Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Zelda Rubinstein, James Karen
Written by: Steven Spielberg
1/2 (out of 4)
Who owns Poltergeist – Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg? IMDB trivia says that most of the directorial decisions were made by Spielberg. Members of the cast and crew have stated that Spielberg cast the film, directed the actors, and designed every single storyboard for the movie. He also supervised the effects, edited, and chose Jerry Goldsmith to compose the score. But I think you just have to watch the film to figure it out – the suburban tract homes, the shots of people “looking” at something fantastic, the cutesy interplay between kids and adults, the dramatic Goldsmith score turned up to “obnoxious”, and the cartoony “ghost” effects. Yes, this is a Spielberg flick for most of the running time, but as Spielberg flicks go, it’s pretty good. What works in its favor is that I get this sense that Hooper has been pulling the film away from the “light” and towards the darkness. Hooper is the devil whispering in Spielberg’s ear, so occasionally you’ll get scenes that don’t seem to belong in this “family” haunted house movie, like a guy tearing the flesh off his face, or the whole apocalyptic conclusion which involves gravestones and dead bodies popping out of the ground. I wonder if the early scene of Steve Freeling waging a TV battle with his neighbor using remote controls is some kind of metaphor for Hooper and Spielberg butting heads. But I say, thank God for Hooper’s influence, however limited.
As the main titles appear on the screen, you hear the national anthem that concludes a television channel’s broadcast day. An absence of a signal leaves room for the dead to start communicating with little blonde-haired Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke); the image of Carol Anne sitting in front of the flickering analog noise is nothing less than iconic. Cut to shots of an overview of Suburbia, USA, where daddy Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) works for Mr. Teague (James Karen) as a real estate salesman, responsible for almost half the sales in the family-friendly community of Cuesta Verde. When we first meet him, he’s in bed with hot wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, super-MILF) smoking a joint (and he’s reading a copy of Reagan: The Man, The President – as Richard Scheib says it best: there is probably no more potent an image in 1980s cinema of the 1960s radical having been absorbed into middle-class conservatism than this). Rounding out the cast is teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) and son Robbie (Oliver Robins), who is afraid of the evil looking tree right outside his window as well as the evil looking clown puppet sitting on the chair in front of his bed. (Why he puts a puppet he hates at the foot of his bed is a mystery; also a mystery is why he doesn’t just close the drapes to not see the tree). Anyway, you win no prize for guessing that tree and clown will try to kill poor Robbie before the movie is up – but it’s an effective exploitation of childhood fears, for sure. After a ghostly hand comes out of the television causing little Carol Anne to exclaim “They’re here!”, the ghosts start pulling pranks like rearranging kitchen table chairs and moving objects around. It’s quite amusing to Diane, until Carol Anne gets sucked into another dimension that opens up in her closet. After that, it’s full-on haunting, 24/7, and the Freelings seek the help of parapsychologists Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Ryan (Richard Lawson), and Marty (Martin Casella).
Marty splits after the spirits do a number on him, both physically and emotionally (watching his chicken leg covered with maggots and then imagining tearing his own face off – that’s enough work for one day). Diane freaks out after feeling Carol Anne’s presence moving through her soul (freaky idea, that); Dr. Lesh calls in reinforcements in the form of psychic medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein, RIP). Tangina patiently explains that the spirits are attracted to Carol Anne’s life force, which is helping to keep them from going into “the light.” Manipulating both the spirits and Carol Anne is the “Beast” (a demon, I assume) who appears to Carol Anne as simply another child. The rest of Poltergeist deals with the family’s attempts to retrieve Carol Anne and deal with the Beast, who comes back with a vengeance. There’s some good stuff in here – Diane and Carol Anne emerging from another dimension like being born again (covered in ectoplasm – one of a few noticeable influences on Ghostbusters, I gather), Rubinstein’s great performance as Tangina, the giant Beast head and skeleton demon (reminds me of Evil Dead), the invisible attack scene on Diane while she’s wearing nothing but underwear and football jersey (reminds me of A Nightmare on Elm Street), the corpses popping out of the ground, the house implosion scene. There’s lots of trademark imagery here to give Poltergeist its deserved classic status, despite the fact that some of the effects are dated in 2010 and Spielberg has a tendency to get sappy as well as drown out a scene in a bombastic score.
No matter; I sense in Poltergeist a rage against Suburbia (probably Hooper’s doing) and against the invasion of television in the family household, assimilating everything under its radiant glow (see the ending shot of Nelson wheeling out the hotel television). There’s also some subtext about the corruption of the American dream (take the suburban setting, add the Star-Spangled Banner, and drop a line about ancient tribal burial grounds). Hell, you could read a lot into it – as an anti-capitalist screed (Teague’s holy ground desecration to save money), a testament to the strength of the nuclear family, etc. The movie isn’t perfect – mostly it’s uneven because it is a collaboration between two people with different philosophies – but its effect on popular culture cannot be ignored. I think that, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist exposes the underbelly of 80′s America, and makes for a hell of a time capsule.
- Bill Gordon
Trivia: The morbid among you may be interested in the Poltergeist Curse; Dominique Dunne would be strangled to death by a jealous boyfriend at the age of 22. Heather O’Rourke died in 1988 at the age of 12 from a bizarre bowel obstruction. Julian Beck and Will Sampson (both from Poltergeist II: The Other Side) also passed away within a few years of that film. For more information on Poltergeist, try this informative web site. An interesting deconstruction of the first film can be found here.