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Superman Week Day 4: Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006)

Superman ReturnsDirector: Bryan Singer

Writer: Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris

Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando, Kal Penn, Tristan Lake Lebu, Jack Larson, Noel Neill, James Karen

Plot: Picking up where the 1980 Superman II left off (and wisely ignoring Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace), this film opens five years after scientists pinpointed Krypton in space, and Superman left Earth to examine the remains of his dead planet. Back on Earth, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacy) is claiming a vast fortune pulling a scam on a dying woman (the original filmic Lois Lane, Noel Neill, in a cameo). On his yacht, Lex tells his new girlfriend Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) his plan – to find and raid the arctic fortress Superman left behind for the crystal technology that ran Krypton.

In Kansas, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) sees a startlingly familiar sight: a spacecraft landing on her property. She finds her long-missing son, Clark (Brandon Routh), exhausted from his return to Earth from Krypton. In the morning, rested, he tells his mother all he found of Krypton was a graveyard. Returning to Metropolis and the Daily Planet, he reunites with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Perry White (Frank Langella), but Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is out of the office, covering the launch of a new experimental spacecraft. Examining her desk he sees she’s moved on in his absence, winning a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial explaining why the world doesn’t need Superman, getting engaged to Perry White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden), and having a son named Jason (Tristan Lake Lebu).

Luthor demonstrates his plan to his henchmen, using the Kryptonian crystal technology to create a new land mass. The experiment causes an electrical pulse that shuts down power across the country, including the tandem space shuttle/Boeing Lois is on board for the launch. The news reports on the damage to the twin aircraft, and Clark springs into action. Superman, making his first appearance on Earth in years, saves the two vessels and everyone on board, and the world cheers his return.

Back at the Planet, Perry and Lois bicker over their coverage, with Lois wanting to write about the blackout and Perry wanting to focus on Superman’s return. Lois is glad to have Clark back, but he soon realizes she’s carrying a deep anger towards Superman for leaving without saying goodbye. Superman glances in on the family that night, where he hears Richard ask Lois if she was ever in love with Superman, a notion she denies. When he speaks to her later on the rooftop of the Planet, she pointedly tells him the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither does she.

Luthor has Kitty stage a car accident to distract Superman while he breaks into a museum to steal a chunk of Kryptonite. As he plans, Lois tracks down the source of the blackout to Luthor’s yacht and, with Jason in tow, is captured. Luthor explains his plot – to create a new continent of his own that will engulf most of the United States, and he’s got the Kryptonite to back it up. When Jason has a reaction to the Kryptonite, Luthor asks Lois just who the boy’s father really is. Combining the Kryptonite with a crystal stolen from the Fortress, Luthor begins growing his new continent off the coast of Metropolis.

Lois sends the coordinates of the yacht to the Planet office, where Perry, Richard, and Clark are searching for her. When she’s caught by one of Luthor’s thugs he threatens her, only to be flattened when the wheezing, asthmatic Jason hurls a piano into him. Her fax makes it through and Clark and Richard (in his seaplane) both fly to her rescue. As they do, the growing continent sends out an earthquake that hits Metropolis. With Superman trying to minimize the damage to the city, Richard reaches Luthor’s yacht first, but a tidal wave takes it down. Superman pulls it above water and sends Lois and Jason off with Richard while he goes to Lex’s new landmass to face him, unaware of the Kryptonite in its makeup.

Luthor begins beating the weakened Superman and Lois begs Richard to turn back so they can help him. They find him stabbed by a Kryptonite crystal. Pulling the Kryptonite from his side, Superman dives beneath the ocean, ripping the growing landmass from the water, and hurling it into space. He crashes to Earth, nearly dead. As he recovers in a hospital, Lois and Jason visit him and she whispers something in his ear. When he recovers, he again goes to Lois’s house, looks in on Jason, and remembers his father Jor-El’s long-ago words to him… how the son becomes the father, and the father, the son. He promises Lois he’ll always be around, and flies once more into the sky, to gaze down on the Earth from above.

Thoughts: I know I’ll catch crap for this, but I’ve always felt Superman Returns was unfairly maligned by a lot of people. It’s not a perfect film, by any stretch, but neither is it as bad as so many make it out to be. After so many years without a Superman film, watching other superheroes populate cinemas, the opening sequence of this movie was just what we needed: a fantastic tribute and update to the Richard Donner/John Williams sequence from 1978.

