Thursday, November 3, 2011

My scariest movie

Somewhere along the way, I forgot exactly how much Poltergeist had scared the pants off me when I was a kid.

Monday night's Halloween viewing -- my first in a decade or longer -- reminded me quite effectively.

In fact, I now recall that when I saw it in the theater as a child, I emerged thinking that my parents should not have let me see it.

I mean, who says that? If anything, it's the other way around -- you always think your parents are being overprotective.

But if I saw it on its initial run, I would have been only nine years old -- possibly only eight years old. It's more likely I saw it on a re-release, maybe a couple years later. But it surely wasn't more than a couple years later, leaving me no older than 12 at the time.

It's fair to say I was haunted by Poltergeist for weeks. And it wasn't just the iconic imagery I don't need to remind you of here. I believe I saw it at a time when I was struggling with the concept of death for the first time, so I was even disturbed by things like Carol Ann's bird dying. (Which, incidentally, is the only "character" who dies in the whole movie -- and since the bird actually dies off screen before the narrative begins, you could say that the Poltergeist body count is actually zero.)

Zero dead bodies, in what may be the scariest movie I have ever seen.

(You don't count those corpses in the swimming pool, either, because they died years ago.)

At some point over the years, however, my perspective on Poltergeist changed from "that movie scared the shit out of me" to the more dispassionate "that movie is an effective horror classic, which perfectly encapsulates the Spielberg-ian themes of small-town USA turned on its head."

Monday night reminded me how much more intimate and immediate and primitive it really is.

Even though I would guess that was my fifth time seeing the movie, I still spent a large part of the movie in chills. Neither were the regular, intense chills my only physiological reaction to the movie. During the film's emotional climax, I felt myself get choked up several times -- and not even the times you'd think I'd get choked up, like the touching scene of ectoplasm-soaked reunion between the Freeling parents and their daughter, somehow still intact in her corporeal form, in the family bathtub. The rest of the time, the sheer intensity of it was enough to push tears to the brims of my eyelids. The climax has the same kind of tension as the end of Raiders ("Don't look at it Marion! Keep you're eyes shut!") with a ton more emotional involvement. Simply put, it slayed me.

But the emotional climax is not the end of the movie.

And here's where Poltergeist goes sort of wrong.

As I was watching the first 3/4 of Poltergeist, I was asking myself if this movie deserves to be considered among my top 20 films of all time. It's that good. Sure, the scares and tension are sustained with the skill of a master, but as good as that are the subtleties that allow you to believe these characters and instantly immerse yourself in their lives. One of my favorite scenes is our first real introduction to the parents, when they're talking casually in bed. Diane is smoking a joint (love the casualness of her drug use, which never makes you think she's a bad parent) while Steven is pantomiming a dive off the bed in the master bedroom. Their interactions are so natural, and you immediately believe that this is a real married couple who are, quite wonderfully, still delighted with each other after 15 or so years of marriage. I also love that when she first discovers that they might have ghosts, she's overjoyed just to be able to demonstrate a chair moving on its own from their kitchen into their dining room. She jumps up and down like an excited cheerleader. The movie has no need to go through all the machinations of various characters not believing that the house might be haunted -- it's got bigger fish to fry, and wants to get on to frying them.

For the record, my Flickchart ranking is still very generous -- I have it ranked 59th out of 3319 films. But the reason I don't have it ranked higher is the dubious third act.

Now granted, some of the things we remember most from Poltergeist occur in those last 20-25 minutes. But that doesn't mean there isn't a structural problem with this script. The real emotional climax is when the miniature mystic (played wonderfully by Zelda Rubinstein) does battle with "the beast" and coaxes Carol Ann back to the world of the living with the assistance of an exceptionally brave mother and father. But the movie is not over by then, not by a long shot.

The last section of the movie, after the primary tension of Carol Ann's survival has already been deflated, feels like a grab bag of things they wanted to get in somewhere. Let's suppose they shot the scenes chronologically, although that almost certainly didn't happen. It's like either Steven Spielberg or Tobe Hooper (more likely Spielberg) gathered the crew together and said "Wait! We still have to do that bit with the clown. And the bit where Jobeth climbs the walls of her bedroom. Oh, and the part with the corpses in the swimming pool. Shit, let's not forget the part where the coffins pop out of the ground. And that mouth we drew up in the bedroom closet -- that thing's awesome, we have to do it. Oh! And I almost forgot the skeletal beast that prevents Diane from entering her kids' bedroom. Guys, we've still got to fit all this in."

And Steven, don't forget the part where the house crumples up into a ball like a piece of notebook paper, and tumbles away into oblivion.

Perhaps the best example of the filmmakers' misunderstanding of how to play the last act is when the daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), returns home and screams "WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?" A great individual shot that must have been gangbusters in the trailers. But the fact remains that when she speaks this line, her entire family is in a car right behind her, about to permanently escape harm for the final time. All tension has pretty much dissipated at the point of the movie's most bat-shit crazy line.

However, I don't want your lingering impression of this piece to be that I have real criticisms with Poltergeist. It's still the movie that left me in a constant state of dread more than any other. I remember how much I loved the scene in the middle of the night at the house, when the team of paranormal investigators are first monitoring the house's spiritual activity. No one's really asleep but everyone is quiet, and they connect with each other in hushed, whispered conversations. I remember grabbing on to that wonderful scene as a lifeboat in the midst of terrifying chaos.

For at least one, fleeting moment, everyone was safe.


Mark said...

I was talking up Poltergeist in class today. It remains the scariest movie I've ever seen, and it scores primarily through Rubenstein's dialog, and the extraordinary way in which she delivers it. I'm a little older than you, so I did see it in the theater, and it scared the crap out of me for a long time. Yet the magic of the film is that in spite of how scary it is (for me at least) it doesn't leave a bad taste — I can watch it over and over. So many horror films are "one and outs" for me. Sure, they can be scary, but few are good enough to watch over and over.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, I saw it in the theater too -- I think that's what made it more terrifying. I just don't think I saw it during the original run.

I think what you're getting at about it not leaving a bad taste is kind of what I mean when I say there's no body count. They don't have to have the meaningless death (which they easily could have) of one of the paranormal investigators -- that's not necessary to impart the gravity of the situation. (The one guy hallucinating tearing off his own face, and then not coming back to the house, is probably all we really need.)

You're dead on about Rubinstein, and if I hadn't been writing this under some time constraints, I might have delved more into her indelible performance. You're right on about her line readings -- in fact, there are few other performances out there where I'm so inclined to single out the way the actor delivers his/her lines. I love the dichotomy in her character between this gentle, maternal woman who wants to make the Freelings feel safe, and a fierce warrior who will be strict and short (no pun intended) if it's what serves her purpose at that time. I also like how you never really know what's going on in her head. She "tricks" the Freelings at one point by telling them different things about the light, which is why that "All welcome! Go into the light!" scene is so chilling -- she hasn't told them she's going to try to free the other souls at the same time. The really amazing thing is that for how well she owns her persona and plays the role of a confident medium, you get the idea all this stuff is just theoretical to her, and she's going through it for the first time just as they are.

In another movie, she would have been a prime candidate to die -- like the priest in The Exorcist -- but not in this movie. And that's what gives it the heart you correctly point out it has.