Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia: Poltergeist

Poltergeist: A Look Back


Look over to the right there. Man, I've always loved that Poltergeist poster. It's so simple yet so absolutely perfect. It feels ominous, straightforward and restrained, kind of like the movie itself. 

Well, at least the first two parts. Poltergeist is anything but restrained...and that's why I've always loved it.

What makes Poltergeist such a classic is pretty simple: it's an average American, middle-class family in a typical suburban home. It's not some dark large mansion or massive deteriorating colonial at the end of the block. It's a quaint, pre-fabricated, three bedroom home with a two-car garage and an unfinished pool in the back. Poltergeist is great entirely because of the setting and the appeal isn't the ghosts but the typicality of the home and the family that lives in it. It's the average persons thrown into extraordinary situations.

 This is a motif typical for a Spielberg film, whether produced or directed (more on that later). The Freeling family is pretty damn easy to relate to, from their personality traits to the way their house is decorated. There's toys on the lawn, a messy kitchen in the morning, a living room that feels lived in and a station wagon in the driveway.  Yes, it's a movie and all that is set design, but it all feels authentic, the same way Spielberg's "family" homes did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET and his produced classic, The Goonies.

That sensation of authenticity is sorely missing in a lot of films today. Well, at least it was but Super 8, at least for a moment, brought it back (which was the nostalgic point of that film). It's hard to describe exactly, but movies like those just evoke a sensation and mood that is, usually, hard to create.

The extraordinary here, though, is obviously the haunting itself. Poltergeist isn't, I would say, a well-crafted tale of spirit invasion of a family. It's not, say, the original The Haunting, because one thing the film doesn't have when it comes to its spirits and phantoms is subtlety. While the family aspect is restrained, and thus more realistic, the spirits and happenings are extremely over-the-top. Like I said, ordinary people...extraordinary situations.

But Poltergeist strikes a rare balance. It's damn perfect in this regard because the family is so believable, you end up buying the lunacy that ends up happening to them. From trees coming alive to corpses bursting out of the ground and tentacles coming from a closet. The list of things that happen is all over the map and why the film has, amazingly, held up nicely over the years. It's a fun, well done movie with a bit of relatable-suburbia heart.


A Brief History of Poltergeist

In the early 1980s, Steven Spielberg found himself in conflict with his contractual agreement with Universal Studios. After completing the story and co-writing the screenplay with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, he discovered he would not be able to direct it as he had already signed on to direct the film E.T. and the studio wanted Poltergeist and Spielberg's name fast tracked. Poltergeist's principle photography was taking place at the same time E.T. was in pre-production, therefore Spielberg could not, technically, be associated with another project while in the midst of another.

Enter Tobe Hooper as director, who was coming off of a slew of horror films. Though still in pre-production for E.T., however, Spielberg has been documented as being the main creative and driving force (in other words, the uncredited director) for Poltergeist. He was on set every day, helped set up shots, storyboarded, helped create special effects, directed the actors themselves (Seen in the photo to the right) and, in post, edited the entire film with his long-time editor Michael Kahn.

Though more a collaborator in terms of creativity, Hooper still had the run of the place, involved in the casting and storyboarding along with Spielberg. Spielberg and Hooper were friends and Spielberg, though wanting to direct Poltergeist, wrote the script for Hooper to direct in the first place after he was trying to find him a good project to work with under his production shingle (nearly giving him E.T.). Hooper was still director, but Spielberg had final say and was the creative force behind it.

Casting was mainly focused on having unknowns to play the family, a common attribute to a Spielberg film to not make it a "star" movie. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams were cast as the parents, Steve and Diane. Though only about ten years younger than them, Dominique Dunne was cast as their teenager daughter, Dana. The younger children were Oliver Robbins as Robbie and Heather O'Rourke as Carol Anne.

Both Dunne and O'Rourke died within the next few years, Dunne in 1982, the year the film was released, and O'Rourke in 1988 at the age of 12.

Character actor Zelda Rubenstein was cast the height-restricted psychic that comes to help the family.

