25 Years Ago: The Best Genre Year Ever! Part IV! Capone Remembers POLTERGEIST!
Controversy has dogged this film since its initial release. Part of it, of course, has to do with authorship. I’m always surprised how many people are happy to state with authority that the film was directed by Spielberg instead of the credited Tobe Hooper. It’s the sort of rumor that is attractive to some people, and so it perseveres. Maybe part of that is because this is one of the first films where Spielberg exerted a strong hand as a producer. He’s got a story credit on the film, and originally, he was going to co-write it with Stephen King. That fell through, though, and instead, the script is credited to Spielberg and the team of Michael Grais & Mark Victor. There are touches throughout that certainly mark the film as part of the Spielberg stable, like when someone’s watching A GUY NAMED JOE on TV at one point, the film that Spielberg eventually remade as ALWAYS. And I’ve known people who got scenes in both E.T. and POLTERGEIST confused since they look like they were shot blocks from one another, part of that same Spielburbia that was so much a part of his identity as a filmmaker at that time.
The main controversy, though, had to do with the film’s content. This remains one of the most shocking PG rated films ever made. It was originally given an R, but Spielberg has long been a master of working the MPAA, and he managed to get the rating dropped on appeal. It’s a trick he’s accomplished several times (including with this summer’s TRANSFORMERS, evidently), and within a few years, it was one of the incidents that led directly to the creation of the PG-13. There are moments from this movie that were burnt into the memories of every kid who saw it in the theater, including our own Capone...
POLTERGEIST -- A REMEMBERENCE, or How I Learned about Maggots, Hickeys, and Whether It Is Best to Go Into or Stay Out of The Light
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. So Moriarty sent me a list of great genre films that came out in 1982. Motherfuck, there's no way that was 25 years ago. Now I'm old and depressed. I've always known I'm a little bit older than many of the regular writers on this illustrious site, but that may actually work to my benefit in collecting my rememberences about the film on Moriarty's list that immediately jumped out at me as the one I HAD to write about: POLTERGEIST.
Even before June 4, 1982 - the film's release date - I was prepared to see this film. For the first time in my life - I was 14 at the time - I read the novelization of a film before I saw the film. In fact, it was the first time I'd ever even contemplated reading a novelization. I was so nervous and anxious about crapping my pants in fear at seeing this movie that I wanted to know every spoiler-y moment ahead of time so I knew what to expect. Even then, I was driven to know as much about a film before its release as I could. It's a desire that has diminished over the years, because I've found the simple pleasures of actually walking into a movie knowing next to nothing about it.
My best friend Matt and I had already seen plenty of horror films in our time. We rented stacks of them religiously every weekend and just plowed through them like so much candy. Most of them were much more hardcore than POLTERGEIST (for instance, we'd already discovered Herschell Gordon Lewis, which weren't ever particularly scary, but we loved them). But there was something about advanced word on POLTERGEIST that was different. It was big-budget work from a major studio, and it wasn't being talking about like a B movie. Instead it was being discussed in terms often reserved for scare films like CARRIE or THE EXORCIST, which turned out to be unjustified, but the fact remained, this film was being taken seriously.
Matt and I arrived at one of the two, six-theater multiplexes near my suburban Washington, D.C., childhood home. We'd actually selected the complex a little further from our homes because we thought it might be less crowded. We were wrong. Although I'm sure the lines for the STARS WARS films were far longer, I can't ever remember seeing crowds like I did for POLTERGEIST. And I knew as soon as we walked into the mall that housed the multiplex (six screens was as big as it got back in '82) that we weren't getting into the showtime that we wanted unless we took drastic measures. Matt and I were sneaky little bastards back then: if we wanted to get into an R-rated movie (there was no PG-13 back then), we would hit a $2.50 matinée show, find an adult going to the same movie, each chip in an extra $1.25 for the adult's ticket, and pretend to be related to this stranger. But since POLTERGEIST was a PG-rated film, this trick wasn't going to cut it against these crowds.
I walked to very close to the front of the line, waited for a break to form in the line because someone turned their back to the moving line ahead of them for a brief second, and I sidestepped into the line, pretending to talk to the people in front of me. Sometimes if you just look like you belong somewhere, nobody questions your being there. More importantly, we got our motherfucking tickets.
Watching POLTERGEIST today, certain things jump out at me that I didn't understand when I was 14. The fact that the character of the 16-year-old daughter (the late Dominique Dunne, killed just months after the film's release by her ex-boyfriend) is shown in an early scene eating a pickle and ice cream is very telling, especially when you do the math when her mother (JoBeth Williams) is said to be 32 years old when this story takes place. I was a late bloomer when it came to drugs, so I probably didn't understand that the parents were smoking pot in an early bedroom scene. What makes that scene so much funnier is that dear-old dad (Craig T. Nelson) is reading a book about Ronald Reagan as he's passing the joint back and forth to his wife.
The one aspect to POLTERGEIST I could never have understood until I was much old was that, although Tobe Hooper's name is listed as director, Steven Spielberg (named as co-writer, story idea supplier, and producer) is clearly helming much of this movie. His sense of wonder permeates every discussion of the spirit world and certain camera angles are lifted right out of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and repeated in E.T., which was made immediately after this film and released one week later on June 11. I came from a classic nuclear family, so I always connected with the family unit in POLTERGEIST more so than the broken home of E.T.
