Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Some Thoughts About Poltergeist (1982)

Well, I think I can spare us any words about the plot here. After all, if you’re reading this, you’ve most certainly seen the film.

For quite some time, I’ve never really given Poltergeist much of a chance. Sure I’ve enjoyed it when I was a kid, but afterwards, a degree of dislike for its approach to horror as a carnivalesque special effects spectacular and a whole dollop of grumpy prejudice left me with a very cynical view of it, or of what it turned into in my mind. As is rather too often the case with me for comfort, I was wrong and unfair about Poltergeist. Fortunately, a recent rewatch of the painfully bland remake did make me curious about trying the original again, and watching it rather changed my mind.

Sure, I was right about Poltergeist in so far that it is indeed a film very much rooted in spooking its audience with its special effects – some of which still look brilliant to my eyes, some of which have dated as badly as CGI from the year 2001 – but it goes about it the honest way, certainly throwing something cool to look at on the screen every five minutes but also realizing special effects – even great ones – are not the only thing you need to catch an audience, and if you want to spook it for more than a few minutes, you’ll need to build an emotional connection.

The Hooper/Spielberg (how much of this is actually directed by Hooper and how much by the nominal producer Spielberg depends on whom you ask – at least some of the lighting and the sense of humour feel very much like a product of Hooper to me) film goes about creating this connection rather more subtly and rather less saccharine than Spielberg of this era is generally given credit for. The Freeling family is of course meant as an ideal identification foil for the film’s presumed white upper middle-class 80s audience, but the filmmakers are intelligent enough to realize that audiences might ask for representation but when it comes down to it, they’ll actually empathize with specific characters that are more than pure stand-ins for abstract notions quite a bit more. Consequently, the film puts a heavy emphasis on the way particularly the parents interact with one another, an - often quite funny – natural closeness that, together with fine and highly sympathetic performances by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, presents the couple as the proverbial Good Parents, but also as people with flaws and difficulties who bicker sometimes, roll up a joint (or read up on Ronald Reagan) or make bad jokes in front of a mirror. In other words, characters whose troubles an audience can be interested in not because they are exactly like them (whatever that’d look), but because they feel like actual people. Compare that to the remake that doesn’t even manage to get any kind of personality out of Sam Rockwell.

Thusly prepared, the horrors of losing a child, encountering the supernatural and losing quite a few of the outer determinants of the Freeling’s as members of the upper middle-class during the course of the film, take on a much more affecting face, what could be an empty special effects extravaganza turning into a film that can actually touch you emotionally. Poltergeist’s considerable impact is further strengthened by some fine supporting performances. The child actors are merely okay (but they’re not horrible, with is the only thing I really demand of acting children, because they are children), but Beatrice Straight as parapsychologist Dr. Lesh sells some of the more problematic exposition with a great impression of human warmth and dignity, and Zelda Rubinstein is just perfect as Tangina, a character that’s a genuine weirdo the film still – or even because of that - portrays with great warmth and without any irony, leaving sceptical me very okay with a character I should hate with all the energy of a hundred burning suns (compare with the insufferable holier than thou Warrens in the similar in approach but to me completely ineffective The Conjuring films).

That the film looks fantastic (the lighting often is just outright beautiful), and that Hooper/Spielberg (Hooperberg? Spieler?) know how to pace a movie perfectly hardly needs a mention.

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