The Freelings' home was primarily shot in a soundstage, however the exteriors and neighborhood were in Simi Valley California. (Roxbury St. to be precise). It is still there today and looks exactly the same.

Special Effects, for which the film received an Oscar nomination for, have grown with a bit cult status in that the corpses seen in the film were actual human remains.

Poltergeist also received Oscar nominations for Best Score (Jerry Goldsmith) and Best Sound Editing.

The film was only budgeted a little less than $11Million. It was released on June 4, 1982 and reached number one at the Box Office with 6.8 Million.  It has since grossed 122 Million worldwide.  

Two sequels were released, though none reached the fandom or acclaim of the original. Poltergeist II: The Other Side came out in 1986, reunited the entire cast (except Dominique Dunne, sadly) and was written and produced by the two screenwriters that co-wrote the original. It was directed by Brian Gibson and actually did fairly well for itself. It was double the budget of the original, but managed to reach number one at the box office and earn 40 Million Domestically. It even managed another visual effects Oscar nomination. Zelda Rubinstein reprised her role as the psychic, and was promptly nominated for a Razzie for her efforts.

Poltergeist III, though,  put the series to rest for a decade, as a major flop. The franchise was attempted to be re-booted in 1996 with the television series, Poltergeist: The Legacy on Showtime. Though going for four seasons and producing 88 Episodes, it died a quiet death once Showtime cancelled it after the third season and the USA Network picked it up for a fourth, turning it into a marketing tool for pro wrestling until it faded away.



Top Ten: "WTF" Moments of Poltergeist

Poltergeist is all about escalation. Things start small, subtle even, but that's only there as a red herring because soon everything in the Freeling home just goes bat-shit crazy.


10: It's a Tornado and Nobody Saw It

You know what's hard to not see? I giant tornado. Considering Poltergeist takes place in California where tornadoes are pretty rare (as in never happen), a giant twister in the middle of a neighborhood is a hard thing to miss. Yet, only the Freelings are the ones that even saw it. These houses are approximately three feet from each other, well established in the opening scene where David is having an issue with his neighbor's television remote that changes the channel on his television because they're so close together. But a tornado sweepint through the side of the house and into the backyard, knocking everything around and uprooting a tree isn't mentioned by said neighbor.

Because, apparently, only the Freelings saw this thing. There's literally no mention of it. If I saw a tornado in my neighbor's backyard, I'm pretty sure the next day I'd go over there and say " guys had a tornado in your backyard last night." It's so odd and illogical, even the Freelings seem oblivious to it except for their daughter who can only say "Did you see that?" Nope...apparently not

9: Then, suddenly, a ghost-dog-spider-thing appears

 As cool as this thing is, as it's still an incredible looking special effect, I still have no clue what the hell it's supposed to be. All I know is that it's on all fours like a dog, has a face of human with fangs and long, hairy legs like a spider and growls. Sure, I can just chalk it up to a demon, but we really haven't been dealing with demons up until this point in the film. It really comes a bit out of left field.

It's not the biggest WTF though, but it's always one that, despite it being pretty damn cool looking, always makes me scratch my head on exactly what the hell it's supposed to be once it's gone...and it is gone rather quickly. In WTF Part 2 of this entry, the thing just...kinda...vanishes. That's it. Big, mean, nasty, growling...then poof, gone.

8: Midget Psychics...Not As Smart As You Think

In a classic twist, Poltergeist has one final "gotcha" moment at the end. You don't think anything could escalate further, the story was apparently over, but all Hell breaks loose and everything and everyone goes ape-shit. All that was done before didn't achieve anything, even our little four foot psychic who declares "this house is clean" is probably going to have her licensed revoked from the Midget-Psychic Association.

Some of the most iconic moments happen in the final ten minutes or so of the film with killer dolls, the tentacles mentioned above, a strange ghost-dog thing, an endless hallway, corpses and caskets crashing out of the ground and the house itself being sucked up into a vortex. It all goes down to the words "this house is clean," though. You don't just say "this house is clean" unless you actually mean "this house is clean." Maybe she was taking about the lack of dust or clean kitchen instead of evil spirits looking to steal young girls and murder people with trees.

