Goldsmith deploys other tricks. The sequence of horror are accompanied by harsh, discordant noise, aiding the creepy atmosphere. Carol Anne’s theme, meanwhile, is more sweet and pastoral. In other words, it’s another great piece of music from the legendary Goldsmith.

“Poltergeist” was such an effective horror movie that the public became convinced it was cursed. Though Dominique Dunn and Heather O’Rourke’s untimely passing were certainly tragic, I don’t see any other evidence of a curse. (Unless you count Craig T. Nelson’s post-“Couch” career…) “Poltergeist” is not the groundbreaking jolt of pure horror “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was. However, it’s a damn entertaining horror picture, using state-of-the-art effects to reinvent the ghost story for eighties sensibilities. A strong cast, stronger script, and some truly impressive shock moments makes it status as a horror classic well earned. [Grade: B+]

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