1. Creating the Perfect Family --- 2. Story and Structure --- 3. Ghost Hunters... and Rape
4. Directed by Tobe Hooper --- 5. Spielberg's Suburban Ideal
6. Three Sacred Suburban Areas Under Threat / Private Property: This Means YOU!
7. Irreligious Suburbia & TV Peoples --- 8. Postscript --- 9. Poltergeist on Home Video
1. Creating the Perfect Family
Whether a deliberate or tangential evolutionary thread in his work, during the seventies Steven Spielberg was slowly refining his concept of the ideal family unit in his feature films, eventually finding not only the right commercial ingredients to make mom, dad, and the kids identifiable to average audiences, but perhaps making us envy the lifestyle of slightly upper-middle class families living the dream of home ownership, pets, and freedom from social issues like a nasty divorce, death in the family, and destructive ills like drugs and alcohol abuse.
In Jaws (1975), Spielberg’s breakthrough (and blockbuster) horror/drama, the father (Chief Brody) goes out with two men to hunt and kill the evil (a really big fish) that’s destroying the seaside community of Amityville (‘which means love’), ruining the tourist economy, and nearly turned his eldest son into a warm meal.
Although mom and the two boys disappear from the film when dad goes shark hunting in the second hour, Spielberg had already established everyone as fairly normal: dad’s a morally straight, protective lawman, and the parents joke around with each other (“You wanna get drunk and fool around?” “YEAH!”) and their smart-alecky but good-natured kids. They may not live in a gorgeous home in the touristy Martha’s Vineyard locale, but they’re sufficiently middle class to be able to buy brand name goods.
That family was transposed to the suburbs of Indiana in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and the five member unit – expanded with a daughter - remained good-natured until dad cracked his mental walnut and started building replicas of Devil’s Tower, moving from mashed spud sculptures to working with half of the flower bed in the living room to create a 1/10000000 replica of the flat-head rock formation.
Before that snap - caused by dad’s encounter one night with another unknown beast: aliens – the Neary family was your average hard-working cliché, living the American dream of home ownership, and building a future for the kids.
After the snap, dad had alienated the family and was obsessively driven to find an answer to his problems at Devil’s Tower rather than trying to save his marriage. By the final reel, the aliens end up being musically inclined and rather benevolent (they even returned missing members of Flight 19!) but it’s the military that’s villainous for separating and quarantining people who just wanted answers for experiencing weird visions, and being attracted to that isolated rock.
Then came E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), written by Melissa Mathison. Under the influence of Spielberg, the family unit grew closer to the Spielbergian ideal: slightly upper middle-class, perhaps mortgaged for the long-term, but headed by a loving mom and three kids; the fact she was recently separated was the only aberration, and the omission of a father figure may have been a conscious decision by Spielberg to position all adult male figures as the real menacing force when E.T. tries to hitch a ride on the last spaceship home.
Before delving into Poltergeist, though, we have to back up a bit and cover the slightly fuzzy germination of both Poltergeist and E.T. If the ‘official story’ is correct, Spielberg had another project somewhat muddily characterized as a follow-up to Close Encounters called “Night Skies,” concerning aliens that terrorize a family in their home (which already reads like a whole expansion of the noisy, messy alien pranks in the Guiler home sequence where the aliens took little Barry from mummy Jillian and left a kitchen in utter disorder).
John Sayles reportedly crafted a script, but when Columbia passed on the project, Spielberg shopped it to MGM, with the director functioning as producer. His first choice for director was Tobe Hooper, whose fame stemmed from the low budget shocker The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Hooper’s own career had gone through a few ups and downs by the early eighties: he recently directed his first studio film The Funhouse (1981) for Universal, and had been replaced on the mamba snake thriller Venom, so Spielberg’s offer was a perfect chance to finally break into the A-realm with one of the most dynamic creative forces in Hollywood. The only issue: Hooper wanted to do a ghost story along the lines of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).
In the meantime, Spielberg had hired writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor to develop a remake of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe, but the pair was more interested in “Dark Skies.” As legend, lore, or the official story goes, Grais and Victor took the family-under-siege tale and worked out a ghost story that begat Poltergeist for Hooper and Spielberg, while the fearsome aliens disrupting a family’s life under Mathison’s pen morphed into a cute alien who befriends a boy after being left behind by the mother ship, aka E.T.
The two films were more or less developed concurrently, but with meticulous pre-production planning for the effects and shots, Poltergeist was the first to start filming in 1981, after which Spielberg would begin directing E.T.
2. Story & Structure
There are striking similarities among the families in both films: each lives in a shiny, swanky suburban development, the parents can afford new home entertainment gear, the kids’ rooms are loaded with popular posters and toys (and unsubtle product placements), but unlike E.T., in Poltergeist the five-member family unit returns as the Freeling family, headed by devoted husband and wife Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams).