The biggest problem with this movie overall, I think, is that it’s somewhat too faithful, too reverent to the Christopher Reeve films. Lex Luthor’s plot, just like in 1978, is essentially a massive, very deadly real estate scam. Marlon Brando is brought back to reprise the role of Jor-El despite the inconvenience of being dead. (They used archive footage shot for Superman II but unseen in the theatrical cut. Quick aside here – in 2006 Warner Bros released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to DVD. If you can find it, watch it. It solves virtually every problem with the original cut, and probably could have been a masterpiece if producer Alexander Salkind and Richard Donner hadn’t had a falling-out.) They brought back Noel Neill and her Adventures of Superman TV Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson, for cameos. Composer John Ottman makes liberal use of the John Williams score, and even that opening sequence spins through space just like the original, but with flashier effects.

This is the good stuff, but the screenwriters and director also brought with them limitations that shouldn’t have existed anymore. In the 70s and 80s, before special effects technology could give us dinosaurs that we believed were real and outer space battles that could match any real aerial combat, the Christopher Reeve Superman was limited in how physical he could get with his opponents. His most intense battle in four films was that with the three Kryptonian criminals in Superman II, and while that Battle of Metropolis is impressive by the standards of the time, it doesn’t deliver the sort of Red Bull-charged action modern audiences demand. Most of the Reeve’s Superman’s feats were of the rescue variety, without a lot of actual violence, because what human foe could possibly stand up to the Man of Steel in a physical confrontation?

Here, once again, we see Superman battling a human foe, dealing with Kryptonite (a crapload of Kryptonite, to be certain), and not getting particularly physical except for a few moments when the filmmakers deliberately tried to show off the special effects, such as the scene where a bullet bounces off Superman’s eye. Like Reeve, Superman uses his powers far more for disaster relief than for combat. The really startling thing is that this came from director Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, which were both full of action and a lot of fun to watch. (When he chose to do this movie instead of the third X-Men, 20th Century Fox rushed it into production with director Brett Ratner, and the film was an unmitigated disaster. Singer returned to the X-Men to produce 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which to date is the best film in that franchise and one of my favorite superhero movies in general.)

That said, in those moments where the film makes the most of these techniques, it does it well. The scene where Superman rescues the airplane (itself a bit of a nod to the 1986 John Byrne Man of Steel comic book) is as visually exciting and thrilling as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. His efforts to stop the destruction of Metropolis are exciting and visually satisfying. If the rest of the film had the energy and power as those sequences, there would be nothing to complain about at all. Even the airplane scene, though, ends with a nod backwards – Routh cribs Reeve’s line about flying being, statistically, the safest way to travel.

Let’s talk about Routh, now. Of all the ways I think this film got a raw deal, Routh got it worst. His performances as Clark Kent and Superman were both really good. As with everything great about the film, though, the greatness comes through imitation. Routh does the best impression of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent and Superman duet any actor possibly could, imitating his voice, his tone, his mannerisms, his speech patterns. It’s an impressive performance, but it’s not really his own. The same goes for Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor – he’s doing a Gene Hackman impression. It’s a very good Gene Hackman impression, with the sort of manic energy that would swing from subtle moments of frustration to wild anger with lots of solid humorous moments in-between, but it’s an impression nonetheless.

The only major performer not doing an impression is, ironically, also the worst thing about this movie: Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. While Routh and Spacey drew on Reeve and Hackman, Bosworth has none of the fire or spark that Margot Kidder brought to Lois Lane, and as those are her two most defining characteristics, we’re left with a bland and lifeless performance. Neill and Kidder both gave us Loises that felt like a real match for Superman, a brave, witty, intellectual equal who lived up to being a love interest for the world’s greatest hero. Bosworth simply never feels worthy of the role, and she and Routh have no chemistry together whatsoever. Kidder’s Lois was a joy to watch, even when she was just sitting around the Planet office asking for orange juice (“freshly squeezed”). Every moment Bosworth is on the screen, I’m just waiting for the scene to end so we can move on to something interesting.

