Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Controversy surrounded the making of Poltergeist (1982). The question of who directed the film continues to be asked: Tobe Hooper, the official director in the credits, or Steven Spielberg, producer and co-writer of the movie, who some sources say had a more than hands-on approach to his role in the project? Frankly, I don't care who the director is. The movie was made, and it is out there to be viewed, enjoyed, and talked about. Let the film fall or rise on its own merits instead of who its author or authors were.

Weird things are going on in the suburban home of the Freelings - Steven (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams), teenaged Dana, 8-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and 5-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Objects start moving on their own, the dog barks at an empty spot in the bedroom, and little Carol Anne, at night, converses with the "TV people," voices only she can hear coming through the static of the television. At first, these phenomena are a curiosity, but one night, a tree in the backyard comes to life and tries to eat Robbie, and while the family is distracted, some force snatches in Carol Anne through the closet, taking her to the unseen spirit world.

Traditional ghost stories are often set in Gothic settings: the creaky old mansion or the gloomy castle presided over by the likes of Vincent Price. Poltergeist drops its spirits in the middle of the modern American home of middle-class suburbia. While they've since established themselves as fairly recognizable actors, Nelson and Williams were both relative unknowns (the biggest name in the cast at the time was Oscar winner Beatrice Strait who turns up as the leader of a team of paranormal investigators), and the family does feel likes it's made up of of people who are related to each other and not just actors playing the parts.

Poltergeist's style is a mixture of the quiet and subtle unease with the loud and in-your-face horror. There are the spooky occurrences, the little things that can't be explained: the chairs being stacked on the kitchen table, the dog's strange behavior, Carol Anne talking to the TV, the clown doll not in the same place it was left, the flickering lights. Those occurrences are a contrast to the phantasmagoria produced by Industrial Light and Magic for the film: the paranormal investigator hallucinating that he peels his own face off, the closet that opens up in to a yawning intestinal-like chasm, a giant spectral "beast," the tree that comes to life and grabs a little boy, corpses and coffins bursting out of the ground, an unseen force dragging Diane across the ceiling, portals to other realms, and the bedroom filled with floating objects (including a toy TIE fighter and a record that plays by spinning on a compass.) There's an occasional moment of awe and wonder as when the family and investigators watch as spectral being.

The film plays on both childhood fears and adult anxieties: childhood fears like the creepy doll you're convinced is alive, the belief something is waiting in the closet to get you, the spooky tree that could be tapping on the window, and thunderstorms and adult anxieties such as disappearing children, threats to your loved ones, losing a home, trouble at work, and being confronted by questions you don't have the answer to.

As to the question of whether Spielberg or Hooper directed this, the only thing I'll say is I can see both filmmakers' personal style and aesthetics. The family under siege that comes together and triumphs through their love and the setting in suburbia, where the family eats at Pizza Hut and the children have Star Wars toys and bedsheets, is reminiscent of Spielberg. However, there is a subversive streak that is prevalent in Hooper's work elsewhere; the big reveal is that this suburban development was built atop a cemetery - the headstones were moved but not the bodies - and that kind of rot beneath the facade illustrates the seedy underbelly of wealth and conformity. Sure, this neighborhood has all comforts and cuteness would could possibly want for a family, but it's built on a faulty foundation of lies and greed. (True story, the production used real skeletons because they were cheaper than plastic ones. Hypocritical, much?).

Poltergeist is a movie built about no respect for boundaries, whether it be between neighbors or the living and the dead. Early on, Steve gets into a dispute with the next-door neighbor because their TVs are on the same frequency. The Freelings are installing a pool, and yet the workers catcall Dana, and one leans in through the kitchen window to swipe some coffee and take a spoonful of something off the stovetop. And it's not just the real estate developers who are disrespectful to the dignity of the dead. Diane, finding Carol Anne's pet bird Tweety (that would be its name) dead, she tries to flush to flush it down the toilet until her little girl catches her in the act. Tweety is eventually buried in the backyard; Robbie asks if they can dig up its bones after it rots, and after the funeral, Carol Anne smilingly asks if she can get a goldfish.

The film has the occasional laugh, like when the investigators boast about a past experience they recorded, a toy truck that moved on its own volition a few inches; the Freelings then open the door to the haunted room where toys are flying around. The movie also takes a not-so-subtle shot about where the spirits come from: the TV. In the end, when the family has moved into a motel, the first thing they do is push the set out of their room. Whether it's bringing in evil spirits or violent media, television is the real enemy.

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