“They’re here,” playful at first…but not for long. A storm erupts, a tree attacks and little Carol Anne Freeling is whisked away into a spectral void. As her family confronts horrors galore, something else is here too: a new benchmark in Hollywood ghost stories. Producers Steven Spielburg and Frank Marshall and director Tobe Hoooper head the elite scream team of this classic. Welcome to Home Sweet Haunted Home.
eyelights: ILM’s special effect magic. the ’80s suburbia nostalgia
eyesores: the editing.
Dammit, I’ve tried. Over the years I’ve given this movie a few different tries and I still can’t call myself a fan. I don’t know what it is that I’m not getting, but ‘Poltergeist’ has a serious fanbase (enough to bolster over-rated director Tobe Hooper’s reputation) and they’re seeing something that I’m not. A friend of mine doesn’t really like scary movies, but, as a Steven Spielberg devotee (who produced and co-wrote the picture), adores this.
I totally get the Spielberg connection. From the opening shots of ‘Poltergeist’, we’re treated to a similar suburban vibe that permeated ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ and ‘E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial’. In fact, they feel so similar that they could be confused, and it’s no wonder that some people believe that Spielberg directed the picture (some even think that Hooper was given credit but that Spielberg did all the work).
It seems to me that this can’t be true. While the opening was definitely orchestrated as a Spielberg picture, the rest lacks his particular touch – it becomes sloppier as it wears on and it definitely doesn’t maintain the endearing elements found in the initial character interactions as well as the corny humour. Admittedly, as the brains behind the film, it’s quite possible that Spielberg wanted to start it off with a certain tone – but it seems clear that he let Hooper run wild afterwards.
Having said this, to me, the first 25 minutes are by far the best part of ‘Poltergeist’. I thoroughly enjoy the way the story is set up, the characters are contextualized and given life. We spend a fair bit of time with these people, just learning about them, about their vibe. It surprised me how casually we sat around with the couple, who were smoking a joint in bed like grown-up teenagers. There was something intimate and very accessible about the way everyone was introduced.
Is it because I’m such a fan of ‘Close Encounters’ and, to a lesser degree, ‘E.T.’ that I enjoyed this? Or is simply that young Spielberg then had a flair for storytelling that the now-wizened Spielberg no longer taps into?
I know that there are tons of die-hard Spielberg fans who will scream “blasphemy” at the notion, but, in my humble opinion Spielberg tends to release product -not cinema- now. There are exceptions but, on the whole, his focus has changed dramatically – he’s less grounded than he used to be. Then again, there are a few unbelievably blatant product placements for Lays and Cheetos in ‘Poltergeist’. So maybe he was already selling out back then.
Be that as it may, his magic only works for part of the picture, after which Tobe Hooper must have had a say – because, once ‘Poltergeist’ is set-up, when we get into the supernatural happenings of the picture, that’s when all the scary stuff happens and the special effects take over. From that point onward, plot takes a backseat to artifice, which is also another good reason to argue that Spielberg didn’t direct the film – artifice wasn’t his thing yet, so it’s likely that he gladly let someone else take over.
Let me start by acknowledging that the roller-coaster ride that ensues is a thrilling one. It is. It’s well made and it doesn’t let up much – at least not enough for anyone to feel bored with it. And when it gets ka-razay, it’s as intense as one can ever hope for. But I can’t help but find all of it vacant, emotionally bereft. Sure, the film tries to get us attached to the family before tearing them apart, before putting them in jeopardy, but I don’t feel it was enough to sustain us for a whole hour’s worth of madness.
Perhaps the filmmakers were banking on ooh-ing and ah-ing their audiences with all the gimmickry and visual wizardry. Even now, I think that they did a superb job of making the ghostly spookshows look real, but I still don’t think that it’s enough to grip indefinitely – after a while of looking at someone fighting otherworldly turbulence, I can’t help but wonder what the point might be, aside from showing off the special effects crew’s ingenuity.
Since I’m a big proponent of special effects supporting a story, not the other way around, for me that’s where ‘Poltergeist’ trips up: once the house is taken over, it’s all about the eye-candy. And, while most of the cinematic sleight-of-hand is quite impressive, especially given the era, there were a few far less successful moments, such as when one of the scientists starts picking his face off in the mirror. And the effects don’t even account for hokey looking props, such as the big tree outside, which looks like a chunk of melted plastic.
Not only that, but some of the editing was shoddy, thereby inhibiting the effect of the… um… special effects. Bizarrely enough, it’s at these crucial moments that the editor seemed to lapse from professional to amateurish (for instance, that sequence when the mom is dragged along the walls and ceiling couldn’t have been more transparent). In fact, even the continuity was affected by the editing as the film wore on (ex: when the boss gets up to look at the house collapsing upon itself, from shot to shot you can easily tell that he was in different poses and/or locations).
But there are also storytelling gaps along the way, the largest of which comes right after the quirky spiritualist says that the house is clean: the next thing we know it’s the day after and the family is busy packing a moving van. Call me picky but, how they did plan and put this move together at such a last minute? How can they be packed already without the help of professionals? And how is it that the kids are all home already (the son, for instance, had been sent away)? And, further to this, everyone is acting normal, as though shock or PTSD couldn’t be a side-effect of all the trauma they endured. Ridiculous!
So it’s with these elements in mind that I can’t help but wonder why ‘Poltergeist’ is considered such a classic. Don’t get me wrong: it’s decent enough ride, and I’m sure it was a rare treat at the time, given how well-made the special effects were, but it hardly qualifies as a masterpiece. It’s a decent popcorn movie, but it’s a wonder why it spawned a franchise. And it’s certainly not one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest efforts. It is, however, one of Tobe Hooper’s best. Which, in and of itself, is saying quite a lot.
Date of viewing: October 4, 2012