Lone Star Cinema: Poltergeist (1982)


Poltergeist poster from 1982I realize I'm cheating a bit by considering Poltergeist a Lone Star Cinema selection, since the connections seem pretty sparse, as you'll see in the last paragraph. Watching the trailer for the upcoming remake (in theaters later this month) made me want to see the 1982 movie again -- I'd seen it only once before, on a bootleg VHS tape in the mid-1980s.

The most surprising thing about Poltergeist is how very odd it is. It's just weird, at least from a contemporary point of view. It's as though someone took the hallmarks of Steven Spielberg's 1980s filmmaking and twisted them into something almost distastefully creepy. That someone may have been director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or producer/co-writer Spielberg himself. I was entirely absorbed by the movie this go-round, but I can't really say I liked it.

For anyone left who hasn't heard of the movie (or only knows its "They're here!" tagline), Poltergeist is about a typical suburban family that has to deal with strange, supernatural activities in their otherwise  typical suburban house, just as contractors are digging up part of the yard for a swimming pool. The younger daughter, Carol Anne, is particularly susceptible ... and eventually vanishes into thin air, although audible from the static-y TV set (who else remembers static?).

One thing I do remember from seeing Poltergeist as a teenager is my utter amazement that even though Carol Anne is kidnapped by supernatural beings, the family continues to live in the house. I still can't believe they stay there as long as they do, although that does add extra satisfaction to the final scene. This time, though, I can't believe that they don't call the police or let anyone know about Carol Anne's appearance except a handful of parapsychologists, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). And of course you know Zelda Rubinstein is going to turn up eventually.

(Aside: While I saw Poltergeist on crappy VHS, I saw Poltergeist 2 in a theater, on a date. I realize now that I remembered the sequel more clearly than the original, which led to further surprises since I recalled different outcomes for certain characters. I am slightly tempted to watch the sequel again to verify, but I also remember that movie as being mega-dumb, so nope.)

It is to Straight's credit that she is excellent despite having to spout some of the most god-awful faux-spiritual mumbo-jumbo I've heard onscreen in ages. In fact, all of the "explanations" for what is fundamentally a haunted-house movie are eye-rollingly ridiculous. Why any of that had to be in the film, I have no idea.

In fact, Poltergeist feels like a lean, mean horror film trapped in bloated layers of unnecessary exposition and explanation. Imagine how it might have been on a lower budget a la The Evil Dead (released a year earlier). It doesn't help that Ghostbusters came out two years later and it's hard to hear the characters in Poltergeist talk about parapsychology without thinking of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis.

On the other hand, a low-budget filmmaker wouldn't have had the resources to create the special effects for Poltergeist, which are stunning not just for its time, but hold up well for contemporary audiences.

The question film buffs have asked themselves for decades is who directed Poltergeist, exactly? Rumors persist that Spielberg was bored while waiting for production to start on E.T. (released later that year) and would walk onto the Poltergeist sets and micro-manage, leaving little for Hooper to do. I've always found those rumors annoying, feeling like they emanate from rabid Spielberg fans.

And yet, the film does have those heavy-handed touches that I associate with Spielberg movies: the overbearing score (which I thought for decades was John Williams but is actually Jerry Goldberg), the kid with the room stuffed full of Star Wars toys, the bureaucratic bad guy, the oooh-it's-magic feeling you're supposed to get during some of the more pleasant supernatural scenes. Even the creepy mirror scene reminded me of the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If Spielberg did direct some of Poltergeist, it's not to the movie's benefit.

Poltergeist feels very much like a product of its time -- the early 1980s, when special-effects blockbusters ruled the roost, especially if they involved Spielberg or George Lucas (or both). Even the title doesn't make sense -- it's a MacGuffin, but not one that's set up solidly. Seen from 2015, it's a fascinating mess.

Austin/Texas connections: Tobe Hooper is from Austin, and JoBeth Williams is a native Houstonian. The late Austin character actor Lou Perryman appears briefly (and comically) as a rather forward construction worker.