Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Favorite Era: Poltergeist (1982)

I love a good ghost story and Poltergeist is easily the best one to come out of the 80's.  An awesome pairing of Steven Spielberg as writer/producer and Tobe Hooper as director, it's a marvelously tense and creepy tale about a family in a small California housing tract beset by ghouls.  Good acting, fantastic special effects from ILM and a few moments that still legitimately scare the crap out of me make this one of the horror flicks of the 80's.  Let's take a closer look.
  • First off, just to get this out of the way, I believe that Tobe Hooper was the sole director of this but Spielberg did have quite a bit of input.
  • To the movie, I love how Hooper sets up the television right off the bat, giving it an almost spooky quality...not hard when you're just looking at a gigantic closeup of indistinct images.
  • The first act is very well done as you really get a comfortable, suburban small town feeling that lulls you into a false sense of security very well.  You really want to live in that house...pants-wettingly-terrifying haunting aside.  We get a nice, normal family in a nice, normal house...just the right set of folks for the audience to sympathize with as they get the ever-loving crap scared out of them.
  • Before we get too deep into things, I just want to point out how great Jerry Goldsmith's music is, especially the creepy main title theme.  The fact that it is so mellow and sweet makes it even more creepy than it should be.
  • The first act, as I said does a great job setting the tone and as a nice bonus, every single scare comes from something seen during this stretch of time.  God, early Spielberg just rocked!  Even when not directing!
  • I love that it;s a full 23 minutes before anything overtly supernatural happens.  It's nice to see a horror movie that takes its time and uses that time well.
  • All the acting is great here from Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as the parents to the kids.  Hell, even the dog has good screen presence.
  • I get a kick out of how casually Williams takes the supernatural stuff at first.  Having a laugh at the kitchen chairs arranging themselves, the floor turning into essentially a gravity hill, it's a nice (though to be honest, really dumb if you stop and think about it) detail.  Equally fun is Nelson taking charge.
  • The scene almost immediately after this where the son is nearly eaten by the tree is just a marvel of effects, music and cinematography, as is the concurrent sequence of the little girl being pulled into the closet.
  • I'd like to say you can tell which stuff came from Spielberg (the sweet family stuff) and which stuff came from Hooper (the gut punch horror stuff), but you need to remember Steve decided to end Raiders of the Lost Ark with exploding heads and melting faces not to mention the rather high level of blood in the entire film...And he got a PG rating for the flick.  As far as gore goes, Hooper has dabbled a bit here and there but not that much at this point.  I think his highest gore level was in the second Texas Chainsaw Massacre film and in that case, he had Tom Savini on hand.  Well, you don't hire Savini and not let him throw some blood around!
  • That being said, this is one of the most messed up PG rated films I have ever seen.
  • Back to this movie, the entry of the paranormal investigators into the film is rather amusing when seen today with the glut of ghost hunting shows on cable now.  If I can find any flaw with the movie, it would be that it takes the subject a little too seriously.  That being said, this element does help the scare scenes.
  • Nelson's unimpressed reaction to one of the investigator's stories and his subsequent reveal of why they keep the kid's room locked is both funny and creepy.
  • A little over an hour in, we get the one scene that absolutely freaked me the hell out when I was a kid: the guy hallucinating that he's tearing his face off.  I think between that and the arm wrestling scene in The Fly, it's a wonder I became a fan of horror later on.  Great scene, though.  These days I'm more impressed with the steak moving across the counter.
  • I enjoy James Karen as Nelson's boss.  He brings just the right amount of smarm to the part (given that he built a housing project over an old Indian burial ground, it's needed) but he never becomes so bad you want to see him dead.  It's a nicely nuanced piece of acting.
  • Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina is one of the best things in the movie.  She takes what could have been a ridiculous character and makes her someone who when she shows up, you know she's there to take charge and get the job done.  It's sort of like Tommy Lee Jones' first scene in The Fugitive in an odd way.
  • Speaking of which, one of the most amusing things concerning the vaunted "Poltergeist curse" revolves around the late Ms. Rubinstein.  I saw a documentary on the subject a few years ago and pretty much everyone gave their take on the subject in slightly wordy but thoughtful sound bites.  Zelda though?  She just looked into the camera and intoned "Bullshit" when asked about the curse.  Priceless.
  • I tend to agree with her statement as well.  It's an interesting theory to talk about but at the end of the day it's slightly disrespectful to the dead if you really start buying into it.  And given what the plot of this movie is about...
  • The first climax with the rescue is a really great light show with one nice scare when the giant skull pops out.
  • The second one is ever better as we get nasty ghosts, creepy clown dolls, decaying bodies and a house imploding on itself.  Good stuff.
  • The joke at the end with Nelson moving the TV set out of the motel room is a nicely funny way to end the movie.
 Not much else to say, really.  I love this movie, it's one of the best horror films of the 80's and still works today.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.