Saturday, December 1, 2012

REVIEW: Poltergeist (1982)

Steven Spielberg is a man of many talents. He has brought us so many things from dinosaurs coming to life on the big screen to Abraham Lincoln coming to life on the big screen, and one of his more beloved endorsements is a quaint little film called Poltergeist.

Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke

Yes, this classic horror film has been a sort of classic in the history of the genre since it came out in 1982. It was directed by Tobe Hooper, who gave us Texas Chainsaw Massacre…

But also gave us the sequel.

So you can see how I’d be skeptical upon watching a film from a man who brought us such polar opposites in quality. But Poltergeist is one of the classics and I’d be a shmuck if I didn’t give it its fair dues. Let’s take a look at this bizarre and shocking old film and see what makes it tick.

The film begins with families at Thanksgiving fighting over the TVs and changing the channel in the house next door, just like any holiday should have. I’m so glad the film has such conflicts as “what should we watch on TV, football or Mr. Rogers?” Any film without THAT level of conflict just doesn’t get full marks in my books.

I'm just struck by how pointless this whole thing goes on for way too long and ends up feeling like a big silly joke, especially when the neighbor character isn't really ever elaborated on or anything. Like the movie just forgot about him.

And to add to the bone chilling drama, we also get a dead bird and the mom tries to flush it down the toilet, but gets caught by the daughter, Carol Anne:

Busted! So they give it a Viking funeral and send it off to an afterlife with 777 virgins awaiting it…well, OK, they bury it in the backyard with some flowers and a picture of the family. How touching. It’s so touching that they immediately get fish right after!

Later on the son, Robbie, is trying to go to sleep, but keeps getting scared of the freaky clown he has sitting on a chair facing his bed…so why even have the clown sitting there at all? Also he’s afraid of the tree outside which is just crazy in how twisted it is…he has blinds that he could close, but he chooses just to leave ‘em open so the tree can scare the shit out of him.

Pennywise's Disciple.

I think this kid is a masochist. Or at the very least, just wants an excuse to go in and see his parents smoking pot and acting like jackasses in the next room over, so loudly that I’m surprised anyone else in the house gets any sleep at all. Good parenting, guys! Top notch!

After a long day of Mr. Rogers, dead parakeets and buying fish, the parents like some relaxing time...

The daughter apparently sleepwalks and ends up going to sit in front of the TV and watch the static, proclaiming loudly “They’re Here!” This line is one of the film’s most memorable, but apparently the mother didn’t care enough to ask what she meant then, but instead brings it up the next morning at breakfast, because that’s great morning talk…Carol Anne replies that “The TV People” are here, which the mother just takes as nonsense I guess...too pot-addled to really care what her daughter is know, if this was made in the 2000s, it would probably heavily focus on the dysfunctional aspects of this family.

However, later on the chairs start moving by themselves! Groovy, huh?

Wouldn't they be able to hear this happening before the ghosts could make the chairs into that exact pattern? And what is the ghosts' motive for such a thing, anyway? Do they just get off on making random, nonviolent, silly acts happen?

By the time the dad, Steven, gets home, the mom has gone completely nuts about the whole thing and is excited that she can put a chair in the middle of the room and it moves across the floor by itself. They even try it with Carol Anne!

Have I mentioned that I'm not thrilled with the way the mother acts in this film? Might as well just send your daughter to school through the neighborhood infested with gang violence at this point; couldn't possibly get any less considerate of her safety.

It’s also notable that the mother, Diane, is afraid Carol Anne will sleepwalk outside and fall into the pool which is still being completed in the backyard. Uh, there are things called LOCKS for a reason, you dumbass! I think I see where Robbie gets his window closing phobia from. I guess this is just a family that thinks the whole world is a death trap. Everything can kill you, and why bother trying to prevent that? Living in fear is the only way to live! Luckily, the rest of this horror movie won’t make those views any worse. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Is that creepy tree going to burst through the windows and attack Robbie and Carol Anne? Pfft…

And tonight on "When Trees Attack"...

Oh. Well….shit.

Then they find out that Carol Anne has been taken by the strange mystical void inside their bedroom closet. They search the whole house but end up finding out that she is actually inside the TV static she spent so much time watching in a trance earlier. This is where the film gets a little more serious, as now we see the family pushed to their limits as they try to figure out what happened and how to fix it, and also the house is pretty fully haunted, too. So they call in this paranormal research squad who helps out mostly by telling them the house is dangerous. Gee, I wonder why…

Hmmmmmm....yeah it's probably haunted. INSIGHTFUL DEDUCTIONS!!!

Also we get this scene, where one of the paranormal research dudes ends up getting a face lift…

Ohhhhh yeah, flash those sexy looks!

