Friday, October 8, 2010

Poltergeist

As part of my quest to watch (and review) nothing but horror movies this October, I decided to view some horror classics that I have, somehow, over the years managed to avoid.  First up, we have Poltergeist, the 1982 classic featuring direction from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre writer/director, Tobe Hooper, and a script that was co-written (and produced, and some say co-directed) by Steven Spielberg.  In 1982, that was a can't miss situation.  In 2010...well, let's take a look-see.

The film opens in suburbia, where Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) live with their three children, Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne.  The first sign that something is unusual in their home is when Carol Anne wakes up in the middle of the night and begins talking very loudly with the television, even though it is after broadcast hours and the station is just broadcasting static snow.  This is the point where she utters her iconic line, "They're heeeeeere."  Unusual storms seem to be centering around their home, too, although not necessarily supernatural.  Eventually, the audience witnesses another instance of Carol Anne talking to the "TV people," only this time ethereal arms (claws?) come out of the television set, turn to smoke, and somehow cause the room to shake with a violence that Steve and Diane mistake for an earthquake.  Then, things start to get weird.  Soon afterward, a creepy, knotted tree outside of Robbie and Carol Anne's bedroom window breaks through the glass, grabs Robbie and tries to eat him.  You don't have time to ask yourself "Wait...was that a killer tree?!?" because Robbie and Carol Anne's closet has seemingly become a portal to another dimension (or something), sucking Carol Anne and a lot of their belongings into the void.  Knowing when they're beat, Steve and Diane consult with some paranormal scientists, headed by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight).  The scientists know when they're beat, too, so they call in the big guns, or at least the potent guns --- Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), a psychic who can help bring the madness to an end.

Most people mistake this film as a horror film.  That's just not true; it's a morality tale.  You see, none of this would have happened if Steve and Diane were better parents.  Think about it.  When the kids' pet bird dies, Diane goes to flush it down the toilet (that's a stone cold bitch right there), but is caught in the act because she flushes the toilet and then pauses to watch the water drain while dangling the avian corpse above the bowl.  Listen, lady, the bird's dead, you can't torture it any more than you already have.  And here's a tip on your next bird disposal: toss it in the bowl first and then flush, or at least wrap it up and throw it in the outdoor garbage.  Oh!  And then she lets tucks Robbie into bed with his baseball cap on.  Seriously?  While not negligent, that just screams "tired indifference" to me.  And what parent keeps an It-level scary clown toy in their child's room?  Robbie is obviously terrified of it, and yet it sits, watching him sleep every night.  Speaking of sleep, don't most parents close their child's curtains at night, especially during thunderstorms?  Kids get up early enough as it is, they don't need help waking up with the dawn.  Of course, that all pales in comparison to their ultimate sin, Steve and Diane's illegal indulgence in ***gasp*** marijuana!  I believe this movie was originally written as a direct sequel to Reefer Madness, but I can find no evidence of this online, possibly because I made it up in my head just now.

Actually, Poltergeist is a pretty well made picture.  The direction, with regards to the camera work, is very good, with shot after shot of efficient and effective visual storytelling.  There's a lot of supernatural things happening in this movie, so clear storytelling is a huge factor in the effectiveness of this film.  I will admit that the film definitely feels and looks like more of a Spielberg movie than a Hooper one; I, for one, support the theory that Spielberg did just about everything with this film (including the key post-production work) except the day-to-day filming.  The acting is, for the most part, pretty decent.  As the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams do a decent job with the calm moments and a great job with the stressful ones; the kids are less effective, often overacting or just looking bored.  I was a little disappointed in Beatrice Straight's performance --- it was only okay --- but was definitely impressed with Zelda Rubinstein.  Her lines in the movie are the most quoted for a reason, folks.


The special effects in this supernatural thriller are as good as you would expect from a Spielberg-produced 1982 feature.  My favorite effects were the small ones, like the moving furniture, the swimming pool scene, and Diane's bout with antigravity.  The post-production stuff, like the TV hands and the ghostly effects have aged poorly.  Unfortunately, those type of effects make up most of the second half of this movie (and the entire third act).  I'm all for special effects extravaganzas, but the end of this film abandons plot entirely and is just shot after shot of special effects weirdness.


I'm not sure exactly how well I liked this movie.  I went through several stretches of boredom while watching it, but I also appreciated things like the film style and the dedication of the parental characters.  Seriously, Diane can lord the fact that she went to hell and back (literally) over Carol Anne's head for the rest of her life!  Part of the problem I have is with the fact that we never actually know for sure whether or not the house has a poltergeist or not; it's a possibility, but we're never given a definitive answer aside from the title of the movie.  The other problem I have is with the inclusion of the children.  I thought Carol Anne was good in her limited screen time, but the other two were pretty useless and, in the second half, awful actors.  This is the story of a family, sure, but I just don't see how the older two siblings add to the story.  And I still have no idea what happened with that evil tree.

Even those problems are minimal when compared to the last half hour of the film.  After about 80 minutes of cerebral horror, the last bit just throws special effects at the audience, overloading the senses with oozing creatures and lighting effects.  I thought I knew what was going on when Tangina Barrons showed up and exorcised the demons (even though that never addressed the hungry tree), but the film keeps going, completely nullifying her work and adding a lot more random supernatural stuff than ever before.  It's as if the end of this film was made because they had extra cool-looking storyboards left over after they finished shooting the script.  Yes, the vanishing house is a cool visual, but that's all the post-Tangina part of the movie provides.

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