Tuesday, October 7, 2014


As I’ve posted quite often here on Cinema Bits, I’ve mentioned that I’m a self-decreed horror movie devotee.  I love most areas of horror films and will try to watch whatever level of the genre at least once.  As they get more and more extreme, to shock and disgust, I’ll at least try to view it and see reason to continue doing so.  See, if there’s no point to what’s being shown on the screen, I’ll just shut it off and look for something else to watch.  Horror movies are about scaring you and putting a sense of dread in you, it really shouldn’t be about grossing you out or making you sick to your stomach.  So, with that said, I can enjoy many subgenres of horror.

One section of horror that needs to be perfectly executed, for me to appreciate, is the haunted variety.  So many films miss that mark, in my opinion, and I find it tough to seek out a good film to revel in.  I really didn’t think Insidious was all that great and I thought The Conjuring was a little bit better, but both those films aren’t—nor will they ever be—in my home media library.  Although, there have been some classics that I’ll watch repeatedly and have a great time with, like The Shining, 1408, Stir of Echoes, the Paranormal Activity films, and…Poltergeist.

The year 1982 gave us a couple of great movies that had a common denominator of Steven Spielberg—and it was probably more than just that—as he gave us his great family film, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and the modern take on haunted house films, Poltergeist.  But there has been some controversy regarding these two films and the involvement Spielberg had in their creation.  See, if you glance at his bio on IMDb.com during 1982, you’ll notice that he is credited as director of one and producer of the other.  However, some of the cast and crew of both films have gone on the record saying that he took on the directing tasks of both films, even though Tobe Hooper is solely credited as the director of Poltergeist.

One of the reasons this has been discussed time and time again is because, I’ve heard, it was a director’s guild issue that he wasn’t allowed to helm two films simultaneously.  I’ve also heard that it was probably a stipulation in Spielberg’s contract with Universal Studios while doing E.T. that he wasn’t allowed to work on anything else while working on their production.  Whatever the case, I never really thought about it one way or the other and I’m sure most people will feel the same.  But as a fan of film, I like to take note of certain vivacities and motifs of movies, observing signature charms some have over others.  And that’s one thing you can say about Spielberg’s films, is that they always have this certain panache you can discern from other films of the same type.  On top of that, Tobe Hooper has a particular way about filmmaking as well, and you really don’t see much of his style in this flick.  Nevertheless, it is what it is and regardless of who’d directed it, I love Poltergeist.

Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), a successful real estate agent, and his family live in the new suburbs of Cuesta Verde.  One night, his daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), walks over to the family television while everyone is asleep—including Steven as he’s passed out on the recliner.  As the white noise is on after the television station goes off the air, she kneels down in front of the TV set and has a one-sided
conversation with something unseen in the screen.  After she does this a second time—this time in the parents’ bedroom—some entity within the television reaches out and causes the house to shake, waking up the Freelings.  It’s at that point that Carol Anne states the all-too-famous line, “They’re heee-ere.”  Soon after, Steven’s wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), discovers strange goings-on within the house (things moving on their own and able to slide Carol Anne across the kitchen floor).  Later, as a storm passes over the neighborhood, the old tree in family’s backyard comes to life and reaches into the kids’ bedroom, taking Robbie (Oliver Robbins) as Carol Anne is left by herself in the house while the rest of the family is outside trying to save Robbie from the tree.  While alone in the bedroom, the closet turns out to be the portal to another dimension as it takes Carol Anne, leaving the Freelings to figure out how to get her back.

Poltergeist is such a great movie and has such memorable scenes that still scare me to this day.  I actually remember seeing this movie when it was released in theaters back then (I was around 13, going on 14) and thought it was disturbing, yet fun.  Whenever popping in this disc to watch the movie, it brings me back to my early teenage years and how I really wasn’t a man yet, because this film reduced me to a little boy, every time.  To this day, I still cringe during some of the film.

The film has its share of family fun, as we see the modern take (at the time) of parenting, and how the Freelings deal with a teenaged daughter as well as a couple of preadolescent children.  I was amazed, as a teenager, to see the parents smoking pot in their bedroom and nearly getting caught by their son as he walks in on them when they’re getting kind of frisky.  But still, you see how caring they are, particularly with the scene when Steven talks to Robbie about the thunderstorm.  I still use the same method to this day to determine if thunder is coming closer or going away.  Yes, the family dynamics displayed in this film is part of what makes this movie great—as well as giving it away that Spielberg had a heavy hand in the film’s direction, as familial undercurrents is a signature subject matter in his films.

Along those lines, what really grabs most of us who see Poltergeist is connecting to the fears instilled in all of us.  I’d mentioned the thunderstorms—which most of us as young children were afraid of—but I’m sure we can all relate to the massive shadow at the window of the big tree in their backyard or the clown doll that sits on Robbie’s chair in the kids’ bedroom.  I know most of us who have seen this movie probably have thought to themselves, “Why doesn’t he just throw that thing away or give it to Goodwill?”  The thing is, these items don’t scare us during the day—which would be the time to toss the doll—they only frighten us at night, which the filmmakers display brilliantly in this movie.

The special effects in this film are what really made it stand out from most other haunted house films (at the time).  All practically done, in very innovative ways, a lot of it adds to the dread and tone of the scenes it’s featured in.  The growing hallway scene is pretty intense and conjures up dreams most of us have had in where we’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry, only to never reach it.  Yes, the crazy bedroom, with all the toys and items floating and spinning around was shocking at the time, and the ghost creatures/monsters were pretty terrifying too.  But the one scene I think everyone recalls is the scene in where the member of the paranormal team, Marty (Martin Casella), goes to the kitchen to get something to eat.  After seeing a crawling and exploding steak, as well as spitting out a maggot infested leg of chicken, he goes to the washroom to clean out his mouth and face.  The light suddenly grows extremely bright and he notices a lesion on his face.  He begins picking at it, peeling skin off his face, more and more until his head is a gory mess of a skull, then suddenly there’s a flash and he’s back to normal.  That scene, above all else, was so disturbing to me back then and still presents a shock today…it’s definitely a highlight to see.

The music in Poltergeist is wonderfully composed and fits perfectly into each scene.  It’s not overly forced in or obvious in any way, nor is it excessive or sticking out in any scene.  It knows when to add to the scares and knows when to make you—as well as the characters—feel good.  Jerry Goldsmith is probably a name you recognize—maybe not—but I really love the compositions he’s contributed in most films I’ve heard.  He’s composed music in over 200 films and television series…a very impressive career, up until his death in 2004.

So, what’s my final “bit” on Poltergeist?

The movie is awesome, a spectacular spectacle that is one of my all-time favorite haunted house films.  The
 cast is wonderful, the story is great, the sets are superb…I just love this movie all around.  Besides the somewhat dated special effects—which you can’t fault since it really wasn’t perfected Hollywood-wide at that point—there’s nothing wrong with this film.  If it really was a Tobe Hooper joint, it’s the best movie he’s ever directed; if it’s what it really seems to be—a Spielberg picture—it’s definitely the best horror movie he’s done.  Either way, whether it’s ever put on record who directed it, the film is fantastic.

Here’s a post “bit”: something I like to do occasionally is to search out the address of the house and check it out on Google Earth’s Street View.  It still looks the same!  See for yourself: 4267 Roxbury Drive, Simi Valley, CA.  The house looks exactly the same as it did in the movie…enjoy!

Well, that’s it for today’s post…thanks for reading…and I welcome any comments!

Cinema Bits is on Twitter and Facebook.