Both the alien E.T. and the malevolent poltergeists test each family’s constitution, but the real villains are eventually revealed to be quite human: the cold government forces wanting to trap, test, and dissect the little rumply alien creature and best buddy Elliott; and in Poltergeist, the housing developer, Mr. Teague (James Karen), who moved the headstones of the gravesites before building monster homes over the untouched graves in what became a four-phase development known as Cuesta Verde. (The title apparently translates as ‘green money.’)
Poltergeist, however, is an outright horror film – something the original screenwriters and Hooper always wanted to make - but even with its dark corners, it’s a family-friendly shocker, and Spielberg’s base story and last-ditch rewrites borrow elements (mainly) from two highly influential works: The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost” (1962), and The Amityville Horror (1979).
Richard Matheson’s story “Little Girl Lost” ostensibly deals with a family who must find the portal in their suburban home to retrieve the daughter who somehow wandered into another dimension during the night while the family was asleep. Aided by a psychiatrist, they trace her ethereal calls to an invisible hole in the wall, which they mark with chalk. The father eventually rescues his daughter before the shrinking portal disappears forever.
The Amityville Horror is about newlyweds who move into a haunted house, and a vicious spirit that overtakes the father and attempts to transform him into a killer. The finale has the mother racing into the house in the hopes of rescuing the kids while the house throws everything at her to keep her away / prevent her from leaving.
Spielberg and his co-writers respectively grabbed the premise, conflicts, and final battle from the above tales and created their own potent threat involving the little-dramatized ghostly creatures called poltergeists – what are often characterized as “juvenile” mischievous ghosts - who annoy the Freeling family at first, before a darker force communicates with the youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) through the TVs, and soon tricks her into entering a portal.
The Spielbergian hybrid replicates Matheson’s storyline in which the family search for the portal and rescue their daughter with the aid of three parapsychologists and a medium, but when the battle seems to have been won, the writers have the malevolent spirit attempting one more snatch-back, throwing every element in and up from under the house at the family until everyone successfully escapes, and the wrecked house is dragged into a super-portal that represents a pseudo-gateway to Hell.
The reason the Poltergeist script works so well is because Spielberg managed to supervise and balance a richness of ingredients, and the film reinforces rather than ridicules or satirizes the idyllic five-member family in their suburban paradise.
The only moments that feel forced are oddly the pregnant shots in which characters collectively look up at the ceiling for a comedic visual punchline, and cutaways to traumatized members of the Freeling kids – specifically teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), a character who really has little to do in the film except complain. She has three major screen moments: teasing her siblings with “Ask Dad!” at the breakfast table; giving teasing construction workers the fuck-you elbow before cycling off to school; and arriving home as the house is imploding, screaming several times “What’s happenng?” before being whisked by her dad away to a hotel with the whole family.
3. Ghost Hunters… and Rape
The writers made sure the parapsychologists and their basic arguments for the existence and investigation of angry spirits wasn't a completely contrived Hollywood caricature, and the use of contemporary gear is practical and believable: in a televisual world, it's wholly plausible that ghost chasers would use scientific and multimedia gear to get their proof with TVs, and video cameras outfitted with sensors to track sudden movements – gear not that different from what’s used in current reality shows.
As some parapsychologists explain in the Blu-ray’s featurettes (see end for further details), Poltergeist made ghost-hunting sexy and exciting and culturally mainstream, like an extermination company arriving with custom gear in their van to purge carpenter ants from a home.
Contrasting the gear and techniques were genial, self-effacing characters, of which Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) is the ideal rep for the ghost-busting crew, because she does it out of sympathy for the family as well as helping the 'lost and lonely souls' that have wandered into the Freeling house.
There's also no mention of cost or billing, so the ghost hunters are presented as altruistic, and working for the goal of validating their work as scientifically credible among peers. (Lesh is self-characterized as a certified psychiatrist, but she‘s chosen to ‘waste’ her time chasing angry, upset spirits from the homes of the living – something that brings her more joy and excitement that listening to couch babble from paranoid yet banal civilians.)
Lesh has a great speech in which she explains her ‘lost soul’ theory to boy Robbie (Oliver Robins), but in that specific moment she’s really addressing the audience - placing them on the same level as a scared child wanting to understand why spirits would turn vicious, and cause such trauma for ordinary people.
She’s also incredibly respectful of what the family is experiencing, and mindful of what unwanted public and media attention can do them if the filmed footage of the ghosts coming down the staircase in the living room is presented in a public forum. In a brief conversation about the ‘valuable footage,’ she offers Diane an ‘out’ by warning her of potential media embarrassment, but the family quietly signs off in allowing Lesh to use the footage because it’s the best means to get their daughter back.
The screenwriters could’ve introduced the exploitive media element, since the drama actually spans what feels like several weeks, but they didn’t. The best way to read their absence isn’t because of a lack of a bigger budget, or maybe that tabloid reporters would’ve cluttered the drama among already potent and aggressive elements; it’s because of Lesh’s professionalism that she handles the Freelings’ situation with such tender discretion.
