Poltergeist (1982)



Main Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams

Director: Tobe Hooper

Monkey Typing PD

Oh dear, Norma, what have you done?

The odd occurrences around Casa Maine appear to be accelerating.  I was heading up the grand staircase to take a long luxurious bath last night when I heard little footsteps pattering up the steps behind me.  I quickly spun around en pointe and no one was there but I could swear I heard a strange hooting noise from the shadows.  Later, Normy found some very odd looking little footprints all over the fresh pages of his new harpsichord piece that he had left spread out on his desk.  And just this morning, while going over some new tap routines in the studio with Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist, the chandeliers began moving as if someone were swinging hand over hand from one to the next.  After an attack of the vapors, Lulu had to be sent home early via Uber and I moved on to some vocalises with Madame Mimi, my vocal coach.  We had just gotten to the high Fs in The Bell Song when we could both distinctly hear someone singing along, but two keys lower and in some very odd Asiatic or African language.  It really put me off my game and I completely missed my cabaletta.

I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that there’s some sort of unquiet spirit at work in the house.  I immediately called Mr. Michael, my mortician friend who knows about all such things and who was so helpful in removing all those little tombstones from the yard.  His first question was what had we done with the bodies buried beneath the tombstones.   I was taken aback.  The fact that there might have been bodies under those markers had never occurred to me.  I can’t imagine that Norma Desmond, when she owned the house, was running some sort of family cemetery; she was known to shoot the occasional ex-boyfriend but LAPD would have prevented her from burying them in the back yard.  I immediately placed a call to Atascadero and asked for darling Norma.  Putting on my firmest school marm voice, honed from a year’s run as the heroine of the musical, Goodbye. Mrs. Chips, I demanded to know who she had buried in the backyard.  She immediately burst into a fit of hysterics but I was able to discern that the gravestones had marked the final rest of a number of pet chimpanzees and other simians that had shared her home with over the years.

Poltergeist 1982It seems that my new west wing is going up over the bones of Norma’s old apes and this was the cause of the unusual disturbances.  In order to figure out what to do next, I immediately set off for the home theater to watch the be all and end all documentary on dos and don’ts when you’re living in a home built over a cemetery.  I refer, of course, to Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic, Poltergeist, which I quickly found on some obscure streaming service so I settled back, notebook in hand, in order to get expert advice with my problem.  I have always believed that the answers to all of life’s little problems can be found in the magic of Hollywood.

Poltergeist is the story of the Freeling family, the classic early 80s blended family living in a lovely large tract home in a lovely large southern California development.  Daddy (Craig T. Nelson) is a salesman for the developer and mom (JoBeth Williams) is a cool aging ex-cheerleader.  The kids are teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne), from dad’s previous relationship and the young Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke).  They fight at breakfast, we see they’re with it people as mom and dad smoke pot together after retiring, and they have the odd habit of rooming their son and daughter together past the age of five.  One day, after they all fall asleep with the television on (and we know it’s now a period piece as the station signs off with the Star Spangled Banner), little Carol Anne is awakened by strange noises coming from the static on the TV.  Quick as lightening, strange energies emanate from the TV and enter the house and she utters the immortal line “They’re here”.

Soon the house begins to come alive.  At first, it’s strange forces moving the kitchen chairs or allowing Carol Anne to slide across the floor, but as time moves on, things take a more sinister turn.  A freak storm brings the scary snag of a tree outside of the children’s bedroom to life and it tries to eat Robbie while Carol Anne is swallowed by her bedroom closet.  The Freelings seeks professional help in the form of a paranormal researcher (Beatrice Straight) who is obviously out of her league.  Eventually, the family turns to a bizarre miniature psychic, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) who attempts to cleanse the house of its evil spirits because, guess what, the development was built over an old cemetery and the evil developer moved the gravestones without bothering to move the bodies. More mayhem follows until the Freelings finally escape from their possessed dwelling.

Societal mores and movie technology have both changed over the thirty some years since the movie was made and it comes across as a time capsule of early 80s life, the dark side of so-called Spielburbia which was celebrated in a much sunnier way later that same summer in the movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial.  The two families could easily have lived down the block from each other and Spielberg knew how to capture the little details of daily life of the time and meld it with pop culture.  While Tobe Hooper is the credited director on this film, there is evidence that Steven Spielberg, as producer, had great influence over the final film.  He also wrote the original story treatment and received screenplay credit. The touches of whimsy that color the film smack of his style, and not the style of the much darker Hooper who first made his name with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The success of the film is not in its plotting (pretty much every major development is telegraphed from miles away) or from its characters (cardboard with the exception of Tangina who remains such an iconic fantasy/comic/horror creation that pretty much anyone over the age of thirty five can imitate her famous line “This house is clean”), but rather from its visual moments which incorporate visceral childhood fears:  the scary old tree reaching in through the window, the creepy clown hiding under the bed, a bevy of rotting corpses popping up in the unfinished swimming pool.  The special effects, which seem a bit primitive by today’s standards, are still pretty nifty in places, even though a face ripping scene goes way over the top and now registers as ludicrously cheesy.

Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Zelda Rubinstein all turn in fine work and don’t allow the special effects or the contrivances of plot stand in the way of keeping our interest.  We end up caring what happens to the Freelings and their children and want them to be OK, even as we hold on for the next curve on the roller coaster of pacing and editing that makes up the movie.  In many ways it’s best described as a two-hour theme park thrill ride and you get off at the end, satisfied that you have been entertained and with an extremely memorable last shot of a television set that provides just the right coda for the evening.

Spilt milk.  Football helmet.  Flying toys.  Gratuitous tornado.  Angelic figure.  Red slime.  Tennis ball throwing. Property of the dead. Valley living.  Ridge development.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester


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