Monday, March 14, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part IX: But I barely know her geist!


Not the father of all haunted house movies, but more like their richer, cooler stepdad, Poltergeist is where the modern haunting movie came into its ownfor better or worse, there's no Blumhouse without the Freeling house.  More importantly, however, it's also one of the best of its particular breed, still incredibly frightening (and still visually resplendent) to this very day.

Directed by somebody! maybe it was you!
Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor
With JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), and Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina)

Spoiler alert: moderate
Note: this is a re-edited version of a review posted in November 2014I have expanded the discussion, partly to include Poltergeist's production history, but mostly to more deeply explore the infamous controversy over who "really" directed the film, an issue which cannot be so easily brushed aside in the context of a career retrospective.  Obviously, if you're up to speed already, please feel free to skip to the actual review.  You can tell when it starts, because it's where that dude's face awesomely falls off.

So, you have several choices when it comes to the question, "Who directed Poltergeist?"  Was it directed by Steven Spielberg, who used its credited director, Tobe Hooper, as an abused and humiliated catspaw?  Or was it directed by Hooper, in a deeply collaborative (and deeply contentious) process, with its screenwriter-producer Spielberg? Or was it directed by both of 'em, in an informal arrangement that turned out to be unpleasant for both men, and Hooper especially, but which worked out for posterity anyway?

Under the U.S. Code and most state codes, it's required to mention this controversy in any discussion of the film; these laws are rather plainly unconstitutional, but there you have it.  What is known for sure about Poltergeist is that following Raiders of the Lost Arkoddly enough, itself an example of a notoriously pushy writer-producer who made sure he got what he wanted out of a subordinate director, but in Raiders' case, nobody complainedSpielberg returned to the project he'd been gestating since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Called Night Skies, it had been envisioned as a dark sequel to Close Encounters: a tale of a family who come face to face with extraterrestrial entities far, far less benevolent than the explorers witnessed by Roy Neary.

And considering what a bunch of dickheads the Close Encounters aliens already were, this is saying something.

Even at this early juncture, Spielberg had considered Hooper to direct it (for Spielberg was contractually bound to make a movie for Universal, whereas Close Encounters remained the property of Columbia); however, in the midst of shooting Raiders, despite having already commissioned a screenplay and a significant amount of pre-production, Spielberg made an abrupt about face on Night Skies.  Suddenly, he realized that he wanted nothing to do with turning his beloved, personal, spiritual Close Encounters into another entry in his growing library of horror films.  So that's when the project split decisively into two separate movies: the first retained the aliens; the second kept the story of a family besieged by a supernatural threat.  We'll get to the former shortlyit ultimately grew into Spielberg's deliverable for Universal, a little film called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  But the latter became Poltergeist; and it was, indeed, handed off to Tobe Hooper exactly as planned.

This is where rumor supplants the historical record.  As the tale goes, when Spielberg arrived on Hooper's set, rather than sitting quietly in the corner as apparently (?) producers are supposed to do, he made it abundantly clear that he was the man in chargegiving orders without Hooper's input, adjusting the cameras, shooting whole scenes by himself, and, finally, engaging in spirited debates with Hooper (that is, loud arguments), in front of God and everybody, if the two of them happened to disagree.  Unusually, post-production was Spielberg's affair entirely (composer Jerry Goldsmith reports never officially meeting the director).  Post-production on Poltergeist also overlapped with Spielberg's duties on E.T.; and I imagine that this is probably how one of the trashiest and most unprofessional scene transitions in all editing history somehow managed to find its way into a $10 million dollar movie made in Hollywood in the Year of Our Lord 1982.  (If you've seen Poltergeist, I'm sure I don't need to elaborate further.)

Authorship controversies are, in their way, a little tedious when it comes to a collaborative medium like film; sure, it can be funand, of course, it's much, much easierto attribute authorship of any given film to just one person.  (Why, this very series is a director's retrospective.)  But, really, "authorship" barely exists in the movies.  It's always shorthand.  Sometimes, however, it's a useful lens.

And, in the case of Poltergeist, it's a very useful lens: for whosoever deserves to be known as this film's "creator," the fact is that Poltergeist remains far more akin to Close Encounters than to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Yet it is also every atom a horror film of the highest orderand this isn't even close to being inconsistent.  You see, Poltergeist could be much more profitably analyzed as an interesting collision of sensibilities, if Spielberg were not, in 1982, just as accomplished a director of horror as Hooper, if (frankly) not moreso.  When a guy hallucinates tearing off his own face in Poltergeist, handily the goriest moment in the film, you can attribute that to Hooper if you like.  But there was a time when Spielberg himself just loved to show the skin coming right off the bone.  With that in mind, let's finally dig in.