Mind you, the same can be said of the heroine in Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1981). Carla Moran’s encounters with a rape-hungry entity yields the attention of the police, a horrified lover, and a psychiatrist determined to have her locked up for being a masochistic cuckoo, but the media are also kept out of the drama, and that omission has to be a conscious decision by the filmmakers rather than a reflection of there being ‘gentler’ sensibilities between 1981-1982, because the actual case of the Lutz family that inspired The Amityville Horror novel and film during the late seventies was a swirling media frenzy that degraded into the tabloid media.
As a contrast to scientific investigators Dr. Lesh, Ryan, and Marty (Martin Casella), there’s medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) who's brought in as the group's secret weapon, yet she’s deeply compassionate towards the family. The script treats the two philosophically different investigators as equals, and the screenwriters never lost focus of the core storyline: a mother's hunger to rescue a child from the clutches of a monster.
JoBeth Williams sells the film because Diane Freeling’s thoughts are constantly on how to find daughter Carol Anne, keep her safe in spite of the dimensional barrier, remind her of her family's potent love, and guide her to a safe area where Diane can eventually grab her from the other dimension / spiritual plain and bring her home.
That's the PG drama, goosed with cadavers, maggots, and decaying heads, but there's also a dark sequence that may have been inspired by a specific scene in the R-rated The Entity.
After colouring her hair and taking a soothing bath, Diane Freeling puts on a baseball jersey and lies in bed, only to have a spirit attempt to pull back her top and expose her midriff. In The Entity, the bedroom and bathroom assaults are pure rape, but in Poltergeist, Diane’s attack is merely the prelude to an unrealized rape; because the evil entity wants Carol Anne ‘for her life force’ (whatever that means), it has no time to indulge in a direct assault, so it teases Diane by dragging her up the wall, rolling her across the ceiling, and dropping her on the floor like a rag doll.
Diane’s unseen entity prefers to assault her with cinematic tricks – such as the Hitchcockian ‘expanding hallway’ that Diane has to run down to reach Carol Anne and Robbie’s bedroom – and Spielberg’s production contains only the barest hint at sexual impropriety and deviancy; the malevolent ghost or beast is merely pissed off at being treated with disrespect by land developer Teague, and wants some payback by messing up the neighbourhood, one family at a time.
4. Directed by Tobe Hooper (?)
What gives the film its harsh edge, though, is Tobe Hooper’s direction, although right into filming, speculation began that Spielberg was always in the director’s chair, and Hooper was kind of a neutered proxy, and received sole directorial credit due to DGA rules of a producer disallowed from firing the director and taking over.
From prior works like Texas Chainsaw and Eaten Alive (1977), it’s obvious Hooper knew how to capture grisly, grimy horror, but the idea he could direct a glossy studio production with lavish special effects and not treat the suburban ideal with contempt maybe seemed tough for the director's critics to swallow.
Elements such as characters gazing with wonderment into flickering blue lights and smart-ass moments of humour are more characteristic of Spielberg's style. Equally recognizable is the title sequence where multiple actions are covered in a fluid, graceful montage with a final visual punchline, like the main title sequence where a cyclist is delivering beer but flips over in a sudsy mess when the motorized cars of some teasing kids cut him off.
Alternatively, there are wide, high angle camera movements, staggered close-ups of terrified faces, and the clown attack (still the film’s most terrifying sequence) that relate to Hooper's own use of roving wide-angle shots and staggered montages in Lifeforce, and the shock cuts in Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.
One could argue Hooper learned how to convey a visual style from Spielberg, but within the flawed thing that became The Funhouse, Hooper clearly showed an eye for widescreen composition and glossy colours prior to getting the Poltergeist gig.
He also knew how to compose a shot to infer danger: when Diane Freeling enters the bathroom to colour her hair and take a bath in a prelude to the violent finale, Hooper holds on a wide shot with Diane moving about in the distance, while a Kleenex box resting in the lower-left foreground teases the audience into fearing some tremble or sudden shake is about to occur, signaling the expulsion of the ghosts wasn’t full-proof after all.
In the end, nothing happens to the tissue box, and Diane’s soothing bath isn’t interrupted by some sudden cool breeze, a ripple in the tub, or some angry message written on the damp tiles. It’s all a cheat, but a good one that pinches the tension so the audience is ready for real shocks when Diane’s attacked in the bedroom, and Robbie’s evil clown doll – a thing no sane child would ever want to own - goes on the attack.
The consensus one can glean from public comments made by the cast, as well as Hooper after the film's release, is that Poltergeist was a project supervised by co-writer / producer Spielberg, and Spielberg stepped over the executive boundary when he felt something wasn't working out or being achieved according to the storyboards designed by both filmmakers.
Hooper's involvement, however, apparently ended after production wrapped, and Spielberg maintained a hands-on approach thru all post-production stages, including the spotting the film with composer Jerry Goldsmith.