Plotwise, Jason is another issue that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact that Clark left a son behind when he left Earth inspired a lot of “deadbeat dad” jokes that aren’t really fair – you can’t blame a man for not taking care of a son he didn’t know existed. (That doesn’t quite excuse the scene where he spies on her at home, mind you.) That said, we’re now being asked to accept that human and Kryptonian DNA could mingle and create a half-breed. I suppose we can accept that, if we can accept a world where a journey from a red sun to a yellow one allows a person to fly… but if that’s the case, why is Jason so frail and sickly until the plot demands otherwise? The idea here is clear – Singer and the screenwriters wanted to employ the unused Marlon Brando “son becomes the father, father becomes the son” speech from Superman II, and they wanted to do that by giving Superman a child and removing from him the weight of being the literal “last son of Krypton.” That didn’t come across, though. In practice, Jason just weighed him down more, and probably would have been even more difficult to deal with had they ever moved forward with a sequel.

In my opinion, the good in this film outweighs the bad, but it suffers mainly from not being what people wanted out of the franchise at the time. It would be another seven years before a new movie would try to resurrect Superman again, this time deliberately starting from scratch and doing away with the trappings of Donner, Williams, and Reeve. Just last week, Man of Steel hit theaters. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how well it succeeds.

At the time I write this, I still haven’t seen Man of Steel yet (although I will have by the time you read it), so I’m as excited as anyone to see just how it all turns out.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

Dark and Stormy NightDirector: Larry Blamire

Writer: Larry Blamire

Cast: Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns, Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Bruce French, Betty Garrett, Trish Geiger, Brian Howe, Marvin Kaplan, James Karen, Alison Martin, Fay Masterson, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Kevin Quinn, Mark Redfield, Tom Reese, Daniel Roebuck, Christine Romeo, H.M. Wynant

Plot: After the demise of millionaire Sinas Cavinder, an eccentric group of friends, family, rivals, employees, reporters, total strangers, and a dude in a gorilla costume gather for the reading of his will. When the lawyer is murdered in the midst of the reading, the gathered survivors have to solve the crime, or any one of them could be next.

Thoughts: Have you ever gotten a disc from NetFlix with no memory of the movie or any idea why you put it in your queue, let alone how it got close enough to the front to actually make it to your mailbox? When that happens, you pop the disc in just so it doesn’t feel like a waste before you send it back, usually disappointing you in the process. But every so often, you get a movie that delights you so much you wish you could go back in time, figure out who clued you in on the film in the first place, and thank them.

Larry Blamire’s micro-budget motion picture Dark and Stormy Night is exactly this kind of movie. This black-and-white buffet of assorted cheeses is a loving tribute and send-up of old-fashioned murder mysteries, mixing together parts of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Clue with the sort of killers and freaks that made for the richest mocking in the glory days of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every actor, without exception, delivers their lines with an excess of camp and self-awareness, gleefully hamming up preposterous dialogue and overreacting to the most simple of situations. It’s as if somebody is deliberately putting on the most melodramatic dinner theater production ever made, and that’s what makes it glorious.

The show-stealers here are Daniel Roebuck and Jennifer Blair as competing reporters 8 O’Clock Farraday and Billy Tuesday, respectively. The two of them bounce off each other with energy and vigor, chewing through Python-esque logical leaps that eat up one noir cliché after another. Dan Conroy is funny as hell as hapless cab driver Happy Codburn, who only got drawn into the whole mess because Farraday stiffed him out of 35 cents. Jim Beaver’s Jack Tugdon brings in a sort of faux intensity to the proceedings, pulling in a taste of The Most Dangerous Game with his humorless (and, by result, hysterical) delivery of such lines as “I went to bed… once.”

Blamire drops in plenty of tired clichés and runs with them – Alison Martin as the terrible psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard, who has the audacity to announce “I sense death” while standing over a fresh corpse. The staff includes a butler (Bruce French) who seems to have some skeletons in his closet and a chef (Robert Deveau) who wields his meat cleaver in a particularly disturbing way, spouting out lines that feel like Norman Bates talking to Mother. Blamire even gets into the act himself, playing a stranger whose “car broke down” outside, then immediately asks if he can stay for the reading of the will, which nobody has mentioned to him yet.

As funny as the performances are, it’s Blamire’s script that makes this work. His lines go from painful puns to razor-sharp wordplay without missing a beat, and he takes great joy in using every cliché you can imagine for this sort of “trapped in the mansion” mystery, then deconstructing the hell out of it. I admit I was a little shaky about the film for the first few minutes, when we saw an obvious model car driving up to an obvious model mansion. But when the lights go off and the guests all panic until the frustrated maid (Trish Geiger) turns the switch back on and shows her exasperation when the idiotic guests behave as if she’s performed some sort of miracle, I found myself buying in entirely.