Poltergeist begins with what child psychologists call a "warning sign."  It's a mood-setting sequence featuring the Freeling family's youngest daughter, a little girl with the complexion of an animated plasticine angel, and the personality to match.  Her name is Carol AnneI hope you like it, for it comprises a sizeable portion of the dialogue in Poltergeist's screenplay.  She wakes up in the middle of the night and ventures downstairs, where her dad, Steve, has fallen asleep before the TV.  The cosmic background radiation crackles on the screen, scouring the color from her face in a harshly discomfiting steel-blue strobe.  Something else is there, though, something that she finds so fascinating that I'm not sure she even blinks.  The next night, the events repeat, but this time, the presence in the static makes itself known, at least to little Carol Anne, who announces, "They're here."

This synopsis omits a very significant segment of Poltergeist's runtime, wherein we just hang out with the Freelings, learn their ways, and come dangerously close to learning to despise those ways.  The initial impression of the Freelings is one of a nearly obnoxious nuclear family, such as was known only in the death dreams of King Reagan as his mind collapsed in upon itself.  So behold: Football!  Dinner!  Boys being boys!  Girls being girls!  Heedless morons that can neither disable the remote sensors on their TVs, nor come to an accord with their neighbor whose remote somehow changes the channels on their box, despite the two walls and twenty yards of space that separate them!

Dear Lord, those 80s.

The only part that I actually found myself actively approving of was the crushing conformity of the neighborhood's architecture: the entire community lives in copies of the exact same house.  To this, I can only say that the houses are just on the decent side of "unnecessarily large," and I suppose I must enjoy it when American capitalism accidentally reaches the same conclusions as radical collectivism.  Of course, being faintly annoyed by all of this is almost the point; but it's nevertheless fortunate for everyone involved that the film soon takes the shrillness of its suburban vision down from 11.  It does this in a well-observed scene of Steve and mom Diane taking the edge off with a touch of pot, after the kids have been put to bed.  For the first time, they feel like human beings whom anyone in 2016 could stand for more than fifteen minutes at a time.

Their Boomer reverie is soon shattered by the paranormal.  Not counting Carol Anne, the first to see the signs is Diane, and for a day, it seems like the psychokinetic movement of objects in the house might well be something to stare at in silent, ecstatic wonder, as a family.

Then the presence makes its true intentions perfectly clear, and every aspect of the Freelings' fee simple estate, from the tree outside to the kids' closet, sets out to eat their children, bones and all.  The closet succeeds, and Carol Anne is swallowed into what would, in another franchise, be described as the Further.

The really neat thing about Poltergeist is that it provides the most compelling reason in the world for its victims to stay in the haunted house.  Poltergeist's 21st century descendants have largely sidestepped the issue by simply making hauntings attach to the person, rather than any particular place.  But here, they can't leave because they can't leave their daughter behind: Carol Anne is still alive, her voice still heard as an electronic voice phenomenon over the TV.

The sublime thing about Poltergeist is how quickly and brutally it turns from whimsy to abject fear.  As a horror film qua horror film, Poltergeist absolutely peaks in its first set-piece, forcing the parents' animal despair right down your gullet.  It's felt most viscerally in JoBeth Williams' performance, which sets its sights on the unabashedly hysterical (for lack of any better word), and strikes it so perfectly it's physically distressing to witness; after the first shock, one may need less to scream than to just break down in sympathetic tears.  Poltergeist never gets scarier than this.  In fact, Poltergeist never quite reaches this level of unreasoning fright again.  But the scene is so good, and casts its shadow so long and so broad, that Poltergeist is right to believe that it has absolutely no need to one-up itself.

The balance of the film to follow is a child abduction story that happens to involve ghosts (and possibly some manner of devil), complete with the scenes to be found in any kidnapping procedural, of officious but sympathetic strangers setting up headquarters in their house while the family psychologically and physically decays.  Like any parents caught between grief and hope, they leave Carol Anne's bedroom just as it was.  Except, in Poltergeist, what it was and what it remains is a vortex of wailing terror.

Well, terror and charming special effects.

