Saturday, October 13, 2012

It Knows What Scares You

Sorry, D
I know that I've written about Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist several times. And there's a very good reason for that: it's a true modern genre classic. And I'll get to the why's and wherefores in just a minute.

First, I would like to note that Poltergeist serves as one of four movies with which I can always win a bar bet. I've seen this film so many times, you can play any scene without dialogue and I can tell you exactly what's happening on screen just by listening to the score. The other movies I can do this with are Raiders of the Lost Ark; Psycho and the original version of King Kong. I know my sister can also do this with Poltergeist; probably with Raiders... and maybe with Kong. But that's beside the point...

The Freelings are a typical suburban family of the early 1980's. Father Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful realtor in Cuesta Verde, the planned California community in which they reside. Mom Diane (Jobeth Williams) is young and hip, while rebellious teenaged daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) and her younger siblings Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (Heather O'Roarke) are typical kids. They all live typically messy suburban lives. A construction team installing their in-ground pool has the backyard in a tizzy, while the death of the family canary Tweety has Carol Anne wanting a canary funeral and Robby wanting to dig Tweety up after it rots.* One night, while Steven and Diane fall asleep in front of the TV, Carol Anne comes in to watch the post Anthem buzz (this was before the days of 24 hour cable) and begins talking to the "TV people." Soon, furniture in the kitchen begins to rearrange itself and Carol Anne can slide across the kitchen floor without being pushed. These seemingly harmless events soon escalate and Carol Anne is eventually captured by the "TV People" during a thunderstorm, her voice crying out from the TV for help. 

At their wits' end, the Freelings call in a team of parapsychologists, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) who brings her assistants Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella). After a particularly awful night in the house in which Marty sees himself tearing off his own face, Dr. Lesh calls in diminutive psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), who sends Steven on a journey through the Other Side to rescue Carol Anne from the 'Beast' which holds her captive. Tangina declares the house 'clean,' though the horror isn't over. It is eventually discovered (after Diane spends some horrifying moments among the corpses in her unfinished pool) that Steven's boss, developer Teague (James Karen) has built Cuesta Verde on an old cemetery where he moved the headstones, but left the bodies. The Freeling's house is eventually consumed by a psychic black hole.

Tobe Hooper, best known as the writer and director of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, had his undisputed best success with Poltergeist, though there are those who would argue that producer Steven Spielberg actually directed the movie. There are 'Speilbergian' touches all over the place, including his trademark close-ups and reaction shots. Of course, the performances of the (mostly) then unknown cast that make Poltergeist so good. Nelson and Williams are just terrific as the suburbanites who find themselves up against forces beyond their comprehension, while the accomplished Straight (Network) lends gravitas to the role of the bewildered parapsychologist (and I must admit to using part of her performance to inform my own performance in a college production of Equus). Add loads of foreshadowing in the brilliant script from Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor; a creepy clown doll; a terrifying tree; a ceiling crawl and amazing effects from Jeff Jarvis, Jose Abel and company, and you have the iconic ghost movie of all time. Oh, and then there's Jerry Goldsmith's aforementioned score. Genius doesn't even begin to cover how brilliantly Goldsmith was able to musically convey what's happening on screen. Can you say "Perfect Movie?"

Sadly, increasingly inferior sequels and the unfortunate deaths of several actors involved in the film and it's sequels (including young Heather O'Roarke's untimely death from an intestinal blockage and the murder of Dominique Dunne at the hands of an unstable ex) have led to a bizarre, cultish following to what should be considered one of the 80's best horror films.

Unfortunately, a completely unnecessary remake has been announced, though I (for one) am hoping the project never comes to fruition. Poltergeist remains one of the few ghost movies that scares, entertains and fascinates all at the same time. Any remake would have to prove exceptionally extraordinary to be worth seeing. Personally, I don't see that happening.

More, anon.

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