Seriously. WTF, psychic lady? You declared a clean home and everyone safe and now you have no credibility whatsoever as things just got ten times worse. You aren't on the Freeling's Christmas card list now.

7: Your Parents are Suburban, Conservative Potheads

Believe it or not, you parents were young once. They had lots and lots of sex and probably did drugs. Now that you got that image in your head, it's best to know that at some point adulthood kicks in and you grow out of that shit - especially when you have three kids in the house. Oh, it's fine to dabble...but I get the striking impression the Freelings are not dabblers. Not the Freelings, though. The dad already likes himself the drink, but the parents go one step further and lay around in their house and smoke a hell of a lot of week as they vainly try to recapture their youth (best revealed by Steve showing his "before" and "after" gut as he looks in the mirror). Then you throw in the irony of being, we have to assume, conservatives as Steve seems quite engrossed in his book about Ronald Reagan.

This is a larger-scoped "WTF" moment because it's pretty obvious the Freelings aren't exactly the best parents out there - which is the point of the whole story as the events that happen is meant to bring them all closer together. But it goes beyond the call of duty to really, really try to make them and oxymoron in almost everything they do. It takes evil spirits in their house to finally bring them all together and around. 

6: Why do you even own that thing?

You know what's creepy? Clowns.

Know what's also creepy? Puppets and dolls.

Poltergeist kills two birds with one stone by having a creepy looking clown puppet/doll owned by Robbie (or at least in his room, we aren't sure who owns it). Ask any kid that grew up in the 80s and saw this film on what is the source of their fear of clowns, puppets, dolls and clown-puppet-dolls and it will probably something along the lines of "when I saw Poltergeist at the age of five." 

The thing is, though...why do they even own that thing. Why does a kid even own it? Robbie doesn't seem like the one that would be playing with it and Carol Ann is all about dolls and shit. It was already creepy, as all things like that are, and no kid in their right mind would have that in their room. You know what it probably is, though: something some relative gave them for a birthday. That is EXACTLY the type of thing some great aunt would give some boy, something she probably had herself and is just a hand-me-down piece of junk. If that's the case, why oh why do you sit in a chair to have it stare at you while you sleep? Why, Robbie? You stupid, stupid kid. I wish it did strangle you now.

5: Tasty Meat

I think the little animation to the right speaks for itself. Seriously? A steak on the counter suddenly starts slithering across the kitchen counter. It doesn't end there, though, because then it falls off the edge and explodes with maggots. Then our ghost-hunter, who was witnessing this, looks down to what he's eating and realizes he's eating maggots too.

All our ghost-hunter character wanted was a midnight snack. That's all. I have to say this guy gets the worst of the poltergeists' efforts...because we haven't even gotten to the nastiest thing they do to the poor fella.


Oh, his name is Marty by the way. It's about to get even worse, guy.

4: My Tree is Hungry. Nom nom nom.

Poltergeist has the subtlety of a grand piano pushed off a rooftop and then being simultaneously smashed by a semi truck. But that's why I've always liked it. It works for the film because, as mentioned, its a typical home with outlandish things happening to it. One such thing happens relavtively early on as the spirits of the Freeling home are smart. Real smart. To get the Feeling daughter, they have to distract the family with an over-the-top bombardment of crazy. I already mentioned the tornado and the vortex, but that doesn't hold a candle to the man-eating tree.

Robbie probably had it coming. Don't get me wrong, I feel bad, but that kid is annoying and is dumb enough to own an evil looking clown-puppet (every kid knows better).  When he's laying it bed, counting down lighting strikes with thunderclaps..WHAM, tree branches break into he and Carol Anne's room, grab him and just starts devouring him like a fat kid in a candy store. It's a classic scene.

3: ...don't pull the rope more.

As Diane journeys into the...closet find their daughter, she has a rope tied around her waist. Steve is given the task of holding on. I'm sure it's something about love and togetherness and whatnot. I don't really remember because the one thing that happens in this scene pretty much makes everything else irrelevant. 