And then there’s the striking violence that was allowed to exist in a PG film. Poltergeist has no swear words (E.T. had that “penis breath” utterance, but no genuine potty words), but the filmmakers managed to lobby and appease the MPAA censors by trimming down the gore – like Marty's chunky face-peeling, and the cadaver-heavy finale - to the bare essentials.
A PG rating signaled to hesitant parents the horror in Poltergeist was fine for the whole family, and it ensured the broadest possible audience would attend, much in the way Jaws isolated gore to two major shocks: a floating severed head, and Quint spurting blood from his mouth when Bruce the shark chomped at his waistline before dragging the old seaman into the ocean blue.
(Selective double-hits of gore also worked for Hitchcock in his 1963 creature feature The Birds: Lydia Brenner finds her old neighbour slumped on the bedroom floor with his eyes gouged out, and she later sees schoolteacher Annie Hayworth dead on the porch, with blood on her otherwise pretty face. The film contains no other moments of gore aside from cuts, scraps, and red-stained bandages.)
The three main views (or theories) are that Hooper directed the film while Spielberg handled second unit when the complex production was running behind; Spielberg’s hands-on style pushed Hooper to the margins when the latter’s setups and direction were deemed flawed and slow; Hooper had substance abuse issues which forced Spielberg to take over the directorial reigns, particularly during the post-production phase while Hooper was in rehab.
Whether any combination is events and views is true, the finished film doesn’t reflect those conflicts; it’s just a classic ghost story with a vivid glimpse at eighties suburban pop culture and family life.
5. Spielberg’s Suburban Ideal
Unlike Joe Dante’s goofy The ‘burbs (1989), the suburbs in Spielberg’s worldview is a great place to live, love, procreate, retire and respire as long as some greedy, cold corporate fiend doesn’t leave the bodies in the foundation soil.
The development – Phase 1 of Cuesta Verde – is around 7 years old – but it’s still relatively new, and the Freelings are surrounded by more recent developments that form curving streets with dotted boxes of green and brown – familiar the patterns seen in striking aerial photos and maps, and representative of suburban planning and the much-maligned urban sprawl where the only way in and out is by car; and the only way to send for help or escape, re-supply goods and get needed services (like ghost hunters and shamans ), is by car.
With the exception of a trip Steve Freeling makes to plead his case to Dr. Lesh at a university, and the family’s flight to a highway motel at the very end, we never leave the environs of Cuesta Verde. That’s a clever, conscious decision by the filmmakers because it transforms the suburban ideal into a slowly closing trap.
The looming danger for current and future home owners is conveyed in a hillside scene where developer Teague shows Steve the valley that’s being partially filled with homes, and where Phase 5 will begin – the cemetery where the pair is having their conversation.
The implication is clear: Teague’s been cheating to make more than a quick buck, and the consequences will devour the innocents living in a valley that’s eerily isolated from the nearby urban shopping, police, and hospital centers. (As Steve yells several times into Teague’s horrified mug at the end of the film, “You son of a bitch… You only moved the headstones!!!”)
Another facet of the Spielbergian ideal under threat is the issue of neighborly friendliness – or lack of, which is quite peculiar, since an ideal should extend towards friendly neighbours from whom one can borrow a cup of sugar, have weekly BBQs, or swap time at each other’s cottages. It’s an ideal present in vintage Twilight Zone episodes like “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” but in both E.T. and Poltergeist cynicism and selfishness are apparently active ingredients in the suburban lifestyle.
At the beginning of the film, flowing from the main credit sequence, we see that man riding a bicycle with beer for the buddies that have gathered to watch a football game at Steve Freeling’s home. Steve has friends, but the screenwriters oddly never show them again; one could read this as pure script economics - keeping the attention focused on the Freelings - but they could also be seen as friends that live so far from Steve, the only time it’s convenient to socialize is during a suburban ritual like a televised sports event.
As the group grabs their beers and settle down for the game, the signal suddenly switches to an episode of Mr. Rogers, because Steve’s neighbour, Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus) has the same remote. (Technically, this is impossible because the specific Sony TV model Steve’s has doesn’t use the ancient clicker he and Ben share; the real remote in no way could reach across another property, so it’s a contrivance the writers created for the kind of offbeat, dry humour taken to broader extremes in Dante’s The ‘burbs.)
Ben is introduced as the classic petty, feuding neighbour, and their annoying disputes are somewhat furthered in a later scene when Steve and Diane visit Ben to ask if he or anyone in his house have experienced any weird paranormal phenomena. Ben slams the door in their faces, but while he does help Diane out of the swimming pool hole in the film’s finale, neither he nor his wife are willing to help Diane rescue the kids from the house soon after.
Instead, Ben and his wife relent and disappear, and their selfishness isn’t all that different from the neighbours who think Neary is plumb crazy for wrecking his homestead and driving his wife and kids out of his life in Close Encounters.