Most importantly, you really get the sense that the cast is having fun. None of them are making a fortune performing in a film released by the Shout! Factory, but all of them take what they’re given and run with it. Half the time when you go to the movies these days you get a film with a blockbuster budget and a bunch of actors walking through their parts, taking the paycheck, clearly having no passion for what they’re doing. Dark and Stormy Night is the opposite of that in every way, and it’s glorious because of it.

Looking up info about this movie for the sake of this review, I notice that Blamire has two other films with most of this same cast, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Both of those are going to the front of my NetFlix queue right away. And this time, I’ll remember how they got there.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 30: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

return-of-the-living-deadDirector: Dan O’Bannon

Writers: John Russo, Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, Dan O’Bannon

Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Miguel Nunez, Allan Trautman

Plot: At the Uneeda Medical Supply company, manager Frank (James Karen) shows around trainee Freddy (Thom Matthews), and asks him if he’s ever seen Night of the Living Dead. Showing off, Frank tells Freddy the film was based on reality. A strange chemical called Trioxin animated corpses in Pittsburgh, but the truth was suppressed… and the bodies are being stored right there in barrels of the chemical. Frank shows the barrels to Freddy, but accidentally causes a leak of the gas, dousing both men and reanimating the dead bodies – even the parts of dead bodies – kept in storage at Uneeda. Freddy’s friends – a group of punk teenagers who look like the 80s threw up leather and piercings all over them – decide to kill time in a nearby cemetery while waiting to pick him up from work. As they proceed to party in the graveyard, Frank and Freddy wake up from their encounter with the Trioxin gas feeling sick. One of the barrels has broken open and is empty, and Frank assumes the body melted. They soon find the rest of the corpses (human and otherwise) throughout the warehouse animated and hungry.

Back in the graveyard one of the teens, Trash (Linnea Quigley) begins to fantasize about the more horrific ways to die, leading to one of the most bizarre and gratuitous striptease sequences in horror movie history. Frank and Freddy summon their boss, Burt (Clu Gulagar), about the cadaver screaming and banging on the walls of cold storage. Remembering Night of the Living Dead, Burt tries to kill the cadaver by driving an axe into its brain, then cutting off its head, but it doesn’t kill the monster. They reach a horrible revelation: the movies lied to them. Burt decides to bring the cadavers to his pal Ernie (Don Calfa) at the crematorium, hoping to destroy them that way. It works, but the smoke that spills out of the oven seeds the clouds above, and it begins to rain on the graveyard. The water filters down through the soil, into the coffins, and the dead begin to claw their way to the surface.

Frank and Freddy are getting sicker and sicker, and Ernie calls an ambulance. Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), has made it to Uneeda, where she finds the place seemingly deserted. As she searches for Freddy, she encounters the zombie that escaped from the first barrel, a slender figure that has become known as Tarman (Allan Trautman). The rest of the teens arrive just in time to save her, but Tarman gets his first snack of brains in the process. The paramedics arrive to treat Freddy and Frank, but are unable to find a pulse or blood pressure in either one of them, and their bodies are room temperature. The teens are attacked in the cemetery, and three of them (Tina included) make it to the mortuary, while two more get back to Uneeda. As the paramedics return to their ambulance, they hear screams and try to call for back-up, only to be attacked and devoured by the swarming dead. The survivors in the mortuary board up the place to hold out the zombies, and Freddy begins experiencing pain as his body goes into rigor mortis. One of the zombies manages to make it into the mortuary and Ernie straps it down, questioning it. It tells the survivors they want to eat brains because it relieves the pain of being dead. Burt locks Freddy and Frank in the mortuary chapel with Tina, who insists on staying with Freddy. Burt, Ernie, and Spider (Miguel Nunez) begin to seek an escape, while in the chapel, Freddy attacks Tina, hungry for brains. Spider and Burt make a run for the police car, fighting the zombies on the way. They drive the car to the door to collect Tina and Ernie, can’t get through the mob and drive away for help, but a swarm of zombies traps them at the Uneeda warehouse. Not wanting to become like the rest of the zombies, Frank turns on the crematorium, says a prayer for forgiveness, and climbs into the oven. Burt calls the army hotline on the Trioxin barrel and reports what has happened, and the army activates its contingency plan. Ernie and Tina hide from Freddy while the survivors at Uneeda protect themselves from Tarman, and just as everyone makes a final stand, the army drops a bomb on the whole damn city of Louisville, Kentucky, wiping it – and the zombies – off the map. But as the zombies burn, the smoke rises… and the rain starts to fall.

