Thursday, February 27, 2014

Poltergeist (1982)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robbins, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein

Let's stipulate right off that Poltergeist is silly and unscary, except (maybe) for a couple of scenes jammed in the middle. The funny thing ha ha about this movie is how wrong it gets everything, even basic stuff, with paranormal investigators who are easily spooked, anachronistic science fiction effects, a proto-Big Chill couple smokin' dope in the bedroom, and seeming endless out-of-context hokum about "the light." It tries very hard to appear to know what it is talking about but it is obviously empty: "Poltergeists are usually associated with individuals. Hauntings seem to be connected with an area," explains our head paranormal investigator at one point, who wraps herself in a motherly shawl (Beatrice Straight). She is only reading lines from a script by Steven Spielberg in which he is merrily making shit up to fortify the special effects. He is the only poltergeist anywhere around here.

Therein lies the rub, of course—there's an exciting credit in director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), but the script is by Spielberg, the first words we see at the end are "A STEVEN SPIELBERG PRODUCTION," and it is, by all indications, Spielberg in full flush of working on Raiders of the Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial wanting to take on a horror project. By all indications, Hooper was there for the cred to get the deal done. By all indications, it was dollar signs on eyeballs (not least Hooper's) that wrecked this. And by all indications, it worked, a sideshow in the big summer of Steven Spielberg, with E.T. released just a week after it. Cha-ching, baby. E.T. is still high on the list of all-time earners, currently #9 between Shrek 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. But Poltergeist is not doing so shabby itself—#800 all-time.

Tobe Hooper is a topic for another time and place. Suffice to say for now he's virtually invisible in Poltergeist, save for some shots and storyboards (he loves people looming on staircases from below, for example). Hooper is just drowned out by the busy Steven Spielberg (who has his own interesting way of shooting looming people by the way, using a crane). It's a familiar Spielberg circus: suburban middle-class family scenery, ubiquitous TV sets turned on and playing (ludicrously they become instruments of evil here, not convincing perhaps but ahead at least of Videodrome and The Ring), the constant impulse to retreat into safe sitcom blocking and setups, and especially the overindulgence of special effects and music.

It's arguable that Hooper ran out of ideas after Chain Saw, but the evidence in Poltergeist is more persuasive that an egomaniac full of then-current horror was running the show. Spielberg would get better at this, and get better at collaborations too (in Gremlins, with Joe Dante), but he appears to be an uncontrollable force of nature run amok here. Poltergeist is most often aping other things, but adding nothing to them. A tree comes alive and grabs a kid—kind of like The Evil Dead! The cause of everything is defiling a cemetery—kind of like The Amityville Horror! Stuff is inexplicably swirling around in a bedroom—kind of like The Exorcist! Et cetera. These are not the kinds of things Hooper has done in his career, but Spielberg.

This was obvious then and it's still obvious now. My feelings about Spielberg have changed many times, in many ways—he remains one of the most confounding figures in cinema. If I liked Poltergeist then out of some sense of loyalty to him (mostly for Close Encounters of the Third Kind), now I'm more willing to dismiss it as a lesser effort. The scenes in Poltergeist that scared me (disturbed me, annoyed me, got under my skin) are consecutive in the middle of the picture, though also very much incidental to the action. One involves a cut of meat on a kitchen counter, the other a man looking at his face in a mirror. It's still pretty good stuff, but again, overdone.

The whole movie goes on too long, packed with false endings, colorful characters, extra-dimensional vortices, skeletons bobbing up in the swimming pool that is conveniently under construction in the backyard, thunder and lightning every night like evening prayers. Aiyiyi. This goes so far over the top it's coming up under its own ass again. Here's some trivia for you. Those skeletons in the swimming pool are real skeletons, because plastic versions were more costly. In a way this is a microcosm of the whole problem, isn't it? The representation of past spirits defiled includes slathering mud on and spraying down the remains of actual human beings. It's not hard to imagine Spielberg rubbing his hands at such a fortuitous turn of events. Real skeletons. And cheaper! So awesome cool, man. Like it was meant to be.

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