Monday, September 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Poltergeist"

For my money, "Poltergeist" is one of the scariest movies of the '80s, and certainly one of the most frightening PG-rated films of all time.

How in the world did this 1982 flick get a PG rating? My understanding is that it originally received an R from the MPAA, but it was changed to a PG during the appeals process, which usually involves editing out some of the more objectionable material. So how did the scene where the guy tears off his own face pass muster?

Whatever. I'm glad it did. Otherwise my parents probably wouldn't have taken me to see it when it came out. This film from director Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre") became an instant classic in its depiction of a suburban family whose daughter is sucked into a netherworld of lost spirits.

Everyone remembers the scene where blond-haired pixie Carol Anne puts her tiny hands on the television screen, and creepily intones, "They're heeerrre!!" The forces she refers to as "the TV people" are in fact the spirits of the dead buried beneath their tract housing development in California. Mom (JoBeth Williams) will later get a first-hand encounter with them in the half-dug backyard swimming pool.

For me, the film really gets rolling when the paranormal investigators are called in to check out the home of the Freeling family. I love the scene where one of the science stooges explains to the father (Craig T. Nelson) about the amazing video he once recorded of a toy truck moving from one side of a room to another over the course of seven hours. He's trying to impress Mr. Freeling with what he considers a solid piece of evidence of the existence of ghosts, and Freeling just nods his head nonchalantly. Then he opens the door to his children's bedroom, where toys are flying around the room like a mini-tornado has invaded.

The other scientist is, of course, the guy who later peels the flesh off his face, in one of the movie's most famous scenes. It looks a little dated now -- you can easily spot the moment when they switch over to a special-effects mannequin -- but still horrifying enough to force my wife to look away. Personally, I prefer the bit a moment earlier when a steak crawls across the kitchen counter, then turns itself inside-out. (Although, who keeps an unwrapped steak on a plate inside their fridge?)

The moment that really sends a thrill up my leg is when the dwarf psychic Tangina (memorably played by Zelda Rubinstein) explains to Mr. and Mrs. Freeling exactly what has happened to their daughter. A powerful and nefarious force keeps her trapped in the netherworld between this plane of existence and the next. When Tangina says, "It lies to her," the hairs on my nape always stand on end.

On a side note, many people remember the tragic death of Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, at the age of 12 from complications related to Crohn's Disease. But they forget that her screen sister, Dominique Dunne, also suffered a terrible fate, being strangled to death by an ex-boyfriend a few months after "Poltergeist" came out. She was 22. He brother is actor Griffin Dunne.

She apparently had long been a victim of domestic violence; she made a guest appearance on "Hill Street Blues" as an abuse victim, and didn't have to wear bruise make-up because she really had been beaten up by her boyfriend the day before. Horrible.

Perhaps inevitably, "Poltergeist" went on to have two sequels, both of which were pale reflections of the original. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wisely bowed out after the second film, leaving it to O'Rourke -- by then typecast as "the Poltergeist girl" -- to go visit her aunt and uncle for her newest haunting.

The other notable thing about the movie is the controversy over whether Tobe Hooper really directed the film. Steven Spielberg, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay, was reportedly on set most of the time and may have felt Hooper was not up to the task. Nelson and Williams have both claimed that Spielberg was the one who said "action" and "cut" during most of filming, and even coached the cast on their performances, until veteran actress Beatrice Straight (who plays the head of the paranormal scientists) objected.

Whether directed by Hooper or Spielberg or some bastard combination thereof, "Poltergeist" is one of the all-time great horror films.

4 stars

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