Sitting in the audience with my deviously purchased ticket, I remember distinctly that the collective fear of the audience was greater than my own. The tension and screaming in the theater actually made me more terrified. I didn't even know what maggots were, but when I saw them crawling all over the chicken drumstick that had just been in that researcher's mouth, I could feel them on my skin and in my throat. Dear God, I nearly vomited. Today, it looks horribly fake, but in 1982, when that same man tore the flesh from his own face down to the bone, I was traumatized. And I couldn't wait to sit through it again the next day.
I think the scientific aspects of POLTERGEIST were what appealed to me the most when the film was new. I felt like these fantastical events were being taken seriously (again, much like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS). And these were not events that were only going to happen to this family; these were things that would be seen and felt by anyone entering their home, and, more importantly, these phenomena were being well documented. The scene in which the researcher watches the tape of the lost souls coming down the family's stairs is moving. Those poor people aren't a threat; they're just confused and unaware that they are even dead. And I know all this because a tiny angel played by Zelda Rubinstein told me so.
At the end of the film, as the home is collapsing upon itself, the oldest daughter shows up with a giant hickey on her neck after supposedly having a good-bye dinner with her unseen boyfriend. I didn't know what the hell a hickey was or how one gave or acquired one. But even at the fragile age of 14, I knew that Dunne's Dana was a world-class slut, and she got my hormones percolating. But not as much as Williams' Diane Freeling, who was the first MILF I ever milfed. She spent most of the film running around in short shorts or a long t-shirt, just begging those mischievous ghosts to give her the business, which they do when they toss her around her bedroom, giving us glimpses of her panties. Oh baby. It's hard typing with one hand.
Like all great horror fare, POLTERGEIST is ripe with social commentary and criticism. The cautionary tale of suburban sprawl. The belief that television may not only be bad for your eyes. The message about the dangers corporate greed (in this case, a real estate developer trying to save a buck by only moving graveyard headstones, but leaving the bodies six feet deep to have homes built upon them). But unlike traditional scare films, Spielberg and company have loaded the film with new age spirituality and extended discussions on dreamstates. To a kid barely in his teens, these concepts were more than a little lost on me, but the very thought that the spirit world and our existence are so closely linked, made me wish I had a poltergeist living in my home, so I could slide across the floor in a football helmet. And I felt certain that, after seeing POLTRGEIST, that I was fortified with the necessary knowledge and fortitude to dealing with such ghosts and repelling them if I had to.
And then there's that fucking evil clown that nearly chokes young Robbie to death. Or the evil tree outside his window that nearly swallows him. Some of the effects shots (courtesy of a still-young ILM) look cheap, the film is cluttered with continuity errors, equipment shadows, and even a few glimpses of crew members in the wrong place at the wrong time. I noticed some of these things even in my youth. I didn't care. Some of the iconic lines of the film were added to my daily life, much the way "May the Force be with you" and "Don't drink the Kool Aid" was. "They're here," "This house is clean," and the two that baffle me to this day: "Go into the light" and "Don't go into the light." Rubinstein's Tangina gives both instructions at different points in the plot, and both lines took hold in my mind as being good advice, and made me wonder which choice I would make when (not if) I was stuck between worlds forced to lead the lost souls to their final destination or simply come home.
POLTERGEIST is a tale of suburban apocalypse that holds a sacred place in my memories of that time in my life, about a year before I learned to drive and before girls started really catching my eye. More important, the movie put me off chicken drumsticks for years.
Thanks for reading.
The thing that sticks with me most strongly from this film is that remarkable effect at the end of the movie, one of the great miniature tricks of all time, when the Frelings’ house implodes. It was one of the most amazing things ILM pulled off in an era when they were regularly pulling off amazing things, and even now, I think it’s incredible, ingenious, and greatly effective.
M. Night Shyamalan talked in an interview a few years back about how there was some big secret of filmmaking that only he and Spielberg knew, but I think it’s pretty obvious from watching Shyamalan’s films what that “secret” is, and Capone touches on it in the piece above. It’s all about viewpoint. Spielberg frequently tells stories about fantastic events, supernatural and bizarre, but he always keeps his stories focused on the personal, no matter how big the events are. That perspective is what makes his films resonate, what allows us to identify ourselves in them. That’s what makes POLTERGEIST just as noteworthy today as it was when it was released.
We’ll have a few more of these articles later in the week, including the first one I’ve written for the series, about the very best weekend of that amazing summer.
In the meantime, you can catch up with the earlier articles in this series here:
Nordling Remembers E.T.!
Harry Remembers TRON!
Obi-Swan Remembers CREEPSHOW!
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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April 17, 2007, 5:04 p.m. CST
by drew mcweeny
I apologize to everyone who contributed to this talkback. It was a great discussion, but it got nuked when the server crashed.
April 17, 2007, 5:26 p.m. CST
April 17, 2007, 6:41 p.m. CST
That is all.
April 18, 2007, 3:04 a.m. CST
to this day.
May 21, 2007, 7:37 a.m. CST
by nolan bautista
Creepy..nobody here and Poltergeist is being discussed..Did everybody go into the light? or got dragged under the bed by a creepy clown?
May 22, 2007, 10:44 a.m. CST
Great article! I, too, have always loved Poltergeist and was disgusted by the crappy sequels that followed. The theme song always, always, ALWAYS spontaneously pops into my head whenever I drive through a suburban neighborhood. I also thought Jobeth Williams' work was tragically undervalued. She is so great in this film.
Feb. 2, 2008, 2:54 p.m. CST
I remember you and I had a discussion about the first PG-13 film. You said it was Red Dawn, which was the first film to be released. But Flamingo Kid was the first to get that rating. Then it was held back and not released until after Red Dawn. I wrote to Joan Graves at the MPAA and she verified this. You can write to her as well, if you'd like. Ah, trivia. I love it.
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