Thursday, September 17, 2009

poltergeist [1982]

all too often horror movies fail at horrifying us and are simply horrible to endure. unless you're a certain kind of cinematic masochist who loves to be tortured by the terrible. at any rate, director tobe hooper's second full-length feature, texas chain saw massacre [1974], is that rare beast: a product of pop culture that has entered the bloodstream of the masses. like shakespeare's writing -- no, i'm not making a direct comparison of hooper and shakespeare -- that has entered the culture at large where it's influence is felt in the culture itself, hooper's horror show is that film that everyone knows even if one has not seen it, nor ever plan on seeing it.

poltergeist is a different creature than that texas film yet despite being scripted and produced by steven spielberg, is a genuine creepy piece of celluloid. hooper predates the vision of tim burton by a few years with presenting the shiny exteriors of late 20th century suburban life in the u.s. what goes on behind closed doors is the stuff of nightmares. yet, hooper dwells on these surfaces just nicely. the opening shot of a man riding his kid's bmx bike with a case of beer as he dodges the remote control cars of the neighborhood children that ends with the man running to the living room to watch the big game is so redolent of the lives of our fathers that a frisson of recognition is felt within the viewer.

or at least this viewer. suburban life is rarely captured in all its glorious banality on film. then hooper ups the creep factor with subtlety. the family of whose little girl will soon be lost within the horizontal and vertical lines of their analog tv set, and how brilliant it is of spielberg and hooper to make such a vital and omnipresent commodity, the television, the locus of such terror as losing a child, begin noticing strange things start happening.

the best example of this is when the mother, played by jo beth williams, is in the kitchen putting away groceries. her daughter, who will soon be snatched away by the eponymous ghosts, is playing nearby. the kitchen table is in the background as normal as can be. williams turns to put something away and turns back to her daughter. all the chairs are now stacked on top of the table. freaky. nothing more scary than that thing that is just out of sight.

hooper continues tweaking our fear with such fineness until the girl is gone. the family can hear her but can't find her. they can only hear the girl within the tv. suddenly the somatic device, normally such a comfort, becomes an object of terror. a brilliant concept that is played straight and works for the effort made by hooper.

only when the family turns to paranormal investigators does the movie become rather standard play. the monsters become visible, the girl is rescued and the family moves out of their neighborhood because the ghosts, who we learn at the end have good reason to be pissed and justified i suppose in their wanton destructiveness because of a capitalist's greed, have seriously fucked up the neighborhood. the last shot is the family checking in to a motel, walking thru the door, then the father, played by craig t. nelson, puts the tv outside.

the film has its flaws, particularly the hokum reason given for the existence of the poltergeists. yet there are enough creepy set pieces to make this flick good halloween viewing. hooper throws in everything he knows about terror, including wicked dolls and a monster in the closet. the cast is game and there is that scene, when one of the paranormal investigators goes to the bathroom to take a piss, looks at a blemish on his face, rubs at it, then proceeds to tear his face off piece by small piece, that really grossed me out. damn, that scene is that good.



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