by Mel Valentin
In less than a decade, Steven Spielberg directed the all-time, highest grossing film, "Jaws," before his 30th birthday ("Star Wars" took the title only two years later), had become a household brand name. His name, either as director or, with increasing frequency, as producer, guaranteed a combination of classical storytelling and modern sensibilities (usually of the pop-culture kind). Drawing like-minded collaborators around him, Spielberg directed crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed, beginning with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977, a deeply personal, passion project, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" four years later, Spielberg’s first direct collaboration with George Lucas (the less said about "1941," an action-comedy that failed commercially and critically, the happier Spielberg will be), and just a year later, double-mainstream success with "E.T: The Extraterrestrial," once again making Spielberg box-office champ, and "Poltergeist," a family-friendly take on the haunted house horror sub-genre.Poltergeist centers on the Freeling family, the epitome, in Spielberg’s telling, of the all-American (read: Caucasian) family, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), the patriarch and breadwinner, Diane (JoBeth Williams), the housewife and homemaker, Dana (Dominique Dunne), their teenage daughter, Robbie (Oliver Robbins), their preteen son, and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), the youngest member of the family. Due to her innocence and purity (i.e., blonde hair, pale skin), Carol Anne serves as the locus for the strange, supernatural happenings that threaten the Freelings’ domestic bliss. Everything changes (hello first act climax) when the Freelings’ soul- and body-sucking TV kidnaps Carol Anne into a nether dimension, a dimension between heaven and earth where something dark, evil, and twisted dwells (called the “Beast” here, but ret-conned into a corrupt, cult-like preacher in the sequel).
"Be afraid, be very afraid...of being sucked into your TV."
The Freelings represent the shinning example of Reagan’s America(Steve’s even shown reading a Reagan biography). Thanks to Steve’s talent and skill in selling the American Dream, a dream he and has family have uncritically adopted as their own, the Freelings live in suburban comfort. There’s more than enough room for everyone even if, as here, each room seems cluttered with the Freelings overwhelming desire to buy and consume or buy and furnish. With Star Wars-related bed sheets, toys, and posters, Robbie’s marked as a fan of George Lucas’ space opera. The adults in Poltergeist may not share Robbie’s Star Wars obsession, but they’re just as caught up in popular culture, American football for Steve and his male friends and everything for Diane (who keeps the TV on almost constantly). Imagine how the Freelings, transported into the media- and tech-saturated present might react (probably quizzically at first, then the opposite soon thereafter).
In a possible nod to Robert Wise’s classic adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting, the Freelings call on a group of paranormal researchers led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). Along with her two assistants, Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson), Dr. Lesh tries to uncover the truth behind Carol Anne’s disappearance, but soon finds herself overwhelmed by the malevolent forces inhabiting the Freeling home, ultimately compelling her to bring in a diminutive psychic, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), to help the Freelings save Carol Anne from the nether dimension. The scenes that follow and, to be fair, precede, Tangina’s arrival give Spielberg’s visual effects technicians the opportunity to blend practical, on-set effects with then cutting-edge (if still, pr-CG) visual effects, effects that, circa 1982, must have surprised and shocked audiences without really terrifying them.
Those effects ranged from ghostly hauntings, a malevolent tree, to a centerpiece scene involving a gimbal to turn and manipulate Carol Anne’s room (possibly, probably inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s centrifuge set for 2001: A Space Odyssey). Almost thirty years later, it’s still an effective scene, mostly because of how real it feels, something contemporary, CG-based, visual effects strive to accomplish, but rarely do. Other scenes subtly work on a more subconscious level. Before the ghost or ghosts show their true nature, an early, lighthearted scene involves a continuous shot, kitchen chairs miraculously rearrange themselves (again, all in one shot). It’s meant to elicit, if not laughs, then smiles, functioning to release tension (this happens before Carol Anne’s disappearance) and putting the audience at ease, the better to scare them later as the tension and suspense ratchets up, finding a final, cathartic release only in the penultimate and last scenes.
In addition to producing, Spielberg received story and co-screenwriting credit for Poltergeist. Committed to directing E.T.: The Extraterrestrial for Universal at the same time, Spielberg handed over directing reins to Tobe Hooper, a filmmaker then (and now) best known for directing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a low-budget shocker notorious, at least at the time, for graphic, realistic depiction of violence and unrelenting nihilism. On Poltergeist, however, Hooper was just work-for-hire, working with Spielberg’s handpicked crew, directing the screenplay as written, and faithfully followed Spielberg’s storyboards and on-set direction (despite his commitment to E.T., Spielberg regularly visited thePoltergeist set, offering suggestions both to Hooper and the effects teams). With its flat, even lighting, fluid camerawork, and unobtrusive editing, Poltergeist was (and is) a fitting companion to E.T., a film released only a week later.While Spielberg certainly deserves most of the credit, Hooper deserves some, mostly minor credit for directing "Poltergeist," even if only for setting up shots and directing the actors (a challenge considering the relative ages of the younger Freelings). The success of "Poltergeist," however undeserved, gave Hooper the opportunity to direct a science fiction/horror film, "Lifeforce," notable primarily for its bizarre premise and a very naked female vampire, and a superfluous remake of "Invaders From Mars." Minus the occasional, forgettable stumble, Spielberg, continued directing more box-office hits than any other director working in Hollywood.
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originally posted: 04/20/11 16:00:55