If Poltergeist could be credited for absolutely nothing elseand I've credited it for a great deal alreadyit's that there is a value to its production, hardly ever seen before and hardly ever seen since in any film of its kind.  True, millions of dollars' worth of 1980s effects might only mean that you have an awful lot of 1980s effects; yet, honestly, Poltergeist's vintage is far more to its advantage than it ever is to its detriment.  The tree, a physical prop (so physical that it almost killed young Oliver Robbins), looks amazing as it comes alive; meanwhile, the final fate of the Freeling home is iconic for a damned good reasonit is so simply bitchin' (despite the limitations of the technology) that I hardly minded knowing how the film ended ahead of time.  (Poltergeist is so engrained in our culture that I could have related a 90%-accurate plot summary without ever having actually seen it.)

And, speaking of how Poltergeist became an indelible part of our American civilization, now comes (inevitably) Zelda Rubinstein.  Her character has been parodied so ruthlessly that the impact I presume she must have had in 1982 is largely lost to three decades of stupid pop culture references.  In the cold light of 2016, you can see that her third act appearance is not even strictly necessary to the narrativeI doubt very much that it requires a psychic to conceive of the idea of tying a rope around your waist in order to enter a magic portal and retrieve something from the other side, even if apparently it does help the brainstorming process along.  (In fact, it's the young Freeling son who first comes up with the idea, long before it's put into action.)  I'll confess, too, that I found that Beatrice Straight's far more sober-minded performance as the chief paranormal investigator not just to be significantly more in tune with the film, but generally better, to boot.  The way she's almost physically shoved offscreen by Rubinstein is kind of a shame.  But rest easy, weary crybaby.  I won't stand too far apart from consensus: Rubinstein's is an enjoyable presence, and she's a fantastic vehicle for what amounts to blunt-force exposition.

But wait: does that mean that the four most important characters in this movie are women?  Hey, are we positive Steven Spielberg was even involved in this thing at all?

The very strangest thing about Poltergeist is by no means Rubinstein's spiritualist, however, though strange she is.  No, I must be referring to Jerry Goldsmith's oddity of a score.  Sometimes it is exactly what you'd expect, and sometimes it seems like it's wholly unaware that Poltergeist is not in any way a nice-minded film at all, at least not once Carol Anne is stolen.  There are vast stretches where the score's only connection to the story seems to be as some kind of cruel ironic counterpoint.  This is felt most keenly in the very end, where consoling music bereft of even a melancholy note plays over the epilogue, and most of the credits... till, finally, it dissolves into the monstrous laughter of damned children.  I rested easier, then, secure in the knowledge that this was not some kind of messy mistake made as the result of two different directorial visions, but intent.

One of the most interesting conspiracy theories surrounding the Poltergeist director controversy suggests that the rumors were started by Spielberg and co-producer Frank Marshall deliberately, in order to assuage the ticket-buying public (and the MPAA) that this would be a movie more like Raiders than Texas Chainsaw.  And so it was: chock fucking full of gory-ass hyperviolence and rotting corpses, yet still rated PG.

That brings us, finally, to the miraculous thing about Poltergeist.  Outside of some huge but isolated editing stumbles (indeed, for the most part, the film is a terrifically well-constructed thing), it's positively wondrous how very seamlessly this film hangs together.  Though opinions can and have differed, the tonal shifts that take your feet right out from under you don't just feel deliberate, sometimes they even feel necessary, in order to get at how it must feel to be living your life by the numbers in upright conformity, only to have it devastated by an experience that you might, at a distance, be able to explain, but never truly understand.

It's a damned fine motion picture, is Poltergeist: great enough to withstand all sorts of nitpicks.  Like how a paranormal investigator could possibly get so bored that he'd rather listen to music on his headphones than to document the supernatural entities he's finally been given proof exist.  Or how neither the Freelings nor anyone else ever appears to file a police report, despite the cacophony of loud noises, the obviousness of the family's terrible distress, and a missing blonde-haired white girl.  And I won't even take points off for how (by the film's own defined terms) the very title is a lie.  Anyway, that last one was excusable: after all, The Haunting was already taken.  But Poltergeist, at least, is better than The Hauntingit is vastly scarier, and makes its characters more relatably normal, even as it refuses to sharply define them; and it's at least as important as The Haunting, too.  Poltergeist, picking up where (the much less successful) Amityville Horror left off, brings the restless dead (and worse things besides) to the real America.  Once, we had to be frightened of giant castles in the European hinterland, or, at worst, creaky old mansions in the countryside.  But, after Poltergeist, we weren't safe in our own damned beds.  Outside of Psycho and Halloween themselves, if you can name a more influential horror film made in the last seventy yearslet alone a more justifiably influential onehell, I'd probably just call you wrong.

Score:  9/10

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