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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.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 18: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

texas-chainsaw-massacreDirector: Tobe Hooper

Writer: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel

Cast: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Allen Danziger, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan

Plot: The film opens with grisly images and a radio news report of some horrific “sculpture” found by police, made out of bodies stolen from their graves. As the radio continues to talk about the case, we meet a group of young people on their way to visit the grave of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns)’s grandfather. On the way home, they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who proceeds to cut himself and slashes Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) before they throw him out. At a run-down gas station, Franklin asks for directions to his father’s old property, but the manager (Jim Siedow) tries to warn them away. Instead, they decide to check out the old place and return later after the transport refills the station’s gas tanks.

Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) decide to set out to seek a nearby swimming hole, but instead find a house full of animal skulls, hide, and heads. Kirk enters, only to be confronted by a giant man (Gunnar Hansen) wearing a horrible mask of human skin. When Pam enters to search for him, she finds the house full of skeletons – both animal and human – arranged in bizarre, horrible tableaus. The man with the mask snatches her too, impaling her on a hook and making her watch as he dismembers Kirk with a chainsaw.

Back at the van Jerry (Allen Danizger) sets out to search for Kirk and Pam (breaking the cardinal rule of horror movies – don’t go anywhere alone). With the sun going down arrives at Leatherface’s house and enters, finding Pam barely alive and locked in a freezer chest. Leatherface kills him, because that’s what you do when you’re wearing human skin. It’s after dark now, and Franklin begins to panic over his missing friends and the fact that they have the keys. Sally and Franklin go through the high grass and shrubs, calling for their friends… until Leatherface appears with his chainsaw and hacks up Franklin. Sally runs for her life but, unfortunately, runs right to his house. Instead of help, she finds decaying, partially mummified bodies set up in a terrible sort of diorama. She escapes by leaping from a second-story window, running back into the darkness, screaming. (Hey Sally, pro tip for you: when you’re running from the chainsaw-wielding maniac into the darkness of the night, stop making noises that let him know where you are.)

Sally makes it to the gas station, where the owner knocks her out and ties her up. Driving her back to Leatherface’s house, they encounter the hitchhiker – Leatherface’s little brother. Inside, Leatherface is now wearing a dress and wig, preparing the “family” for supper. The brothers bring down “grandpa” from the attic – the desiccated old man Sally found before. But he’s not a corpse – he’s still alive. The family decides to let grandpa (John Dugan) kill Sally, but he’s too weak to hold the hammer, and she manages to escape, jumping through (another) window to find it’s now morning. She flees into the road, the brother behind her. An 18-wheeler comes around the corner, killing him. Sally leaps into the bed of a passing pickup truck, leaving Leatherface flailing about in the road.

Thoughts: It’s another entry in the “no, really, this actually happened” category of horror films. In truth, the story and characters were a complete fabrication, although Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were reportedly inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein (also the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s original novel of Psycho – there’s a little trivia for you).

Unlike some of the later horror icons (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers), Leatherface never really grabbed me. Part of it may be his choice of victims – Pam is an airheaded hippie, Franklin is a self-pitying lout, and Kirk and Jerry come across as rather cold and heartless. Even Sally has moments of cruelty towards her brother, although considering the stress she’s under at that point, it’s a little more forgivable. Still you want to have somebody to root for when the killer is busy hacking people to shreds.

The thing that makes this movie effective, if not to my personal tastes, is how abrupt much of the horror is. The hitchhiker is weird, sure, but you’re still shocked when he grabs Franklin’s knife and cuts into the meat of his own palm. The house Kirk and Pam find is bizarre, but you’re simply not expecting it when Leatherface leaps out and pounds him in the head. When the horror begins, Tobe Hooper avoided the telltales that Something Bad Is Happening – no ominous music, no creepy sound effects, no shadows moving in the background. It just goes from one minute looking at a weird little house to, the next, finding yourself getting attacked by a monster. Again, as Franklin and Sally push through the weeds in the dark, Leatherface appears without warning. Movies aren’t made this way anymore.

This movie does, however, give birth to many of the other slasher film clichés: the “Last Girl,” the girl who can’t outrun the killer despite his enormous size, the victim who runs up the stairs instead of running the hell away and so forth. In truth, most of those clichés are embodied in Sally who – although terrified – really isn’t the smartest horror movie character you’ve ever seen. Think about it, Sal – the killer was right outside the door, then vanishes when the creepy old man opens the door again to get his truck? To her credit, she does figure out that something is wrong, but way too slowly.

As for Leatherface himself – maybe it’s decades of exposure to horror movies, but the horror mask doesn’t really unnerve me all that much. What’s creepy is the face beneath the mask. Gunnar Hansen is wearing enormous, jagged teeth, and his eyes dart about whenever you see him in close-up, as if his brain is flitting about in his head, ready to pop out at any moment.

It’s a fast-paced movie, which is to the good. The running time is short – only 84 minutes – but even taking that into account, things move along at quite a clip. We’re deep into the movie before Leatherface appears, but you don’t actually feel how long it has been. Amazingly, by the time Leatherface disposes of the first four victims and only Sally is left, there’s still a half-hour left in the film.

Hooper also works in a little macabre comedy towards the film’s end. The father’s reaction to how Leatherface chopped up the door could have come from an exasperated TV father. He may as well have said, “We just can’t have nice things!” Leatherface prancing around in the dress, cringing from his angry father, feels like Hooper took Norman Bates and twisted him into an even weirder configuration. The thing is, once Leatherface puts the wig on and allows his father to browbeat him, he ceases to be menacing and becomes an object of ridicule. Well, for me, at least. Sally probably felt different. The horror comes back when “grandpa” makes an appearance, and actually recovers pretty well considering how the rhythm of the piece had been disrupted seconds before.

The film is inconsistent with its characters, too. The father alternately claims he takes no pleasure in killing and there’s no sense in torturing Sally before she has to die, then switches to giggling and mocking her along with his warped sons. He even jumps up and down with glee as grandpa tries to hammer Sally in the head. There’s no real reason for these inexplicable shifts, save perhaps to pad out the film a bit, as it is accompanied by long scenes of Sally screaming, with close-ups of her eyes cut with shots of the laughing family (including dad).

Even the film’s conclusion is terribly abrupt, with Sally’s savior coming out of nowhere and whisking her away as the credits roll. There’s no follow-up here, and this is a film that kind of needs it. Sally must have alerted the police – was the family still there when they arrived? Were they attacked? These are the sort of things I suppose may have been addressed in the sequels, but I’ve never seen any of them and, honestly, I’m not really compelled to.

From terror of the human variety, we’re going to face off with the nastiest predator of the animal kingdom. Tomorrow, you’re going to want to stay out of the water, because we’re watching Jaws.