October Horror Movie Series-Poltergeist

October 13, 2008

Poltergeist(1982)-Dir. Tobe Hooper; Warner Brothers 25th Anniversary Edition DVD(2007)

Poltergeistis a perfect blend of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. It manages to be both a special effects bonanza that retains a certain amount of nostalgia while at the same time expressing Tobe Hooper’s horror sensibility. I am assuming that it is Hooper’s sensibilities since we have never really seen Spielberg work in that medium again but this is a film in which it is hard to tell where Spielberg the producer stopped and Hooper the director took over. It certainly feels like a Spielberg movie, for the most part, but then again, isn’t a good collaboration about creating a seamless project that doesn’t reveal who worked on what?

 It is also one of the rare horror movies that has achieved blockbuster status. It is a movie that you almost feel obligated to see because it has worked its way so deeply into America’s popular culture psyche. So much so that Heather O’ Rourke’s character Carol Anne sitting in front of the television saying “they’re here” along with Craig T. Nelson have been adopted for the switch to digital television ad campaign.  Particular scenes, the characters, and lines of dialogue from the movie are as iconic as many of the other films Spielberg has worked on.

The film is also unique because of the fact that it is a special effects ghost story done in a way, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, that hadn’t been seen before. Horror movies usually are not the films to get the budgets and that is usually a blessing in disguise. But in this case there is no way the story that Spielberg wanted to tell could have been brought to the screen without them; being able to combine a few scenes of visceral scares with the impressive effects of a house disappearing into a sinkhole, a closet that open up and sucks everything into it, and beams of light moving through a house are all pretty impressive. What is impressive too is that we don’t lose track of the characters. They manage to remain at the forefront through the whole movie. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play perfectly in Spielberg’s suburban fantasy( a theme he has mined on several occasions-most notably in the almost simultaneous 1982 release of E.T.) as the relatively easy going typical suburban parents and their typical suburban kids  whose lives are disrupted when their house becomes the center of not so typical spectral activity. 

Throughout the whole movie, the creepy and alarming things that go on in the house, even Carol Anne’s disappearance, are handled in the same matter of fact way that Steve Freeling argues with his neighbor over the t.v. remote signals crossing during the football game or the children sitting around the table at breakfast. The only indication of something being wrong at first is the way that Craig T. Nelson’s character looks after JoBeth Williams’ character excitedly shows him what the chairs can do in the kitchen. At this point in the movie we are left wondering if Steve Freeling is the only sensible person in the house or just an adult who works too much and has no connection to the childhood fantasy world.  I don’t think that question is every properly answered but it does become clear as events take a supernatural turn for the worst that there are no adults equipped to deal with the evil that is wrecking so much havoc. That is really no comfort for any child being terrorized by a dark force but the film suggests in several not so subtle ways that adults have as much control over events as children do in some cases, and sometimes even less than we like to think.

Whatever your opinion of Stephen Spielberg and his films might be, whether you see him as just an example of a bloated hollywood system that churns out special effects movies, or as someone who just has a natural gift and the “magic touch” when it comes to creating images and movies that resonate with popular culture, Poltergeist seems to exemplify a little of both sides of the argument.  That being said, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it, for no other reason than to be able to be a little more literate in film and culture.  Besides, how often do you get to see ghosts and giant monsters rampaging around the house?

Up Next the October Horror Movie Series movies from haunted houses to haunted ruins as we pay a visit to the Tombs of The Blind Dead(La Noche Del Terror Ciego); the first film in Amando De Ossorio’s 1970’s blind dead series.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to my good friend Jennifer Sutphin who has joined me here on the movie series staff. She will be helping design the page, contributing movie titles, and many other things.

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