Friday, March 12, 2010

Film Review: POLTERGEIST (1982, Tobe Hooper & Steven Spielberg)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 114 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Craig T. Nelson (ACTION JACKSON, COACH), Heather O'Rourke, JoBeth Williams (THE DOGS OF WAR, STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT), Beatrice Straight (won an Oscar for NETWORK), James Karen (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, MULHOLLAND DR., THE WILLIES), Sonny Landham (SOUTHERN COMFORT, PREDATOR, FLESHBURN), Zelda Rubinstein (TEEN WITCH). Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Written and produced by Steven Spielberg. Additional writers: Michael Grais and Mark Victor (DEATH HUNT, COOL WORLD, POLTERGEIST II).
Tag-line: "They're here."
Best one-liner: "Y'all mind hanging back? You're jamming my frequency."

I'm not here to argue about who actually did the bulk of the direction on this film (do a comparison with Hooper's Golan-Globus follow-up, LIFEFORCE, if you want to see what I think), but I think we can all agree that Spielberg was at the top of his game when he was peddling awesome, playfully morbid, PG-rated kiddie horror (from GREMLINS to TEMPLE OF DOOM). (See my TEMPLE OF DOOM review for a more in-depth discussion on the topic.) Largely inspired by the seminal TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Little Girl Lost," Spielberg proceeds to raise the stakes (and the steaks!) to the most ludicrously entertaining, technically innovative (the pre-CGI ingenuity of matte paintings, trick photography, and miniatures) point of spectral mayhem possible- ending up with basically THE definitive 'haunted house' film. Most horror films have 'that one scene' that they're remembered for. POLTERGEIST is a goddamned smorgasbord of ghostly delights: the clown, the tree, the chairs, the TV, the flesh-rippin', the pool... take your pick! The details are as exquisite as the main setpieces: a wind-up robot cackles in perverse amusement; a record plays itself in mid-air, a schoolboy's compass is the needle:

or a feathery skeleton-beast which could be 'THE monster' in any other movie, but which seems almost like a background detail in the no-holds-barred, chaotic finale:

The Freeling family is believable, likable, and engaging.

The scene of JoBeth Williams casually smoking pot (something that would never happen in a film today, unless it was being played for laffs) and Craig T. Nelson reading his Reagan book

is the perfect introduction to both their playful, private sphere and their stern, public façade. The reins of the nation were now ostensibly in the hands of meticulously contrived spokesmodel- the rest of the country had better maintain appearances, too. Forget the poltergeists for a minute, people– "It's morning in America again." Note the secrecy and embarrassment with which the family covers up its "problems at home." They should be feeling shame. They are no longer model residents of Cuesta Verde. It's one of Spielberg's more astute observations on the American family unit (Hooper's influence? Remember "The saw is family?"), and a certain, rare, non-gag-worthy morality emerges. When Carol Anne's bird "Tweety" dies, the bird is afforded a certain childlike dignity in its cigar-box burial. Of course, later, when James Karen's corporate douche reveals ("Oh, don't worry about it. After all, it's not ancient tribal burial ground. It's just... people. Besides, we have done it before.") his stance, we begin to see the general shift in basic human decency which that new morning in America was trying to obfuscate, I suppose.

Regardless, Tweety's funeral is crosscut with a group of hot-blooded men cheering on a football game.

Perhaps the spirits observed the value the living placed on this glowing electronic altar and for that reason chose to use it as a point of contact? Ha!

The supporting roles are solid, as well- Beatrice Straight's "if Joan Crawford were nice" grandmotherly expert, Sonny Landham's (!) bit part as a lascivious construction worker, Zelda Rubinstein's eerily wacky medium:

and James Karen's affably creepy land developer (who exudes eventual brow-furrowing 'what have I done?!' intensity):

James Karen: one of genre cinema's great unsung heroes.

Five stars.

-Sean Gill

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