Saturday, October 3, 2009

It Knows What Scares You

Warning: there are spoilers ahead, so if you've never seen Poltergeist (and shame on you if you haven't), you may want to skip this post.

I was barely into my 20's in 1982 and already a jaded horror fan who expected a movie to work hard in order to scare me. The along came a little movie I just love, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist. Undoubtedly Hooper's biggest hit, Poltergeist has producer Steven Spielberg's hands all over it, and together they made one hell of a scary movie.

With a cast of mostly unknowns and a clever marketing campaign, Poltergeist is one horror movie almost everyone has seen. There's very little gore, but plenty of weirdness and suspense and loads of rotted corpses and evil corporate goings-on. Hooper, still probably best known for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, wisely lets the story unfold naturally and there are no forced or rushed sequences. Spielberg's touch can best be seen in the performances he and Hooper get out of the younger cast members.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Unlike previous haunted house movies, Poltergeist isn't set in a rotting Victorian mansion, a rotting antebellum Plantation or a rotting Scottish castle on the moors. It's set in quiet, suburban Cuesta Verde, among cookie-cutter houses with manicured lawns and backyard pools. Nope, nothing rotting here. Patriarch Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) works for the developer who built Cuesta Verde and is among their top salesmen. Stay-at-home mom, Diane (Jobeth Williams) has her hands full with three kids, Dana (Dominique Dunne); Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable Carol Anne (Heather O'Roarke), not to mention a motley crew of guys installing the new pool. But all seems well and typical and happy in Cuesta Verde and the Freeling home. Until this happens:

The next morning, freaky things start to happen. Dana's glass of milk shatters without warning. And the kitchen chairs (in a brilliantly edited scene) stack themselves atop the table. By the time Dad gets home the next night, Mom has poor Carol Anne playing "magic slide" across the kitchen floor, like a carnival ride. Nevermind that Carol Anne already told Diane that the "T.V. people" were stacking the chairs - Diane's too busy having her former hippie mind blown (you know the Freelings are former hippies because they smoke pot - there's a funny scene where they bury a canary in the cigar-box they keep the pot in and Carol Anne says "It smells funny"). Anyway, that night, this happens:

Soon, a team of paranormal investigators is brought in, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her two assistants, Marty and Ryan. Stunned by the flying toys in Carol Anne's room, the team sets up special cameras and equipment around the house, and they all stay up late whispering about what happens when you die. Then Marty goes to the kitchen for a snack, only to find steak crawling across the counter and maggots in his drumstick. He runs to the bathroom to puke, but then ends up tearing his own face off! (Not really - he just hallucinates it, but still looks like this.)

Dr. Lesh then brings in an eccentric, diminutive medium improbably named Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), who tells them that Carol Anne is trapped on the Other Side, held by a dark beast. She devises a plan wherein she will enter the Other Side through the "window" in Carol Anne's closet and bring the child back. Ultimately, it's a mother's job and she goes through, to return with Carol Anne, covered in pink slime, but a live. And upon which Tangina declares "This house is clean!" But hold your horses, little medium. You may be a living oxymoron, but that doesn't mean you can perform an effective exorcism. On their last night in the house, just when you think it's safe to sleep, this shit goes down:

That scene works so well because of its quietness. No ominous chords; no shivering tremolo of strings. Just silence. Until, of course, the Evil Clown attacks. Then it's full on John Williams orchestra, monsters from hell and that weird stretching hallway effect. Eventually, Diane finds herself in the swimming pool, filled with mud and corpses. Turns out, Questa Verde was built on top of a cemetery that was never actually moved. Smart move, evil corporation.

Just the thought of sliding inexorably and inevitably down into a muddy pit of rotting corpses makes me want to cry. of course, the whole thing was foreshadowed by the pool crew digging up the box containing poor Tweety's remain just before everything went all hinky.

Like so many great 80's movie, I saw Poltergeist with my sister. I remember that we left the theater both exhausted and exhilarated, knowing we had seen a classic. Of course, there's all that nonsense about the "Poltergeist Curse." Starting with the tragic murder of Dominique Dunne at the hands of a crazed boyfriend (contrary to urban legend, she was strangled, not decapitated) and compounded by the tragic operating table death of Heather O'Roarke, the Curse has gone on to include cast members of the movie's increasingly stupid sequels, including one actor was already living on borrowed time to begin with.

Still, using then state-of-the-art special effects; an exceptionally talented cast and terrific script, Spielberg and Hooper made one hell of a scary movie that still holds up nearly 30 years later. And one, as I have said previously, I should give more love to. If you've never seen it, you should. Sadly, the completely unnecessary re-make has already been announced.

More Shocktober terrors, anon.

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