Progenitors: Poltergeist (original)

Not any sort of official series, but especially during the summer months, remakes and sequels are, if nothing else, great excuses to review the films that came before. As I am above no excuse to review a film, I must answer the call.

I would like so much to proclaim the original Poltergeist as a fascinatingly accidental volcanic meeting of disparate, jagged minds, the harsh nihilism of director Tobe Hooper jutting out into the heart of the sticky-sweet nostalgia of producer Steven Spielberg, whose nostalgia is in turn engulfing the nihilism of the director. Ideally, the two seminal figures in arguably the first AAA horror film of the early ’80s (the genre’s introduction into the big leagues of crass, craven ’80s consumerism) would have had their nails at each others’ throats like a cage match between a devil-worshiping, corpse-eating, grave-residing raven and an elegant, iconographic American eagle. Even if the two minds burnt each other out, the battle would be a bile-spewing front-row-seater if ever there was one.

At its best, Poltergeist almost gets there. Introducing us to Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) who reside in a regimented, rigid California suburb with their three children: Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’ Rourke), all of whom bear a grand-old Americana name if ever there was one. Now, most suburbs have their everyday problems…rats, tax collectors, salmon shorts, but ghosts is another story (I must concede, however, that salmon shorts may be the greater evil still). One night, Carole Anne discovers first-hand that something is up, and as time moves on, things begin to bump a little too much in the night for this family to handle.

Generally, Poltergeist is at its best when it is recollecting the old classic haunted house stories from directors like Robert Wise and James Whale, and like Whale, Poltergeist has a mischievous, naughty edge to its horrors. When it is gamely cavorting through the fields of childlike nostalgia and perverting and contorting classic Americana – a toy clown, or a backyard tree to climb on or to scratch the window in the night – it feels like a childlike id run amok in a haunted house of suburbia’s making. If Hooper and Spielberg do collide to the film’s benefit, it is in these moments of cascading glee where-in the chills are of the carnivalesque variety. Generally, when whoever is directing the film lets out all the steam and bubbles-up the warped, fun-house spirit to its inspired best, Poltergeist is a spirited delight.

Which brings up the question: who exactly did direct Poltergeist? Hooper, who had directed the colossally left-field The Texas Chainsaw Massacre almost a decade before, or Spielberg, then at the height of his critical acceptance? Again, I would like to say both had an equal hand, but Poltergeist favors Spielberg at almost every step of the way. The fact is, although the 1970s saw a new spirit of directorial bravura and a singular autuerism to American cinema, the 1980s, as was true in the 1930s and the 1960s, was much more of a conventionally gilded money-making machine. And if anyone involved in a film knows a thing or two about money-making machines, it isn’t the director (admittedly Hooper’s famous Massacre film did vastly overcome its budget, but that wasn’t his intent, nor was it something that could be replayed with a higher budget).
Rather, it is the producer, and Poltergeist is a Spielberg film through and through, released at nearly the same time as his engorged success ET and, if not that film’s closest sibling, at least in the same family. Everything, from the relatively sedate horror to the painterly locales to the gee-shucks acting and writing enforces the Spielberg train at its most commercial and most polished, a polish that has undeniably helped the man make not only boatloads of money but assured, respectable cinema over several decades. The problem is, frankly, that “assured” and “respectable” are not words that do well by horror, and Spielberg’s intentions mute the film from ever achieving anything more than its superficial pleasantries.

It is too obvious to even act like “Tobe Hooper having more creative control over the film would have made it infinitely better as a work of chilling dread” is an interesting point three decades later. But even the sentimentalism is worse for wear under Spielberg, and it would have been worthwhile to see what Hooper could have done with the relatively “safe” non-horror material. Imagine, for instance, how a dose of schmaltz would galvanize Hooper’s garish chiaroscuro and nasty Americana (for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most important Americana films ever released). Imagine how unfitting the slightest touch of Spielberg’s style would be, and imagine how palpably exciting and invigoratingly different that unfitting touch of schmaltz could make Poltergeist if it was an otherwise unsentimental film? Imagine, for instance, if Hooper was really given carte blanche to go after the American Dream and ’80s suburbia with unrestrained vigor and venom, and to do so in the mist of a family-friendly horror?

That, my friends, would be a truly fiendish film worthy of the genre, and of the people involved. As it is, he gets to do a decent, off-hand job twisting American fables – like the monster under the bed being a child’s toy her – but he is never given free-reign to play around with the geography of diamond-encrusted everyday suburbia like he might have.

Not to mention, even if Hooper hadn’t been involved, a Poltergeist directed by Spielberg around say 1976 could have been a real corker of a thriller, if not an out and out horror. Spielberg, before he had truly become the new man-about-town given ludicrous amounts of money to do essentially anything he wanted, actually had to work on a budget to create danger and menace instead of lulling sentimentalism. This resourceful Spielberg with something to prove could have done up Poltergeist with a pointedly graceless vision and cutting, barbed filmmaking. But Hollywood money spoils even the greatest meeting of minds, and although Poltergeist is a good film, and a film with a number of great individual sequences of both the terrifying and playful variety, it is hard to watch without thoughts that, five years earlier, it could have been so much better.

Score: 7/10


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