Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The sins of the past strike back in Poltergeist

Poltergeist (1982) film review

Reviewed on 06-23-2020

It does not matter how nice your neighborhood is, how perfect your family, how blissful your marriage, how precious your kids, and how beautifully designed your dream house in the suburbs is. None of that matters, because no matter how deep you try to bury the darkness, you cannot escape the sins of the past.

The above is what Poltergeist is really about.

Flashback to Friday June 4th 1982, the day Poltergeist opened up theaters across North America.

Though the great bull market of the 80s would not get underway until December, the sharking your way to the top, greed is good, it’s all about keeping score, corporate culture of the everyone wants to be rich feel good materialism of the 1980s, was well underway. So much so, that it is spot on appropriate that near the start of Poltergeist that the Freeling patriarch Steven is seen reading a biography on Ronald Reagan—while smoking a joint with his wife Diane.

Steven and Diane would have come of age during the 60’s. Deep down they are still free spirited hippies. They may still partake in the occasional joint, but they long ago sold out their identities and values to get ahead and stake their claim in Reagan’s America. And at first look, it seems they have succeeded on a massive scale. To me, and so many others who gazed upon this perfect family, the inviting house and the picturesque neighborhood, this was a house we all would have loved to have grown up in. The kind of house every kid in the neighborhood would be drawn toward and want to hang out in.

Yet beneath it all, something lurks. Something from beyond, lurking, planning, waiting for a chance to “punch a whole into this world”, and take with it the most precious gift the Freelings have. Not the house or their possessions, but their angelic youngest child Carol Anne.  

I give you all this background and subtext not because I like to wax on and theorize and sound like I’m writing for Film Comment or some stuffy journal. I bring these things up because they are important. The background and subtext is what gives Poltergeist depth and meaning, beyond just being an expertly produced, shrewdly directed, and beautifully acted scary light show.This subtext matters because it is why Poltergeist still matters.

You can’t just build your house on top of a graveyard and pretend the bodies are not there. This is a lesson being taught to us in 2020 in ways as horrific as any horror film.

You can’t just build an empire on genocide and slavery and pretend it never happened. You can’t just trash the Earth and slaughter wildlife for your own amusement and for “exotic meat markets”. Keep doing it. Keep being arrogant about it and you’ll get deadly viruses and social unrest.

You want to build your house on a graveyard you arrogant greedy bastard? Good luck with that pal.

What about the film itself? Well, you don’t need me to tell you it’s a fucking masterpiece. And as far as the, who really directed it thing? I look at this the same way I view Superman II.

Was that Tobe Hopper or Spielberg who directed that scene? Was that Dick Donner or Richard Lester who staged that Niagara Falls sequence?

I really don’t give a rat’s ass. All I know is that both movies are brilliantly directed and since Tobe Hooper is the director of record on Poltergeist, he gets the directing credit, regardless of Spielberg’s obvious influence. Remember, Spielberg wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, in addition to handling most of the post production including the spotting of Jerry Goldsmith’s insanely brilliant score. Strong producers have been influencing movies and putting their auteur stamp on films since the beginning of Hollywood—David O’Selznick, Val Lewton, Joel Silver, etc.

Upon re-watching the film recently, there are some things that really struck me.

The performances are all so spot on and so natural. These feel like real people and this feels like a real family we all could have grown up next door to. Anyone long enough in the tooth to have seen Poltergeist in the theaters in 1982 will remember being knocked out by Zelda Rubinstein as the spiritual medium Tangina brought in to “clean” the house. She is sensational and just takes over the film during much of the final act.

But the true standout performance is by the heart and soul of the movie, JoBeth Williams as Freeling matriarch Diane.

Spielberg films and productions always seem to nail the casting of the suburban mom, but none have been required to do as much as JoBeth is asked here. With rare exceptions, acting nominations (or any non-technical nominations for that matter) are never bestowed upon horror movies, especially in 1982, but in an ideal world where horror is not shunned, her performance is good enough to be in the running for an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. Really, she is that good.

So are the special effects.

I have yet to see Poltergeist again on the big screen during one of those throwback night things, and now probably never will, since we may never, ever, ever have movies in theaters again. But man oh man, I’d love to see Richard Edlund, Bruce Nicholson and company’s visual treats back up on the big screen. Because even on my 21 inch monitor, they look amazing. I would take the optical/practical visual effects of Poltergeist (or Close Encounters or Blade Runner) over today’s super dull repetitive CGI stuff any bleeping day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Another thing that struck me during my revisit of Poltergeist is how the film can be so legitimately spooky and scary, and yet so hauntingly beautiful. The “Parade of Ghosts” scene where we see the other-worldly spirits drifting down the staircase is, like so much of film, is infused with such a great sense of wonder.

Speaking of beautiful, haunting, spooky, and filled with wonder, as well as being downright jolting—there is the music of Poltergeist.  I won’t spend time on Jerry Goldsmith’s masterpiece of a score here because I review it elsewhere in this book. But suffice to say it is a classic, one of Jerry’s best and flat out one the best soundtracks of all time. Period. Full stop.

Bottom line **** (out of four)

A timeless classic with strong performances, brilliant special effects, and a rich thematic subtext that make the film as relevant today as it was in 1982.

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