Thoughts: This movie has perhaps the strangest pedigree of any film on this list. George Romero – writer and director of Night of the Living Dead – got into a disagreement with co-producer John Russo about the direction of the franchise. Russo walked away with the right to use the “Living Dead” name for his own franchise, and this was the result: a world where Night of the Living Dead was a movie, but was based on its own reality. It’s a weird premise, to be sure, and I was at first reluctant to include this movie in my little horror movie project, mainly because I think it may be more deserving of a place in the eventual horror/comedy project I intend to present in the future. But I decided use it for two reasons: first, like Night of the Living Dead, this movie helped influence the way zombies are portrayed in popular culture even today, and second, I’m not really convinced that all of the comedy in this movie was intentional.

The zombies (with the exception of Tarman) are all kind of silly, particularly the first, fresh cadaver, where the actor seemed to just be stripped, shaved, and painted yellow. And a lot of the violence seems to be played for laughs. Trash’s legendary tombstone striptease isn’t really scary or sexy, just weird. On the other hand, the parts that probably were intentionally funny (such as the hungry zombie calling for “more paramedics” on the ambulance scanner) are legitimately funny. Even the 80s-style montage (in this one the characters are barricading themselves in the mortuary instead of training to win the big ski tournament) is funny enough, juxtaposed against a goofy rock ballad about the Living Dead.

The characters in this movie really are jokes, especially the teenagers. They’re all caricatures, and the way one of them (I don’t even remember the characters’ name, making it impossible to look up the actor, that’s how generic they are) gives a speech about how his leather and chains is a “way of life” and not a costume is groan-inducing, and the way they resist calling the cops (because they’ll “kick our ass”) even as one of their buddies is having his brain eaten takes them from the realm of stereotype to the land of the remarkably stupid. It’s really no loss when any of them gets turned into a zombie hors d’oeuvre. As for naming the two old chums “Burt” and “Ernie”… really, O’Bannon? Sesame Street was pushing 20 years old at the time you wrote this script, you can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional.

There seems to have been an ill-fated attempt at poignancy with “Trash,” who proclaims early in the film that she believes the worst way to die would be to be eaten to death by old men, but seeing as how she says that immediately before she begins taking off her clothes for no apparent reason, it’s doubtful most audience members remember that bit. Frank’s suicide is a little more satisfying from an audience standpoint – it’s the one point in the movie where someone shows anything like a little human regret – and the moment where he dies is a good capper to what little of a character arc there is.

The zombies in this movie are different from Romero zombies in many ways. First off, they’re more intelligent, with the ability to speak and reason (although later Romero films did start to show zombies exhibiting a few higher-order skills). Second, they can’t be killed by a simple bullet to the brain, and in fact, dismemberment does no good as each individual chunk of the zombie continues to move of its own accord. Finally, and most importantly to popular culture, this is the movie that gave us zombies obsessed with braaaaaaaains. A Romero zombie (and those of most of his imitators) is perfectly happy with any chunk of living flesh, and it’s these zombies that we still see in most movies and TV shows. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you’re watching a Romero zombie. But whenever you see a zombie that wants specifically to chomp on a brain, you can thank John Russo and Dan O’Bannon.

From the perspective of a horror movie fan, there’s nothing in this movie as scary or visually cool as Tarman. The first zombie, one whose flesh has mostly melted into slime from years of Trioxin storage, is a grotesque, slimy creature that could give anybody nightmares. Allan Trautman, who played the character, is rather underappreciated in the strata of horror icons. His slim frame and marvelous physical performance created the best monster from this movie, and one of the most memorable single zombies of all time. While the other zombies aren’t nearly as recognizable or as entertaining, there are a couple of cool scenes. The moment where the rainwater filters down through the ground into the coffins and the dead claw their way out to the surface, for example, looks really great, and the zombie Ernie interrogates is a nice piece of puppeteering, even if the movement of its mouth doesn’t remotely match the words she’s saying.