Steve is worried something has gone wrong and suddenly begins pulling Diane out. Of, at least, what he thinks is Diane. Then BAM! giant, smoking, demon--head jumps out the closet.  We've never really seen any of those ghosts or spirits or demons directly. It's been a lot of moving objects, man eating trees and pretty lights for the most part, so this sudden directness is a bit jarring and immensely cool.

2: Don't freak out...just play with it

In a case of awful parenting, Steve comes home to an excited Diane who has to show him something. After she sets a chair on the floor and it scooting across the kitchen by itself, Steve goes to investigate it. He looks at the chair, checks the slant and evenness of the floor, then he looks up and see Diane placing their daughter where the chair was. She tells him to stay there and before Steve can even react, Carol-Anne is sliding across the room in a football helmet.

Let's face it, when you have a young mother who's probably dipping into the THC bin, things sliding across the room are probably pretty amazing to her. But put your daughter in harms way? Did it ever occur to you when you're begging the spirits to let her go that maybe you enticed them with the bait in the first place? What the hell were you thinking? Most parents would walk into a room of stacked chairs and freak out, grab their kids and run. But not Diane...she not only plays around with it but puts her daughter right in the middle of it. No wonder Steve freaks out over her actions.

1: Tastier Meat

To understand this number one, you first have to understand the history of movie rating. Poltergeist is rated PG because in 1982 there was no PG-13 rating yet. That wasn't adopted by the MPAA until 1984 after movies like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were too light to be R-rated by parents felt too adult to simply be "PG."

So imagine you're a parent taking your kid to the theater to see Poltergeist or renting it from a video store. It's that new Spielberg-produced flick after all. Then comes this scene...and it's still one of the most shocking and flat-out nasty gore scenes in movie history as one of the investigators gets up in the middle of the night and has a sudden urge to rip off the flesh on his face. It really comes out of nowhere and feels immensely out of place compared to the rest of non-bloody/disgusting film.  It is pretty unneeded for the most part too, other than the shock value...but that's why it's the biggest "WTF" moment in the film. It happens, then it's done and it was all some hallucination. It's like the tunnel scene in Willy Wonka or the entirety of Eraserhead. Just....WTF. It doesn't have any relevance. Hell, I couldn't even remember the character's name that it happens to. I always called him the "not black guy investigator" seeing as how there's only three of them and one is black. I had to look him up.


Turns out the character's name is Marty, played by Martin Casella who has assisted Spielberg in a number of movies. Of course, that's not Martin's actual face, but a dummy. Those are, however, Steven Spielberg's hands tearing it up and you can see him doing just that in this photo.


Poltergeist is a Steven Spielberg film. Make no mistake about that. Yes, Tobe Hooper was technically the director, but by all accounts and interviews, Spielberg was the guy really pulling the strings. Hooper was more there to be a work-around so Spielberg could still do E.T.  It moves, feels and looks like Spielberg. The way characters are set, angles places, shots composed, how the children act (Similar to his presence on The Goonies)...oh it's impossible to say otherwise.

That's not to say Hooper didn't contribute or just sat on his ass. He worked hard on it to and brought horror sensibilities to the film that Spielberg didn't really have. Blend that with Spielberg's understanding of special effects, and you have a film that, to this day, has a very unique style to it and is, still, probably one of the purest entertaining "horror" films (and I use the term horror lightly when talking about it) in cinema history and from my childhood as well.

The truth is, now especially, is that Poltergeist really isn't that scary. It's more entertaining than anything; the absurdity of it all. As a kid, though, I found it terrifying. It was a bit of a bait and switch: Spielberg, Amblin, children and a PG Rating will do that. Kids found it most terrifying because you actually saw children actually being victims in this horror story. As an adult now, it's hard to find it scary, if it ever was in the first place. But you can't deny its well-done attributes and immense entertainment. It's one of those films I, still, never get tired of and still can't quite explain why. Maybe I just don't want to. Maybe I love the sensation of my youth it's able to remind me well as being able to point out the exact moment I became afraid of puppets and clowns.


Spielberg with his kids - the teens and children from ET and Poltergeist together.




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