Saturday, November 12, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2 Sidetrack: Steven Spielberg and Poltergeist

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. In today’s entry we take another sidetrack to Poltergeist.

Grade: 92 (A)

So, is it a Spielberg film or what? There lies the unique situation of Poltergeist, one of the greatest of all suburban horror films. Originally imagined as evil aliens as a part of E.T., Spielberg chose to split the sweet half from the nasty half and change the aliens to ghosts. But a clause in his contract kept him from directing both Poltergeist and E.T., and the films were set to be released a week apart from each other. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was brought in to helm the project…so to speak. The film doesn’t feel like a Spielberg theme as interpreted by another director the same way Gremlins was by Joe Dante. By all appearances, this is a Spielberg film, produced and co-written by Spielberg. 

There’s some disparity on who really directed the film, with cast and crew members split. Some see it as a Spielberg film all but in name, whereas others allege that while Hooper did technically direct the film that Spielberg had final say and final cut. That’s the strange thing about the auteur theory: the director is generally seen as the author of a film, but when Hooper is more or less steering the ship with Spielberg’s vision (and it is a Spielberg vision), it’s impossible to see it as anything but a Spielberg film.

Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) are, by all appearances, a normal suburban family in a normal suburb. Steven has a job as a real estate agent and is one of the top sellers around. Their three kids all seem normal: 16-year-old Dana (Dominique Dunn), 8-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and 5-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). They’re living the American Dream. When Carol Anne begins talking to what she calls “the TV people”, Diane first brushes it off. But strange things are happening: chairs stack themselves, objects move across the floor on a whim, and the dog keeps barking at the wall. One night, the creepy tree in the yard comes to life, possessed by vicious spirits, and attacks Robbie. In the confusion, Carol Anne goes missing. They search the house, but find they can’t see her, only hear her…through the white noise on the television.

The Freelings hire three parapsychologists, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her assistants Marty and Ryan (Martin Casella, Richard Lawson). They claim to know how paranormal activity works, but they’ve never seen anything on this level. As the spirits continue to taunt and haunt, Dr. Lesh theorizes that these spirits are not a classic haunting (attributed to a place), but rather poltergeists, attracted to a particular person (in this case, Carol Anne). It takes the advice of a medium (Zelda Rubenstein) to combat the ghosts and get Carol Anne back.

Right away, the film starts in Spielberg-land. The suburbia of Poltergeist is a true suburb of the Reagan ‘80s: idyllic, beautiful, with freshly cut grass, children playing, and dads drinking beer and watching football. Every house looks more or less the same. Sometimes the neighbors feud with each other, but hey, that’s life. The kids have Barbie dolls and Star Wars sheets (Robbie’s Alien poster has always bugged me, though; that movie is scary, man). Gorgeous, inviting music plays on the soundtrack (Jerry Goldsmith, subbing in for John Williams, who was busy with E.T.), as if saying that this is the greatest place on Earth. As with the best 80s genre films, though, there’s something amiss.

But even before the mayhem starts, there’s some less wholesome elements underneath the surface. The main family is full of likable people (all well played by the actors), but they’re not as simple as they seem: the teenaged daughter is a good kid, but it’s pretty clear that she’s sexually active. The disparity in age between her and her much younger siblings, added to the fact that JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are only in their thirties, suggests that Dana was an out-of-wedlock child when the parents were still teenagers.

Oh, and the Freeling parents smoke pot. Robbie walks in on the two fooling around, his mother with a joint in her hand. These two may have found a way into the 80s dream (Nelson reads a Ronald Reagan biography), but these are kids of the 60s and 70s generation; they’re trying to keep up with the times, but any easy labels of the Wholesome 80s Suburban Family© isn’t going to fit. This is a far more colorful and interesting place than the Morning in America crowd would have you believe. Seriously, between this, the Marion and Indy relationship in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the absent father figure in Close Encounters, and the clashes with authority in any of his films, who says Spielberg doesn’t take risks?

By the end, the Freelings will see past the lie of the 80s and leave this place, because there’s something far uglier underneath the surface. It’s difficult to discuss exactly what this is without spoiling the film, so anyone who hasn’t caught up with Poltergeist or heard the famous line from the end of the film might want to skip the next paragraph.

SPOILERS AHEAD: Steven’s real estate company built the neighborhood over an old cemetery. They claimed that they relocated everything, but as the line goes, “YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES!”. The bodies are still there. As in Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders, or any number of Spielberg films, the heroes and the scientists come together to solve a problem, but there’s small-minded people all around, and as always, authority figures can’t be trusted. Steven Freeling’s boss is a classic Spielbergian villain: a business man who seems alright on the outside, but any concern for the right thing goes out the window in order to make a cheap buck. This character in particular is an indictment of 80s greed, and the ghosts are a manifestation of the mess men make when they don’t consider the consequences of their actions.

The biggest influence on Poltergeist, as with many horror films, is Hitchcock. Spielberg’s “men vs. unstoppable force” theme is here as well, but the film’s suspense is Hitchcock meets Robert Wise’s The Haunting relocated to suburbia. The cinematography, peering around corners and deliberately dragging the tensest moments to near unbearable levels, is one of the great tricks horror filmmakers borrowed from Hitchcock. The film’s ending, in which everything seems normal but the audience knows, intuitively, that something’s not right, is a classic example of “showing the bomb without telling the characters it’s there”.

Hitch was undoubtedly an influence on both Spielberg and Hooper, so it’s difficult to attribute everything to Spielberg without giving some credit to Hooper’s craftsmanship. But the way Hitchcockian suspense is used is undoubtedly more Spielberg than Hooper: the characters are filled with wonder and awe before the horror sets in, the setting and the bric-a-brac are Spielbergian, the characters are all Spielberg characters, and the humor is Spielberg’s. The suburban subversion could fit with either director’s vision, and the film’s intense horror could be just as much Texas Chainsaw as Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. The key determination, of course, is the genuine warmth and sweetness at the heart of it all. You’re not going to find optimism, likable characters, or happy endings at the end of a Hooper film.

Director’s Spotlight Schedule:

Monday: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Thursday: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Saturday: Gremlins/The Goonies

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