Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It Knows What Scares You

I'm not sure why, but during these snowy early months I like to watch a lot of scary movies.  Maybe its that its dark all the time, maybe its because they are small morsels that can be watched and digested in an hour and a half, or maybe its just because I like horror movies.  At any rate, I've been watching a lot of them lately (and purchasing a lot on blu-ray) and I figured I'd better check back in and write about one of the classics.  It is a skewering of 1980s suburban life and an old-fashioned ghost story all rolled into one great morsel of a movie.  If you don't know what it is already, maybe its famous line will remind you...."They're Heeeeeere."  That's right, today I plan to examine Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's classic spook show.

The film begins as the local cable station is signing off for the night.  The National Anthem blares over the opening credits and then fades to snow as the camera takes us through the house and introduces us to the different members of the family who lives there.  First is Steven, the father, asleep in his easy chair, then Diane the mother, Dana the teenage daughter, Robbie, the youngest son, and Carol Anne, their youngest child (all of this is done by E-Buzz the dog who wanders room to room looking for something to eat).  Carol Anne wakes from her slumber and walks with purpose down to the glowing television set where she begins to have a conversation with someone who's voice we cannot hear.  The next day, following a storm, Carol Anne wakes again to see a smoky tendril explode from the set and into the wall.  Soon after, strange things begin happening in the house.  The chairs stack themselves on the kitchen table, furniture begins moving around, and Carol Anne insists that "They're Here".  Diane finds it all fascinating at first, but soon things turn violent.  A tree attacks Robbie and then, while the family is occupied, Carol Anne is sucked into her closet and disappears.  It is then up to the family to rescue her from the malevolent forces who have taken their daughter away.

Poltergeist has all the markings of a classic haunted house movie while also ratcheting up the action to account for the modern effects of the 1980s.  The film has a relatively slow build and then jumps right into the violence with the tree attack that almost comes without warning, like a really bad storm (of course, there is also a thunder storm in the scene).  There are other standout effects including the 'ghost lady' in the middle of the film, and The Beast that confronts Diane at the end.  And no one could ever forget that hideous grinning clown doll from the children's room.  However, Poltergeist isn't just about ghostly suspense and effects, its also a time capsule of another time and a type of life that many middle and upper class Americans were accustomed to...suburban life.  Steven and Diane are typical parents who are kinda cool and kinda loose while also running a picture perfect family with only minor issues (they also like to smoke pot and talk dirty in private).  Of course all that changes when an outside force enters their home uninvited and tries to tear them apart.  Notice the metaphor?  The American family isn't going to be destroyed from within...but rather from something from the outside.  It could almost be a parallel to the continuing Cold War fears at that time...but I don't want to go nuts on analysis.  Suffice it to say that Poltergeist is meant to show the strength of the American family and the futility of the outside world's attempts to destroy it.  In the end, the family survives and the malevolent forces are driven away...at least until next time...

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