The next day, Steven’s boss comes around to see why Steven hasn’t been to work lately, and they go to the graveyard on the hill to talk about buying the whole plot and building more houses on it. Steven finds out that his house was built on a graveyard and that that’s probably why their house is currently haunted. So even though Steven was apparently such an integral part of the company, one of their best salesmen…he didn’t know they ever did things like this? That’s a bit hard to swallow, movie. For such a top employee, he sure doesn’t know much about the business practices of his own company!

Then they call in this lady, who is some kind of spirit medium…


...she then makes rounds of the house and tells the family exactly what the audience has already known for several scenes now: the house is haunted, Carol Anne is stuck in a halfway-dimension where she has to stay away from “the light,” and they have to get her back. Brilliant deductions! Truly if the audience didn’t hear all this twenty minutes ago, they’ll get it now. A brilliant strategy to waste the audience’s time if I ever saw one…

Now, okay, to be honest, these are some of the best parts of the movie, as the pace slows down and the family prepares for what’s to come next. We get some nice atmosphere, some good dialogue and the characters are fleshed out more as we really see what they’re going through. The film has had a great sense of atmosphere and setting for its duration and that continues now. The balance between the fast-paced, screamy parts and the quieter and more subtle ones is very well done. So there. I CAN be honest and admit a film's good points! Ha! Proved anyone wrong who thought otherwise!

So that spirit medium lady tells them it’s time to take action, and we get the big plan of sending Diane through the portal with a rope around her waist to save Carol Anne…and it works. There’s a lot of screaming, yelling, wind blowing and bright lights, but it works, and they get shat out of the vortex covered in blood and entrails for some reason. The spirit medium then says everything is A-OK! Which will be proven very, very wrong soon…where did she get her degree again? A back alley drug dealer or something? A back alley drug dealer of spiritual medium degrees? It’s possible.

The family moves out but stays in the house for one night longer…why? After all that bullshit, they’re not just going to leave immediately and stay at a hotel? They even let the kids sleep in their same room! You know…the one with the insane hell portal in the closet that only just got closed a few hours ago? Screw the idea that it’s safe…GET YOUR KIDS OUT OF THERE, YOU MORONS! Why do I get the idea these parents are the kinds of people who would just let their kids wander around without supervision in the neighborhood chainsaw and serial rapist super-store?

As expected, the hell portal opens up again, proving that the spirit medium lady was full of shit the whole time. Just look at what these parents have been letting their kids live next to all these years:

Reminds me of the time I had a portal to hell in my bedroom....just one of those things every kid goes through, like puberty, ya know?

Looks perfectly safe to me!

And then we see what happens when Diane takes a dip in the pool…

Hey, you skeletons! Get out of here! Go swim in the other pool. You don’t pay enough to be able to use this one and it’s really inconsiderate to those who do pay the extra fees…ugh, stupid skeletons. Such freeloaders.

Then we witness the collapse of the American housing market as the owner of Steven’s real estate company comes back just in time to witness this:

It's a fixer-upper.

Somehow I doubt he will have much luck finding new tenants for this neighborhood after this.

So that’s Poltergeist, the horror film where nobody dies and somehow it still ended up becoming a classic anyway. Spielberg and Hooper just delivered a great film with this one, as it’s filled with memorable scenes, cool atmosphere and good characters. Some parts get a bit dull and maybe the movie doesn’t need to be 2 hours long, but the overall film is still worth watching for some classic scenes and very enjoyable moments. 

It's a doofy, soft-headed movie but it's got heart to it, and plus, some scenes are just great. How can anyone deny the great chaotic scenes at the end of the film, where everything is going nuts? It’s just tons of fun. And there’s a certain simple, innocuous pleasure to the film, too, that gives it a sort of personal and intimate edge over films that copy it like Insidious and The Orphanage in later years. Those films perhaps took their themes further than this one did, but they don’t really have the “heart” that Poltergeist has, and so there’s something here that you might not find anywhere else. Call it the classic ‘80s’ style of Spielberg.

Much has been said about the “Poltergeist curse” which surrounded this franchise, in which many of the lead actors died in strange circumstances as well as other people involved in the production. It doesn't factor into my enjoyment of this movie, so I didn't feel I needed to mention it in the actual review. The most tragic is probably Dominique Dunne, who played the older daughter, and who was murdered by her boyfriend before the film even came out. There really are no words for that, and I'm dedicating the review to her memory as well as to the memory of all the others who passed away in the middle of this series of films. Hats off to the lost ones of the Poltergeist series...and let us move forward, to the sequels!

Images copyright of their original owners; I do not own any of them.