Sunday 24 September 2017

1,001 Films: "Poltergeist" (1982)

For some time, Poltergeist was the site of a conflict of ownership, and indeed it does still seem surprising that a film this sunny-glossy should have been Tobe Hooper's second most prominent credit after the thoroughly grotty The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Part of the issue stems from the film's precise depiction of life in the Californian suburbs circa 1980: cable TVs being set off by a neighbour's remote, a mother being caught flushing her kids' dead canary down a toilet, a daughter trying to hide a phone under her bedclothes, builders in the backyard completing the next phase of westward expansion. Here are the hallmarks of writer-producer Steven Spielberg, in other words, and that Poltergeist is more PG-13 fantasy than outright horror movie (or, perhaps, Spielberg's idea of a horror movie) can be gleaned from mom JoBeth Williams' first response to the outbreak of paranormal activity: an excited appreciation of just how cool it would be to have an invisible presence around the house, rearranging the furniture from time to time. (The shifting, swirling toys in her kids' bedrooms surely owe more to Mary Poppins than they do The Exorcist.)

The grown-ups in this tale, busy getting baked and jumping up and down on their bed, are hardly rational types confronted by a force they don't understand (which would be scary), but wholly credulous teenagers - baby boomers turned babysitters - who prove just as susceptible as anybody else to all the movement and sound, and thus ideal surrogates for the film's presumed target audience. (Pop Craig T. Nelson only gets through to his daughter when he threatens to spank her - making Poltergeist a parable for parents who need to demonstrate greater responsibility, where The Exorcist left Ellen Burstyn indelibly helpless at her child's bedside.) The effect is further diluted by Williams' giggly late-night drinking sessions with parapsychologist Beatrice Straight, the comical sight of a rogue pork chop moving of its own accord across a breakfast bar, and the light domestic farce that sees Nelson attempting to keep this outbreak of unexpected events a secret from his boss.

The surest sign of a behind-the-scenes power struggle: Hooper clearly wants to make disconcerting the television set that pumps out interference at all hours, but the square-eyed Spielberg regards it as a second home, something reassuring for the family to keep on in the background; it's hard to feel their daughter is really under all that much threat from Mr. Rogers. From its treacly Jerry Goldsmith score on down, the final product was a TV movie in every sense: a young child gets separated from their guardians - inside a cable box, rather than down a well this time - and the parents are agonised and anguished up until the point where the family unit can be restored. The final twenty minutes are some of the film that title deserved, but up until then, it's all over the place tonally, and no more terrifying than any other here-today-gone-tomorrow light show. Even the later Ring movies - which themselves could be credited to any number of authors - did less to undermine their own premise.

Poltergeist is available through Warner Home Video.

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