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"If Close Encounters is a "science speculation film" then "Poltergeist" is "science horror."
In the wake of his unanimously panned 1941, Steven Spielberg struck back with a vengeance, reclaiming the summit of the director's food chain with three solid blockbuster hits. George Lucas' Raiders of the Lost Ark was already in the works halfway through Spielberg's "war comedy spectacular," and Spielberg became a producer with E.T. The Extraterrestrial and the bigger budget, Industrial Light and Magic effects workout Poltergeist. This writer personally heard Columbia's head of production assert that Spielberg had been "out of control" on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and that 1941 would "pull him back into line." On the contrary, Spielberg would never again be constrained by the edicts of anything so insignificant as a Hollywood studio.
Also on 1941, I witnessed the genesis of what was to become Poltergeist. Writers Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale were ardent supporters of Tobe Hooper, the director of the notorious The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and arranged a screening of the film for Spielberg and his co-producer John Milius. Steven chose Hooper for his first time at bat as a producer supervising a director. He clearly wanted jugular-quality horror cred for his spectacular scare show.
The first question people ask about Poltergeist is whether Tobe Hooper really directed it. Producer Spielberg's personality and direct creative input dominate all aspects of the show. Word from the set is that both men were present during most of the filming; at least one actor has claimed that she took direction only from Spielberg. In Poltergeist Spielberg begins his metamorphosis from film director into a Disney-like institution, a grandiose entertainment machine. For the rest of the 1980s he'd concentrate on mining the entertainment needs of Middle America.
Poltergeist is several movies rolled into one. It steps only a few paces down the path of the current horror trends represented by Tobe Hooper. In place of bloody carnage Poltergeist taps the gargantuan resources of Industrial Light and Magic to produce a 3-ring circus of scares. It can't decide whether ghosts are impish playmates, fairy tale wraiths, menacing monsters or vengeful zombies. For a director who spent the 80s celebrating life in planned suburbs, Spielberg's choice of a haunted subdivision is appropriate, even if it seems unfair to place the blame on an ambitious land developer (the likeable James Karen). He just wants to be the Steven Spielberg of suburban sprawl.
The story is also a fully developed "Spielberg Family" saga, echoing the everyday-folks vibe of Jaws and Close Encounters. The Freelings of Cuesta Verde Estates are normal Americans enjoying the luxuries of suburbia, where the worst threat is a stubborn neighbor or a rude construction worker. The poltergeists attack pretty much out of the blue. It Knows What Scares You, says the tag line, and no member of the family is safe. Little Robbie (Oliver Robins) is assaulted by a nasty Wizard of Oz- like tree, and he didn't even steal any apples. Mother Diane (JoBeth Williams, the heart of the movie) is molested on her bed by invisible poltergeists. Both Diane and her frustrated husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson) find out too late that the beings "on the other side" of the family television are really interested in their daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Enchanted, the tiny blonde moppet spreads the good word: They're Here." Carol Anne is snatched away into a parallel dimension in her own closet. She's still "in the house" but Diane can speak to her only by listening to the white noise on the un-tuned TV monitor. Interestingly, Poltergeist's two main ideas, the ghosts in the television and the dimensional portal, were both present in short stories by Richard Matheson. The story about a girl pulled "into" a wall became a classic Twilight Zone TV episode, Little Girl Lost.
Paranormal investigator Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her doctoral experts quibble over psycho-electronic minutiae, much like the egghead experts of Close Encounters. At first pretending to be objective, Lesh is soon feeding Diane and Steven every notion about poltergeists ever dreamed up over midnight rum. Lesh should be overjoyed, as the Freeling's 'round the clock Barnum & Bailey spook circus validates her dubious profession. ILM's wizards produce tornados, child-eating trees, levitating toys and a gallery of shocking, if inconsistent, monsters. If the ghosts really want to keep Carol Anne, they really ought to keep a lower profile.
To fight back, Dr. Lesh recruits the diminutive Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), a medium / poltergeist banisher ridiculously experienced at busting ghosts. The John Wayne of exorcists, Tangina seems to know everything about spooks, and her steely resolve inspires trust: "Now let's go get your daughter." Spielberg then shifts gears for a spiritualist light show, with Jerry Goldsmith providing the heavenly chords as Steve and Diane prove the mettle of American parenthood by penetrating the 8th Dimension. Emotionally, it's all very effective. The Freelings seem to be defending their house against all the evils of modern living. JoBeth Williams' motherly heroism is undeniable -- which of us would not walk through fire to recover a stolen child?
