Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Horror Classic Movie Review: Poltergeist

I remember watching this quite young because it was a popular movie when I was a kid and my whole family watched it, I think. Of course, I identified with the boy in the film and I even had a tree outside my bedroom window.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews

My memories of Poltergeist resonate from my childhood when I was scared almost senseless by the supernatural spirits that haunt the Freeling household in a California suburb. As I watched it again many years later I realized that probably as a child I saw my own family in the Freelings. There’s Diane (JoBeth Williams), who is a housewife raising three kids: the teenaged Dana (Dominique Dunne); middle child Robbie (Oliver Robins) and the five or six year old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a local realtor and stalwart Dad who wants to protect his family. I must have been about Carol Anne’s age when I first saw the film. I have an older brother and sister just like she does and my parents were also in their mid-30s back then. I even had a large tree growing outside my bedroom window just to cap off the similarities.

Yes, Poltergeist maybe has had a stronger effect on me because of those parallels, but at the same time it is a remarkably well-written and unbelievably technically proficient horror film. The suburban setting and child in danger theme are clearly the work of Steven Spielberg, who wrote the original story and collaborated on the screenplay with Michael Grais and Mark Victor. Tobe Hooper, best known for The Texas ChainsawMassacre is the credited director, but most accounts suggest that Spielberg himself had a strong hand in directing the picture. In fact, much of the camera movement and shot composition is much more evocative of Spielberg’s work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. than Hooper’s work.

The film begins rather ominously in the Freeling house at night while the family slumbers and the TV station signs off, as they used to do, with the player of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The TV turns to static and young Carol Anne awakens and is drawn to it, striking up a conversation. The next night, spirits bolt out of the TV, shaking the house and everyone in it, after which Carol Anne famously declares, “They’re here.” Who exactly we don’t yet know. Coming from such a cherubic angel of a little girl, it is one of the film’s most chilling moments.

Unlike the slasher films of that era, Poltergeist doesn’t go in for the cheap thrills and rushes right out of the gate. It takes the time to develop character and establish a family routine. We see the family in their day-to-day: Steven at work or arguing with neighbors; Dana heading off to school; the family at breakfast; the untimely death of the pet canary. Even the initial stages of spiritual cohabitation in the house is presented as kind of fun and exciting, resulting in harmless games like sliding objects and sudden appearances of a pyramid of kitchen chairs. It’s not until the second half of the film that the roller coaster really begins, after Carol Anne vanishes through a portal in her bedroom closet into a parallel dimension inhabited by spirits.

Under normal circumstances, how could a family explain such occurrences to family and friends without them thinking they’re completely bonkers? One of the film’s main accomplishments is the way it grounds such unreal events in a down to earth and completely relatable setting. The Freelings seek the aid of Dr. Lesh, a university psychologist who dabbles in paranormal psychology. She brings her team into the home to investigate and they find a lot more than they expected, eventually calling on Tangina, a spiritual medium played by the diminutive Zelda Rubinstein, to help guide the family to Carol Anne’s rescue. Beatrice Straight plays Dr. Lesh, lending acting gravitas and a mode of severity to a film that might otherwise not be taken very seriously. She and Rubinstein play their roles without irony. They are the solid ground on which the film rests, especially given the rather freewheeling nature of the first half of the film as Diane has some fun with the supernatural entities and she and Steven take a brief parenting break to smoke some dope.

Most of the visual effects in the film were top notch in their day, earning an Academy Award nomination in the process. Truthfully, the majority of the effects still stand up today. With the exception of a few floating objects, there’s little I could point to and clearly show where the film stock ended and the optical effects began. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is truly one of the best horror film scores I can recall. It does so much more than evoke feelings of unease and terror. Goldsmith took the time to compose a real Hollywood score with multiple themes, including moments of tenderness and release in the musical accompaniment to the tension on film.

If I can find one fault with the film, it’s that the biggest climactic sequence, in which Carol Anne is rescued from the spirits, does not conclude the film. There is a second climax that is not nearly as suspenseful or interesting as the first. It’s a perfectly well-constructed sequence at the end, but it feels like something of an anti-climax given what preceded it. Still, Poltergeist remains one of the great classics of horror cinema and one of the few truly memorable examples from the 1980s.

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