(One can also read the lack of empathy as stemming from script economics again: they’re irrelevant to the battle between mother and poltergeists, and the neighbours’ aid would’ve cluttered the choreography between actors, props, camera, and flailing skeletons.)
The collage of movie posters, dolls, and Star Wars paraphernalia in the shared bedroom of Carol Anne and Robbie provides an accurate snapshot of kids’ rooms at the time: many gathered movie-themed toys, and it’s not extreme that Robbie would totally immerse himself in the Star Wars mythology with dolls, lamps, posters, and bed sheets. (Of course, Spielberg later copied the idea of larding a set with available merchandise in Jurassic Park; virtually every mug, thermos and toy was available for purchase beyond the movie theatre.)
Being the youngest, Carol Anne is less materialistic, but there’s little doubt she’ll enshroud herself with her own selection of ‘brand name stuff’ as she gets older. The toys are clearly circa 1982, but the siblings’ quibbles, teasing, and playing are universal and timeless.
The only oddities in their bedroom is the Alien poster, which was an R-rated film in 1979, and a monster movie Robbie nor Carol Anne couldn’t have seen in theatres (nor on video, since the VHS tape came out around 1984); and that hideous, kid-size clown which none of the kids like, but for reasons of script logic, it’s kept prominently on a chair to taunt them at night.
The elder Freelings are more interesting heroes because they’re somewhat atypical of the Cleaver mould from Leave It To Beaver: they’re ex-hippies who had wayward, rebellious teen years and are slowly easing into the roles of mature adults in a Reagan America.
Steve’s responsible for over 40% of the sold homes in Cuesta Verde (hence his free home in Phase 1, and gift home from Teague for the proposed Phase 5), and while Diane smokes pot in bed (the weed is kept in the same brand of cigar box used to bury Carol Anne’s bird Tweety), Steve reads the biography “Regan: The Man, The President” – a subject one doubts he’d have eagerly devoured in his teen years. More interestingly, when Steve visits the university, he tells Dr. Lesh that his wife is 32, and eldest daughter Dana is 15; that would’ve made Diane a teen mom at the age of 16.
By just examining the Freelings’ cinematic, familial DNA, we have a mix of a cute girl, a whiny brother, a pushy older sister, and parents who have a deep relationship going back to Diane’s teen pregnancy. They’re all imperfect, but the Cleaver family roots are present: no one really swears, dad’s patient with the kids (and never spanks or severely scolds them), and the pot just makes mom kind of funny. The Freelings are a cultural update, and the lack of any marital conflict – divorce, infidelity – is essential to the Spielbergian ideal of a typical suburban family. If this family isn’t exactly our own, we know one just like it, and have spent time with them.
The reason it works in Poltergeist and E.T. (but less so in Spielberg’s clunky TV series, Amazing Stories) is that regardless of the audience’s own family makeup, it’s easy to identify with the teasing, the toys, the smart-ass dinner or breakfast table jabs, and three areas where families are at their most private: the bedroom, the kitchen, and the leisure / family room.
6. Three Sacred Suburban Areas Under Threat /
Private Property: This Means YOU!
The assault on those three areas – bedroom, kitchen, leisure room – could be tied to script and production economics, but it’s much more than the filmmakers re-using the same sets for the haunting sequences.
The most private places in the house, and where a violation is at its more horrific, are the bathroom and bedroom, and while Hooper teases us with a potential threat when Diane takes a bath (thinking her house is “clean”), it’s really the bedroom where the safety of the family is probed and assaulted.
It’s a huge thunder and lightning storm that sends the younger kids into the parents’ bed, and it’s where Carol Anne’s second and more pivotal conversation with the “TV people” evokes a ghostly hand to move out from the screen and morph into a lightning strike that shoots a hole in the wall above the sleeping family, and awakens them with an Exorcist-like tremors.
When Robbie is pulled outside by the creepy garden tree, it’s from his cozy, Star Wars-smothered bed; and while he’s fighting the carnivorous tree, the kids’ bedroom closet becomes a suction vortex that tears Carol Anne from her bed.
In the prelude to the finale’s snatch-back montage, when the clown doll attacks Robbie, it’s in the bedroom again, and it’s also in Diane’s bedroom where the lead ghost teases her. Both sets of simultaneous attacks form distractions so the evil entity can reclaim Carol Anne via the closet. (That of course begs the question: why would the parents and the kids not sleep in the safety of the living room, instead of the very beds where horrible things have already happened?)
The kitchen is where the family bonds at breakfast (“Ask dad!”) and shows increasing bits of weirdness: the broken milk glass that destroys Dana’s homework; the pyramid of chairs that forms within a quick head-turn, and ‘slider’ canal where Carol Anne glides across the floor in a football helmet. Plus, it’s one of the first areas where coffins and bodies shoot through the house foundations.