The end of the movie is almost as literal a deus ex machina as one could hope for. There’s a short bit earlier where someone from the army shows a bit of concern about the barrels (which have been missing for sixteen years thanks to some sort of paperwork screw-up), but it seems tacked on to justify a conclusion that otherwise would come totally from out of the blue. While I give the filmmakers credit for going for the nuclear option (pun intended), it makes everything else in the movie feel somewhat hollow.

While Return of the Living Dead is by no means the only movie to use the “we swear it’s a true story” gag, it’s by far the least convincing. And although there’s fun to be had in watching the movie, it’s horror movie fun at its cheesiest. It’s hard to imagine this film being sincerely frightening to any adult, but there’s still room for enjoyment in watching it. Just don’t go into it looking for a scare.

Stephen King makes one more appearance tomorrow, with one of his most down-to-earth tales of horror… and, I admit, one of my personal favorites: Misery.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 27: Poltergeist (1982)

poltergeistDirector: Tobe Hooper

Writers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen

Plot: The film begins simply enough, with a television playing the national anthem and going to static (reminding us of those quaint days when television stations actually went off the air). As her father Steven (Craig T. Nelson) sleeps in front of the TV, little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) wakes up, walks to the flickering TV, and begins to speak to it. The next day, the family’s pet bird dies, and mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is forced by Carol Anne to give it a proper cigar box funeral. The older children, Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) are nonplussed by the loss of the bird. Robbie is, however, disturbed by the gnarled tree outside his bedroom window. The next night, when a storm scares Carol Anne and Robbie into their parents’ bed, the static appears on the television and again summons Carol Anne. This time, a spectral hand reaches out of the screen and rattles the room, waking up the Freelings and prompting one of the most famous lines in scary movie history: Carol Anne’s, “Theeeeeey’re here!”

The next day, Diane begins to notice strange phenomena around the house, such as a spot on the kitchen floor that sends objects sliding across the room. The fun evaporates, though, when Robbie’s gnarled tree comes to life and snatches him. As Steven and Diane try to save their son, the closet blows open with an intense white light, and little Carol Anne is sucked in and vanishes. After a frantic search for the girl, the family hears her voice coming from the television set. Steven turns to a group of paranormal investigators for help. The investigators: Ryan (Richard Lawson), Marty (Martin Casella) and Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) find the children’s room in a state of chaos – the bed spinning, objects hurtling through the air, the closet glowing.

The investigators believe the events to be the work of a poltergeist instead of a traditional haunting, which means it could stop at any time and the missing Carol Anne – whose voice they keep hearing coming from… somewhere – could vanish forever. With a time limit, the family and investigators grow more desperate and begin conducting experiments to find the girl even as her disembodied voice cries for help. Steven discovers from his boss, real estate developer Mr. Teague (James Karen) their house was built on the remains of an old cemetery. They send the other children away and bring in a medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), who believes the spirits in the house are attracted to Carol Anne’s “light,” and thus are keeping her captive. There’s a demon, “the Beast,” using her to restrain the other spirits, who don’t realize they’re dead and flee the Light that would send them to the next world. Tangina proves that the portal in the closet eventually comes out in the Freelings’ living room, and Diane ties herself to a rope and plunges into the abyss to find her daughter. When he realizes Tangina is trying to use Carol Anne to force the demon into the light, Steven pulls on the rope and finds himself face-to-face with the Beast. With the creature distracted, Diane and Carol Anne fall free, and Tangina declares the house “clean.”

The family decides to move (because people just don’t have the guts to stand up to a supernatural infestation anymore). In their last night in the house, Diane is left alone with Robbie and Carol Anne. Robbie is attacked by a demonic clown doll and the Beast assaults Diane, preventing her from getting to the children. As the closet begins to transform, Diane rushes outside for help and falls into the muddy pit the family had dug for a swimming pool, only to find herself facing the rising corpses of the graveyard Steven’s company built over. Diane makes it back into the house and gets the children away from the closet, but the corpses – and their coffins – begin rising everywhere as Steven and Teague arrive. Dana gets back from her date just as the rest of the Freelings escape, and the house itself implodes in front of the whole neighborhood, disappearing in a flash of light. Exhausted, but together, the family checks into a hotel for the night… and Steven shoves the television out onto the balcony.

