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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.

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