The living room is more interesting because it’s where Steve and his buddies watch the game, where Carol Anne first hears the TV people via the family’s primordial big-screen TV, and where the family seeks refuge once Carol Anne’s been snatched, and her bedroom’s been rendered off-limits by a roaring swirl of poltergeists. The living room is also the central base where the parapsychologists set up their chunky gear and await the spirits’ arrival at night, and where Diane comes sloshing out from the second portal after rescuing Carol Anne from the angry spirits in the scripts’ second act. Unlike the other rooms, the living room is in fact a kind of safe zone.
Each of these key locations are within in a home that’s typical of the era: big, boxy multi-room homes with two-car garages, large frontage and a sizeable back yard for a rock garden, home grown veggies, and a pool. Every house is the same, so each buyer is part of a democratic community; the only way one can distinguish oneself is in the kind of stuff one accumulates, or the upgrades one adds to the ‘base model’ home.
The Freeling house has large rooms that are inherently cinematic, in terms of being capable of conveying domestic scope for the 2.35:1 camera lens: the master bedroom can accommodate a king-sized bed, dresser drawers, a large TV, and still offer plenty of walking room so Steve can ‘dive’ off the bed without crashing into a full-size mirror.
The living room is boxy, but the high, two-storey ceilings allow the family to fill the room with plenty of seats, couches, leisure chairs, and a stacked wall unit for the stereo and speakers which flank their 28” Sony set – then among the biggest tubes on the market.
More importantly, there’s the thin staircase that zigzags up to the bedroom level. In terms of style, it actually goes against the grain of the home’s blocky geometric shape, and is completely impractical for carrying furniture up during a move. Its design is purely for the camera, as well as a subtle allusion to classic haunted house films: when the ghosts descend, the side curve allows the camera to capture their full downward flow from frame left to right, and the curve looks foreboding in daylight as well as nighttime.
The oddest design feature of the Cuesta Verde is the lack of large windows in front. The size of the homes may reflect superficial wealth and luxury, but there’s no sense of neighbourly love: the small windows out front give the Freeling house a bunker-like feel, and the message to passersby is ‘Keep Away. Private Property.’
The flowers and walkway lights are purely cosmetic, so that from a distance, it’s a welcoming home. (The Freeling house and the development where it rests are in fact real, and may have been chosen by the filmmakers because of the street’s sprawling nature, as well as the homes’ bunker design.)
7. Irreligious Suburbia & TV Peoples
As mentioned earlier, the parapsychologists that come to the aid of the Freelings are an organic blend of spiritual and scientific disciplines, which isn’t new to the ghost story.
Robert Wise’s The Haunting favoured the spiritual, and the characters had to use their wits to stay in a haunted house in order to earn a big financial reward from its dead owners.
Richard Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House – made into a film in 1973 by John Hough – brought science and spiritualism under one roof. The novel’s plot was a noble dare for its characters: purge an estate of the evils stemming from the physical sickos that once terrorized and devoured each other long ago. The last one standing wins as the Greatest Ghost Hunter / Exorcist in the world.
The concept of religion isn’t really a part of either film’s philosophical undercurrent, and neither is it potent in Poltergeist. As far as Wise, Hough, Spielberg and Hooper were concerned, spirits probably exist, but it’s left up to audience to figure out where they fit in their personal philosophies and belief systems.
That neutral stance works for the genre because it allows characters to present their own arguments instead of the film being rooted in doctrine; a religious-drenched tale would make it tough for agnostics and atheists to take seriously beyond core shock sequences and high body-count kills, and Spielberg and MGM wanted to attract the broadest international audience.
In Poltergeist, the evil is a dark force pretending to be a child who tells Carol Anne to tell the other spirits to stay with her, and not take the trip into the bright light that’s inferred to be Heaven (but is described as a ‘higher spiritual plain’). There is no God, Heaven, Purgatory or Hell – just plains through which spirits in gaseous, ectoplasmic forms can travel (sometimes after a gentle nudge from spiritual friendlies).
The spirits’ mode of communication isn’t really through gifted spiritualists like Tangina; it’s through targeted missives: apparitions (when they want to be seen) or sounds (when they want to be heard, as the bass-heavy groans when they’re mad, or directionless free-floating whispers when they want to taunt the living).
The spirits’ chosen medium for their method is the white noise of a TV dial setting (channel 12) after a station has signed off and killed its signal for the rest of the night.
The white noise theory is that once freed from a powerful broadcast signal, a channel is open to whatever radio-static goo is swirling about the environs. It also posits that if taxi cab chatter can bleed into the TV tuner or antenna, why not the electrically charged verbiage from the spirit world?
Technically, white noise still exists, but for present day TVs and monitors, we’ve created filters that block the bright flickering speckles with a neutral blue screen (oddly similar in colour to Microsoft’s infamous ‘blue screen of death’), and mutes the harsh sound of a dead TV channel or coarse radio station fuzz.
Even for present say audiences, white noise with a discernable voice is more affecting than getting a random text message on a phone that reads ‘You’re next!’ or an malevolent email. A demonic force emanating from the internet feels silly, but an unwanted sound calling your name from nowhere in the middle of the night is horrifying.
