Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper,* 1982)
As always, there's some stuff in here that could be construed as spoiler-y. Happy Snowy Halloween, folks!
Just like the Steven Spielberg-directed films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (which was released a week after this film), the Steven Spielberg-produced supernatural horror film Poltergeist takes its audience to American suburbia. However, whereas those first two films are (in their own way) celebrations of suburban life, Poltergeist is a condemnation. In fact, Poltergeist reveals that suburbia's underbelly is quite literally teeming with rotting corpses.
Poltergeist is a haunted house film where the house in question is far too new to have ghosts. In fact, the house is being haunted precisely because it is new and its very presence offends the spirits.
I put the asterisk next to Tobe Hooper's name above—perhaps unfairly—to indicate the mini-controversy/debate surrounding who really directed Poltergeist. Although Hooper is credited as being the film's director, numerous accounts (as well as simple observable details) suggest that Spielberg (on top of being the credited writer and producer) was the true director of the film.
Though Spielberg has since insisted that Hooper was (is) the true director of Poltergeist, comparing the film with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper's prior directorial effort) then with Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters (Spielberg's) suggests otherwise. Poltergeist unmistakably looks like a Spielberg film, from its shot compositions to its score (where Jerry Goldsmith is doing his best John Williams impersonation).
Again, this could be incredibly unfair (I obviously wasn't there on the set and have spoken to absolutely no one involved in the making of the film), and I don't mean to disrespect Hooper (who did direct my favorite horror film of all time, after all) but I'd assert that Poltergeist ultimately represents Spielberg's, not Hooper's, vision. And ultimately, that's where I'm coming from with this entry.
Just as Gremlins would later be the dark and twisted version of E.T., Poltergeist is the evil twin of Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters. In fact, if watch the scene in the former where Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) Freeling are attacked and abducted, followed by the scene in the latter where little Barry is taken from his mother, you could be forgiven for thinking they're from the same movie.
Whereas E.T. and Close Encounters ultimately evoke wonder while offering a touch of dread, Poltergeist reverses that balance—it evokes dread while offering a touch of wonder. And make no mistake: early in the film, when Diane (JoBeth Williams) notices the chairs in the kitchen slide across the room, the paranormal activity taking place in the Freeling family's house does inspire wonder. Then later that night, when the giant misshapen tree in the yard reaches into the kids' room and tries to eat Robbie and Carol Anne is sucked in through the closet wall to some sort of alternate dimension, the sense of wonder ends and the enervating horror begins.
(In fact, the movie does a really good job of conveying how draining the haunting is for the Freelings. After Carol Anne disappears, look at Craig T. Nelson's face in the following scenes. Through the bulk of the second act he looks as though he literally hasn't slept in days.)
Here's one example of how the spirits within the house torment and terrorize its inhabitants. I suppose I'd label it NSFW. I mean, if your boss walks by and sees you watching it, it may lead to some awkward conversations:
(I'd also like to point out that, like Jaws, this film was rated PG when it was originally released.)
In Poltergeist, the suburbs are not romanticized—they are a literal source of evil. When the opening credits roll, we see row upon row of sprawling identical houses, spanning out indefinitely. "I can't tell one house from the other," says one prospective homebuyer when Steven (Nelson), a real estate broker, shows off a house in Cuesta Verde, a suburb that, in Steven's words, his "company built."
In another early scene, Steven's wife Diane discovers that their daughter Carol Anne's pet bird has died. So, she and Carol Anne give it a funeral by putting it in a cigar box with a napkin for a blanket, a rose, some food, and other items, then burying it in the yard. We'll see later that all this care and respect will be for nothing, as a bulldozer will unceremoniously dig it back up and spill it back out onto the ground.
I realize I'm describing it to seem like a heavy-handed and clumsy bit of foreshadowing, but in execution it's actually quite deft and subtle—primarily because we're not let onto why all this aggressive paranormal activity is taking place in the Freeling family home.
And just why is all hell breaking loose in the house? This could be a clue as to why.
Thaaaat's right. The company that built the town unceremoniously mowed over a cemetery and desecrated the graves of countless souls. Oops.
Sure enough, the Freeling family gets the hell out of there before the house literally implodes and Steven's boss (who apparently gave the go-ahead to move the headstones but leave the bodies behind) inexplicably gets no comeuppance. Cue the subsequent following of two horrible yet inevitable sequels.
And because no write-up on Poltergeist would be complete with a reference to the traumatizing evil clown doll in the kids' room, here you go. You're welcome.
(Seriously, what little kid has that fucking thing as a toy? I suppose the same little kid who has a poster for Ridley Scott's Alien on his wall.)
With Poltergeist, which had another director credited, Spielberg was able to explore the dark side of his more wondrous, child-friendly creations yet keep himself at a safe, arm's length distance. Yes, Spielberg gave the world E.T. But the week before, he also gave the world that goddamn clown doll.
Never sleeping in a room with a clown doll,
James "Just...Smart That Way" Comtois