Spielberg orchestrates 1001 visual and aural delights (the soundtrack of this film is a technical marvel) and sells them hard, even though they don't add up to anything particularly coherent. We never figure out the limits of poltergeist powers. They try to gobble up Robbie yet don't actually kill anybody. "True love" saves Carol Anne, but the Freelings would have gotten nowhere without Tangina's expert help. "My work here is done!", she says as she exits like the Lone Ranger. Tangina's "Mission Accomplished" announcement is premature, for the feisty phantoms (or pheisty fantoms?) return in a blitz of smoke & sparks to drag the Freeling home into the 8th dimension. Zelda Rubinstein would be back in the 1986 sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side.
Indian burial grounds aside, we ask ourselves exactly what the Freelings have done to deserve their ordeal. After all, most horror stories are morality tales. Do Diane and Steve tempt fate by smoking dope at bedtime? Is Steve culpable because he's a salesman for a developer raping the land? Diane struggles to get out of the muddy hole dug for her swimming pool -- is she being punished for the crime of owning a home? Why don't the ghosts target those no-neck dullards next door, the Tuthills? If the afterlife is as chaotic as this, I've definitely made up my mind not to die. 1
The real conflict in Poltergeist sees Spielberg walking a tightrope between family-safe scares and harder horror material. Tobe Hooper knows very well how to make our skin crawl, but Spielberg is aiming wider than the drive-in gore crowd, and opts to make the Star Wars of ghost movies. The fear factor plays out mostly on the faces of the cast as the camera swoops in for giant close-ups: "What's HAPPENING?" In the last act of the film, the camera keeps trucking, but this time into faces reacting in awe to wondrous revelations. It's Spielberg's patented "Ooh-Ahh" sense of wonder gag, the one that was exhausted in Close Encounters but lingered on to cheapen many of his 80s pictures.
The movie can boast one truly horrific sidebar that blends Spielberg's and Hooper's best instincts. Researcher Marty (Marty Cassella) takes a midnight break to wash his face, and begins to pick away at some flaw on his cheek. To his surprise, his flesh comes apart in his fingers. Exactly what happens is better off left unspoiled. All of us have felt pangs of disappointment in front of a mirror, or perhaps vanity-shame knowing that our looks will not last forever ... and surely every teenager with a blemish is convinced that his face is a hopeless infestation that nobody will ever want to kiss. The shocking, unmotivated scene (executed by effects makeup artist Craig Reardon) is the creepiest thing in the movie.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Poltergeist rescues Spielberg's razzle-dazzle spookathon from the ravages of blurry VHS recordings. Almost all of the effects are more impressive in HD, with only a few gags (the tornado, some animated ghost-smoke) revealed to be weak animation; the corpses that pop up in the Freeling's pool and through their tile floors are particularly effective.
The book-style packaging has a forty-page, full color illustrated booklet that reads like original production notes, updated with career facts on the participants. It contains almost no production information, preferring to allude to spooky true-life events related by some of the actors. One photo of the talented effects crew has several familiar faces, but none are identified.
The extras do not include a full making-of piece on the movie, possibly because of the controversy around the directorial authorship issue and later sad developments, like the untimely death of child actress Heather O'Rourke and the murder of actress Dominique Dunne. We instead get a two part interview featurette that promotes Poltergeist's fantasies as real science. One of the producers vouches that the film's phenomena were based closely on actual haunting reports. Most of the docu is a forum for a succession of spiritualists, mediums and paranormal investigators. "Nobody to date has found anything to refute the existence of poltergeists", says one professor of parapsychology, neglecting to add that nobody has found hard evidence to support them either. The semantic arguments remain at the level of The Amazing Criswell in Ed Wood movies. The popularization of irrational beliefs has exploded in America, and the docu spokespeople use the high numbers of believers as "proof" of their reality. Nobody reminds us that Steven Spielberg is a storyteller making entertainment; and that the movie is only a fantasy.
Poltergeist is, however, a terrific Halloween roller-coaster movie!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The same punishment seems to be visited on the Dagwood Bumstead- like family in 1941, who also lose their house to outrageous fortune. With home ownership becoming an elusive dream for millions, Americans saw nothing funny in that beautiful beach house crashing to flinders on the sand.
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