We expect sounds to come from rational sources, and when they’re from a dark corner or hazily identifiable as a creaking hallway floorboard, a loud bang from the stairwell, or a slamming door, they trigger a primeval instinct to pay attention and reach for a blunt object; emails and text messages feel like pranks or junk mail, and the solution for those annoyances is to block the sender, or just hit ‘delete.’ Hardly hair-raising.
The concept of unwanted and inexplicable sounds still resonates from the film, though, and that’s why the ghostly chatter from the TV still affects us: the unknown has a way of upsetting our comfort zone through a simple flickering monitor, regardless of size.
Ghost stories, in the broadest possible scope, have never gone out of fashion, but unlike The Entity, Audrey Rose (1977), or The Changeling (1980), the entities in Poltergeist are quite different: they’re an annoying force whose behaviour escalates to child abduction, leading to a battle between humans and spirits that spills from a portal into our reality.
That gave the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to craft effects-laden sequences with slime, skeletal creatures, demonic heads, tentacled tongues, and sprouting cadavers, but when there’s a vital emotional moment, Spielberg / Hooper made sure the camera stayed with the actors, and they minimized the audio-visual trickery because it’s ultimately human emotion that gives a scene (and the film as a whole) emotional credibility.
A classic example of this directorial care is Diane feeling Carol Anne’s spirit surge through her chest on the winding staircase. Diane gets a rush, and then smells her daughter in her clothes, and almost loses it, except she’s kept sober by the realization that her daughter is still alive. Hooper and Spielberg use lighting and wind effects, alongside Goldsmith’s reiteration of his Carol Anne theme, but the scene’s power comes from JoBeth Williams’ performance as she reacts and engages the others in a brief celebration of life and hope – a powerful moment unfettered by the film’s million-dollar special effects.
It’s an important factor that distinguishes the first film from the increasingly awful sequels that followed: the effects-heavy Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), where the writers tried to explain the spirits’ backstory; and Poltergeist III (1988), which transposed what was left of the Freeling family (and MGM’s production allocations) to a high-rise apartment complex… and a snowy garage and spastic Chevys.
Interestingly, the battle between parapsychologists, humans and angry spirits was picked up again in Amityville 3-D (1983), but like the Poltergeist sequels, it too relied on gimmicky effects instead of a believable family or parapsychologists fighting for their survival. (And if imitation in Hollywood can be rebranded as an insincere grab at audience cash, then satire, in the form of 1984’s Ghostbusters, is genuine flattery.)
The meteoric success of Poltergeist and E.T. marked the debut of Spielberg’s success as a brand name filmmaker, and he exploited this power by setting up his Amblin’ Entertainment shingle. He soon launched a spate of family-friendly comedies, fantasies, and a TV series, and worked with filmmakers who shared (or were willing to mimic) his style of horror and humour in suburban settings, such as Joe Dante (Gremlins), Richard Donner (Goonies), and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future).
With a blockbuster as his calling card, Tobe Hooper should’ve gone on to bigger and better things, but his resulting three-picture deal with Cannon Films proved toxic when executive interference and perhaps the lack of a strong creative collaborator like Spielberg affected the quality and coherence of Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986).
When both big budget productions floundered (and were editorially tweaked and ordered partially rescored by the studio), Hooper went back to his roots and made a sequel to his 1974 breakthrough cult film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (also made in 1986) was nastier, gorier, and drenched in surreal black comedy – none of which impressed Cannon, and the film was treated like a cancer, almost killing Hooper’s feature film career. Although he has distinguished himself in various TV efforts, his last feature of note was the direct-to-video shocker Toolbox Murders (2004).
Of the cast, JoBeth Williams quickly appeared in another horror outing, Alan Rudolph’s Endangered Species (1983), and Oliver Robins co-starred in the angry-dead-sister teleplay Don’t Go to Sleep (1982).
Zelda Rubinstein reprised her role of Tangina in Poltergeist II, as did all the actors who played the Freeling family, except Dominique Dunne, who was murdered by an abusive boyfriend in 1982. (Her tragic story was documented in E! True Hollywood series “Dominique Dunne: An American Tragedy” in 1997.)
9. Poltergeist on Home Video
Poltergeist has appeared on virtually every home video format, but the controversies surrounding the production have prevented anyone from really creating a proper special edition, which is frustrating for a film that’s important in Spielberg’s career, and to the ghost genre as a whole.
Though not as touchy as Spielberg’s other high profile production of 1983 – Twilight Zone: The Movie – no one seems willing to produce any kind of featurette because it mandates talking to people whose involvement requires contextual statements about two key hot potatoes: the film’s true director, and the so-called ‘Poltergeist Curse,’ which is tied to Dunne’s murder in 1982, and the sudden deaths of Poltergeist II co-star Julian Beck in 1985, and Heather O’Rourke, who died near end of production on Poltergeist III in 1988.