Thoughts: Like The Exorcist and, to a lesser degree, The Shining, Poltergeist makes childhood a target of the supernatural. That idea is something that comes back on us time and again over the years, and with good reason. Childhood is supposed to be the time of innocence, the time when we’re protected from the nasty things in the world by Mommy and Daddy. Even when you’re an adult, seeing a symbol of innocence corrupted by a monster can terrify you. The filmplays on our fears by tapping into a very normal situation – a standard suburban family – and throwing it into the grip of something horrible. And Hooper and Spielberg work hard to make this family as typical as possible, while still showing off a little geek cred – the younger Freelings’ bedroom is rife with posters for Sesame Street, Star Wars and Alien, there’s a Los Angeles Rams helmet in the corner, Nelson’s character reads a biography of new president Ronald Reagan, and so forth. This is a film that wears its early 80s time frame as a badge of honor. (There’s so much Star Wars, in fact, you’d suspect the producer was buds with George Lucas or something.)

Speaking of the producer, there are stories that Spielberg had a much heavier directorial influence than the filmmakers admitted (and, in fact, probably only skipped directing it himself because he was busy with E.T. at the time). Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the movie. Yes, technically it’s a supernatural horror flick, but the tone of the story and the quality and type of the special effects all fit in very neatly with the Spielberg sci-fi films of the time period. This movie doesn’t look like The Shining, it looks like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This isn’t a bad thing, though. So much horror – even great horror – tends to have a very similar flavor to it. It’s refreshing to see a Spielberg come in every once in a while and tell a ghost story that doesn’t feel exactly like every other ghost story out there.

That said, although the movie is a lot of fun, it’s fun in the way that a lot of 80s family adventures are: you watch the film, you think how awesomely authentic the portrayal of the children are, and you wish you could experience the cooler moments of the story. Granted, this movie doesn’t have as many moments a person would actually want to experience as, say, Goonies, but it’s hard today to find this PG-rated fright flick actually scary. In fact, it’s very much the kind of ghost story a parent could feel comfortable sharing with some children. (I’ve got to stress some children here – let’s face it, there are kids who get nightmares at the slightest provocation, and this movie would most definitely give them that provocation. But if you’ve got a slightly older child that has proven he or she can handle a little bit of a scare, this movie would be okay.)

Once the film does start going for more traditional scares, it can be a little cheesy. The scene with the maggots bursting from a raw steak isn’t bad, but a few seconds later when Marty starts peeling his face off, it’s terribly obvious that you’re looking at someone ripping make-up from a mannequin head – the hands clutching at the face don’t even look like they’re coming from the proper angle. It jerks you out of it. Later on, when Robbie gets attacked by the Clown doll, it’s really effective – Hooper got a nice fake-out by making you expect to see something under the bed. But that doesn’t make the doll itself less cheesy. Other scenes seem to want to mine a little bit of comedy – when Steven’s boss visits him to find out why he hasn’t been coming to work, Steve’s efforts to prevent him from noticing the ghostly goings-on are a little funnier than they probably need to be.

It’s the last third of the film that’s the scariest and the most effective. Once Tangina enters the picture, the intensity increases significantly and you start to fear for the rest of the family, the child, and the investigators throughout the house. Tangina’s actually a magnificent creation – she’s  Yoda with a southern accent, (ah – Star Wars again) making Steven and Diane do whatever they need to do to get their daughter back, up to and including threatening her, growing angry with her, and manipulating her into laying a trap for the Beast. She’s an awesome character that helps the film work, serving the same function as Father Merrin in The Exorcist (in fact, many of the scenes where the parents and investigators try to tap into the spirit world evoke a much more special-effects heavy version of The Exorcist). She’s the Mentor, even if she’s a Mentor who doesn’t show up until late in the game, and she brings just the right touch of awesome to make the movie work. The climax – except for the clown doll – is also great. The corpses bubbling up out of the pool are creepy as hell, the telescoping hallway adds to the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that Diane has to defeat, and the effects on the gaping maw of the closet… scary stuff. We’re getting into Spielberg-Gremlins here. (And in fact, some of the fleshy appearance of the portal is very similar to what Spielberg and Chris Columbus would do in that other little monster movie a couple of years later.)

In the end, we still get the expected Spielberg feel-good ending, but that’s okay. This is a scary movie, but not in the same vein as most of the others we’ve watched. This is a chill for everyone, something that parents and kids can watch and both hold on to each other a little tighter.

From the warmth of the family to the cold of Antarctica – tomorrow we see the return of John Carpenter to this list with a sci-fi classic – his 1982 remake of The Thing.