The compromise for fans is the 2-part documentary “They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeist Revealed,” which uses film clips and dissects scenes to discuss the film’s impact on future ghost chasers, parapsychologists, and mediums.
The doc, originally produced for the 25th Anniversary DVD in 2007, is fine and treats the subject of ghost hunting and communicating with the spirit world with a straight face, hinging on the statement that for thousands of years people have reported in weird paranormal activities, and it just seems foolish to deny something is out there with us.
Fair enough, and the arguments and testimonies are competently argued within the doc’s short running time. The most well-known faces are author Colin Wilson (whose novel The Space Vampires was turned into Lifeforce by Tobe Hooper), and parapsychologist Dr. Hans Holzer, PhD., who investigated the weirdness surrounding the Lutz family in the actual Amityville Horror case.
Poltergeist co-producer Frank Marshall and supporting actor Richard Lawson (who played parapsychologist Ryan in the film) actually appear for a blip in the doc, but their comments are irrelevant among the discussions regarding what aspects of the film are true-to-life, or dramatic fantasy.
This 2010 disc replaces the 2008 DigiBook edition which sported the same extras and came with a 30-page booklet with stills and data culled from publicity materials (not included on the 2010 release).
WHV’s Blu-ray transfer is already first-rate, so the film itself needs no tweaking for a future reissue, although there is that bad cut between the kitchen scene, where Diane has Carol Anne glide across the kitchen floor for Steven before the parents visit their neighbour, Ben.
According to an issue of Cinefantastique, there were scene extensions that were filmed and dropped during the final editing phase: Carol Anne does another slide across the floor and gets her helmet caught in the wall. The parents then head over to Ben’s house, and have some dialogue before their unhelpful neighbour opens the door. As it stands, the discontinuous film edit goes from Steve’s reaction after Diane jumps with excitement after Carol Anne’s first and only slide, to the parents in mid-conversation as Ben opens the door.
The Blu-ray transfer offers a fine balance between digital clarity and film grain. The colours are sharp, the visual effects are still convincing (even the imploding house at the end holds up well), and the uncompressed HD sound mix offers a robust selection of frequencies that will boom, groan, and roar through the home system.
Since Poltergeist was made in 1982, 2012 will mark the film’s 30th anniversary, and one suspects WHV can’t (and shouldn’t) let that date go without something new for the inevitable reissue. The problem is even if the extras from the 1994 laserdisc were included (trailers, stills, and a vintage production featurette), the BR’s special features producers would have to steer clear away from that authorship issue.
According to the reports gleaned at Poltergeist: The Fan Site, there’s more than differing accounts of who was on set the most, who actually directed which actor(s), and fiddled with the camera setups before someone yelled ‘action’ and ‘cut.’
There’s another weird stream that alleges there was a deliberate attempt by MGM’s marketing department to play up the controversy because Hooper’s ties to the shocking Texas Chainsaw meant his name might be perceived as a negative to audiences wanting risk-free family fodder, so an impression was given (via stills, the featurette, and publicity pap) that Spielberg was more hands on; reducing the appearance of Hooper in media elements therefore conveyed a sense of ‘quality control’ to worrisome parents.
It’s no wonder that with so much theoretical and anecdotal mush spinning around out there (and for 28 years, no less), from a home video producer’s stance, what’s acceptable to say and archive on disc becomes a legal minefield.
So what should WHV do for 2012?
Plenty. Add the archival publicity materials because they’re historical and at worst show Spielberg as an active producer obsessing over an expensive production. If there are deleted scenes, include them as multimedia links to the shooting script, which can be read as a PDF file.
Record a feature-length commentary track with film historians who address the acting, production, effects, cultural reflections, and place in Spielberg’s canon as a burgeoning production impresario. The wealth of views and basic production ephemera will run the film’s length, and any hot button issues can be snipped without compromising the track’s historical focus.
Include an isolated music track featuring Jerry Goldsmith’s full cues, as well as deleted cues over corresponding scenes. This was Goldsmith’s first score for Spielberg’s production company, and it precedes his work on Gremlins 1 and 2, Poltergeist II, and TV’s Amazing Stories. That begs a commentary track by music historians, which could include music engineer Bruce Botnick, as well as any one of the many film music historians and journalists eager to explain the score’s importance within the composer’s canon, and reflective of Spielberg’s idyllic suburban world.
Include a featurette on Amblin’ Entertainment, which could be done in spite of the later films not having been released by Warner Bros. alone. Same goes for a featurette on the Poltergeist franchise, which also extended past the films to the TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy, running (incredibly) four seasons (1996-1999).
Lastly, a featurette on the film’s superb publicity campaign. The image of a girl in front of a huge TV screen was a major coup because it reduced the ghost story to a simple image: a child having dropped its security toy for the strange, lurid glow that beckons from the family’s idiot box.
A good chunk of the above can be done, and the anniversary clock is slowly ticking onwards …
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan