Craig T. Nelson

Film Review- ‘Poltergeist’ (2015) (**)

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Guess who's coming to dinner?
Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

Poltergeist (2015)  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements

Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by: Gil Kenan

 

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings.  It’s what Hollywood does today.  I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I?  I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines.  For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original.  Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable.  Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before.  Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly?  Wouldn’t it be simply treading water?  Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist.  You’d be right.  Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?

Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status.  It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though.  On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version.  To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be.  It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form.  This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should.  Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.

We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed.  In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’.  Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms.  Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right?  Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine.  The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.

For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development.  With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed.  By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family.  Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone?  How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates?  For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing.  Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches.  Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.

Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however.  Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively.  The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses.  This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife.  I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place.  It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.

Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film.  Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish.  That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist?  With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original.  If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked.  If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked.  Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.

 

 

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Classic Film Review: ‘Poltergeist (1982)’ (*****)

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AT&T’s ‘Reach Out and Touch Someone’ campaign takes it too far.

 

Poltergeist (1982)  ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein

Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor

Directed by: Tobe Hooper

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

As a species, we odd beings known as humans mark the passage of time in a variety of odd ways.  Some keep pictures, whereas others may travel to specific locations on an anniversary.  Me?  I watch certain films each year at particular times, for they either remind me of that time of year, were released at that time originally, or give me a general ‘feeling’ that can only come from being wrapped up in them.  The original Poltergeist belongs in that category.  It puts me in the mindset of a fall evening, when the howling, cool wind carries a bite that only a thin-skinned child can feel.  It also calls back to a time when the nuances of a house frightened me, when I assumed that things going bump in the night were after me, and when the fear of being lost was tantamount to death itself.  Directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre veteran Tobe Hooper, but crafted by Steven Spielberg (we can argue about that later), Poltergeist is a film that has affected me deeply in different ways at different points in my life.  It remains one of the best films of the genre, darned near a masterpiece of spiritual and familial terror.

I was near the tender age of 5 when I first saw the film, as it aired on broadcast TV for the first time.  For some unknown reason, my parents felt I was up for the experience.  After all, it was rated PG; a rating that was clearly inaccurate for the terrors and occasional gore on-screen.  However, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the furor surrounding its’ gore was still two years away, and thus the MPAA had yet to develop the PG-13 rating.  I remember feigning my bravest face after it was over, wanting my parents to continue bestowing those special privileges upon me.  Inside, my stomach churned.  Like any child that dealt with a menacing-looking tree, static on an analog television, or a creepy stuffed animal their family thrust upon them, it was clear that Poltergeist spoke directly to me.

As I learned later in life, that may have been close to Spielberg’s intention.  Like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released a week later in 1982, he framed this story through the lens of a child’s experience.  Children can be easily frightened by stuffed animals, or thunderstorms, dark closets, or even a misshapen tree.  Parents generally try to assuage them, and over time they overcome those irrational fears.  Poltergeist is intimately aware of those fears, and they’re all systematically brought to life in the film.  The scary tree will eat you, clowns are evil, and the closet literally will come after you.  In this film, the cozy comforts of a friendly neighborhood and a cookie-cutter home cannot save you.  From a parent’s perspective, all the safeguards we build up around our children, all the rules about talking to strangers, the fears we allay in our kids- this film boots them to the side, praying on our “parent” brain as well.  The film begins with that innocent, sweet tone, slowly lurking in the shadows to take everything precious and stomp on it.

Spielberg and crew made a smart, timely film that tore into the very fabric of baby boomers’ suburban dreams.  Representing the now aging demographic is Steven Freeling (Nelson). He’s the consummate post-hippie salesman father, passively parenting his children, selling carbon copy real estate like an old pro, escaping in aggressive Sunday football parties and beers with the exuberance of a frat boy.  His wife Diane (Williams), still riding that wave of hippie bliss, has yet to encounter her primal, maternal self at the beginning of the film.  Perhaps it’s the pot residue, but the most trying thing she seems to encounter are misplaced clothes and the death of the family bird.  They’re living the dream, or at least the Reaganomics version of the dream.  Even their kids are cute and relatively well-behaved, if not also blissfully unaware.  The dynamic can be summed up in a scene where Carol Anne (O’Rourke) is gently chided for staring at static on the screen for it will “hurt her eyes”; Diane changes the channel, apparently fine with the war film now on the tube instead.  Oh, the irony!

Then it starts to happen.  Carol Anne is caught talking to the ‘TV people’ in the dead of the night, the house appears to quake, and household objects move themselves.  At first, Steven and Diane think it neat, like a trippy magic trick; then comes the menace of the trippy magic trick, the snatching of the ‘WASP’ dream.  Carol Anne is taken somewhere, Robbie (Robins) is nearly devoured, and Dana (Dunne) is hysterical.  Steven, against his beliefs, consults a parapsychology team at the local college.  This motley crew, led by Dr. Lesh (Straight) and the odd, diminutive Tangina (Rubenstein), quickly learn that the Freeling’s predicament far exceeds the excitement of a time-lapse video.  In the span of fifteen minutes in the film, we go from seeing this relatively normal family deal with a standard, nighttime thunderstorm to being completely strung out in immeasurable grief, pleading with pseudo-science for assistance. This paranormal spirit that envelops the Freeling house succeeds in luring the family into a false sense of security, then it viscerally “breaks on through to the other side”.  What follows is a series of unexpected, thrilling, deeply moving scenes that play with the notions of life, death, instinct, and fear.

Of course the audience knows that something wicked cometh their way, for Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant and sinister musical composition wonderfully telegraphs it.  The innocent chants of a children’s chorus, coupled with precocious flutes, played against the backdrop of the Cuesta Verde neighborhood, slowly give way to shrill, treacherous brasses that signal the forthcoming evil.  I remember this score more than most; perhaps because, like Spielberg, Goldsmith created something that might exist in the mind of a child.  Just as the film covers a checklist of my childhood fears, the score is the soundtrack of my childhood dreams, full of light and dark.

It’s also important to focus on the film’s outstanding performances.  For all of the sadness and punch lines that surrounded this cast over time, everyone is superb here.  Both of the younger actors, especially O’Rourke, perfectly depict the innocence and real, palpable fright essential to their roles.  Nelson, as recognizable as he and his booming voice are, works well as the spaced-out dad forced into action.  Williams breathes life and guts into Diane, lending an honesty to a character that we weren’t entirely sure could handle the stress at first.  As a parent now, it tears me apart to hear her lament “she went through my soul”, syrupy words aside.   Beatrice Straight, the veteran stage actor, grounds the film in the middle of the chaos by patiently delivering a touching monologue about life and death.  It’s simple, sure, but it doesn’t pander.  Zelda Rubenstein’s most recognized role was Tangina Barrons, and for good reason; her odd, stern way of squeaking out lines drew ever so close to camp without crossing that line.

Tangent to the film itself is the much-publicized aura surrounding it, including the deaths of Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and others involved with the original trilogy.  The idea that the films were ‘cursed’ became something of a Hollywood legend, as did the story that real skeletons were used in the original’s pool scenes.  To boot, the notion that Spielberg literally directed the film has been debated for some time.  Despite Hooper’s credit as director, this movie does walk and talk like a Spielberg film, to the point where the Director’s Guild of America actually investigated the matter, leading to an open letter decrying the rumor by Spielberg himself.  We also know that Poltergeist exists in the pop culture ether with a select group of films; be it “they’re here”, “go into the light”, or “this house is clean”, many of the film’s moments and lines have been spoofed, hinted at, or quoted; few are those who cannot point out a Poltergeist tidbit.

The critical mass when this film arrived on the scene was generally positive, but still underwhelming.  As strongly as I have praised it here, I’m left with the feeling that Poltergeist is remembered well, yet may actually be underrated as a film.  That horror films tend to suffer from an aversion to praise may be in part to blame, but it seems as though the film’s influence on pop culture may have distracted some from seeing the film’s quality.  Those that see this today for the first time may not agree with my assessment of this film.  That could be based on comparisons to today’s thrillers combined with pre-existing ideas, but that is not an indication that the film aged poorly.  It genuinely seems to be a film that many look back on fondly, without the need to lament its’ age.  In addition, I find Poltergeist to be more of a “spiritual social commentary thriller” than a horror film anyway.  It bothers to challenge our ideas on a possible ethereal plane of existence, it asks what lengths a family might go to in order to save one of their own, and it threatens the dreams of the baby boomer generation.

Every child of the 80’s can see a little bit of themselves in a film like this, which lends to the film sticking in our minds.  Robbie’s side of the bedroom looked exactly like, well, my room.  That gnarly tree looked strikingly similar to a gnarly tree in my yard, right behind my bedroom window.  His fears were my fears.  Heck, I couldn’t sleep with the door closed for years, for every time I saw light through the door frame, I was convinced a spook awaited me.  Consequently, Steven and Diane’s realized fears as parents ended up mirroring my fears as well.  It touches at the very core of our parental instincts, like the desire to protect our children at any cost, even if it means confronting the ‘Beast’, or how mad we’ll dash to them when we sense danger (and how long that journey seems, no matter the distance).  Poltergeist is a film that seems to have crawled out of my childhood dreams and onto the screen- then back into my head as a parent, solidifying my opinion of it as a timeless classic.  Is it possible that I’m putting too much on the film, and the actual result is weaker that I give it credit?  Sure.  It’s also possible that Spielberg, Hooper, and crew simply captured lightning in a bottle, making a film that exceeded even their own expectations.  Time has been kind to Poltergeist, which has grown into an eminently watchable, smart, visceral thriller that aged far better than this writer.

The Film Fan Perspective’s Top 5 Best & Worst Horror/Monster Movies

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the thing descent alien the mistPOLTERGEIST                                                                                                                                                            evil deadblairhillsfridayevent

I’ve had this blog going since June 2013, and it’s been pretty standard fare thus far- movie reviews, trailer reviews, and a bit of news discussion.  What I’d like to present are more ‘feature’ stories, like this one.  It seems appropriate to do something special for this blog to commemorate the Halloween season.  Thus, I put a list together of my top/favorite 5 best and my 5 worst/most hated horror/monster movies, in countdown form.  Keep in mind, I haven’t seen the entire library of the genre (especially foreign horror cinema), but compared to the general population, definitely more than average.  My criteria?  Scary doesn’t necessarily mean gory, and scariest doesn’t necessarily mean best.  I simply have ranked by the least to most effective at scaring me. Enjoy, and please feel free to give me your feedback- in the form of a comment here, on Facebook, or Twitter (@FFPerspective), OR feel free to visit the “I Hate Critics” podcast website (ihatecritics.net), where this blog and other movie goodness awaits.  After all, we did just complete a special podcast commemorating the holiday and scary movies in general.

 

The 5 Worst

5. The Hills Have Eyes (2006): Pardon my language, but this film is such a depraved piece of absolute shit that I barely made it through my one and only viewing.  Call it torture porn, horror, slasher, whatever floats your boat- it still is the single most unnecessary piece of garbage I’ve ever watched.  That doesn’t make it the worst, for I believe it may have done what it intended to do (make the viewer feel bad about the world), and thus it must somehow retain some level of artistic merit to someone out there.  I mean, they kill off a baby, but somehow director Alexandre Aja thinks that by holding the death off-camera that he deserves credit for withholding.  No, it’s just as awful.  And unnecessary.

4. The Entire Friday the 13th series: The first film, in which the actual ‘slasher’ turns out to be Jason’s mother anyways, is considered a ‘classic’ by some.  I don’t quite understand why, for all we get with these are cheap Halloween knockoffs- teens do stupid ‘teen’ things, and basically pass the time messing around with each other and drinking until it’s their turn to be stabbed by a lumbering guy in a hockey mask.  The sequels bring more of the same, just in a different setting- including SPACE (Jason X).  Apparently, Freddy vs. Jason is interesting, but I lost the capacity to care after Jason ‘took’ Manhattan.

3. Evil Dead 1&2: I don’t quite understand the passion for these films, despite my attempts to hear everyone’s opinion.  Is it hype that led to my disappointment?  Possibly.  Is it the fact that neither of these are scary whatsoever, and bordered on being a complete waste of my time?  Certainly.  Director Sam Raimi gets far too much credit for these films; simply making something presentable out of a minuscule budget does not automatically indicate genius, only creativity out of desperation.  Let’s not forget that “2” is basically an exact remake of the first, and that Bruce Campbell’s “Ash” character is simply a spoof.  Perhaps if I’d been introduced to these as pure comedies I may have tempered by expectations; however, all I heard was how ‘awesome’ (direct quote) these films were.  It’s either completely over my head or they are that bad.  Now, the 2013 remake?  That I enjoyed.  Because it was a horror movie.  That was horrific.

2. Event Horizon: I hate this film in general, but mostly for the ‘gut punch of trickery’ that forever amateur director Paul W.S. Anderson delivers about halfway through this travesty.  The pseudo-science and concerned faces on the likes of Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne were acceptable enough, and the film’s space/sci-fi sheen brought about enough trust until THAT MOMENT.  If you’ve seen this, you know what I’m talking about.  Why a writer would take an audience to the ends of the universe, fold space, and then give up by calling the destination ‘Hell’ is beyond me.  My guess?  Laziness, or the lack of conviction to come up with an alternate conclusion.  It’s a waste of a solid premise, and for that alone, I hate this film.

1. The Blair Witch Project: Some call this found footage pioneer a horror classic, citing the buildup of tension and the frantic last few minutes as a blueprint for the ‘scary’ movie.  I focus on the constant arguments amongst three people who don’t know each other, the shakiness of the hand-held camera, the parlor-trick ‘scares’ in the woods, and the utter lack of a Blair Witch.  I get it, that’s supposed to open up possibilities for what actually taunts these three people, but after putting up with the sad sacks for 75 minutes, I wanted something, anything, to pay me back in scares for the time I invested.  I’m still waiting.

*Dishonorable mention to: the entire Hellraiser series, Rosemary’s Baby, The Ring (2002), The Omen (1975), The Human Centipede 1&2, Fright Night (1985), Exorcist II: The Heretic, and The Happening.

 

The 5 Best

5. Poltergeist/The Exorcist– It is impossible to leave The Exorcist off this list, but also impossible to bump my favorite ‘scary’ film in Poltergeist. We’ll call it a draw.  As for The Exorcist, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for this movie.  I wasn’t even fully aware of what ‘demonic possession’ meant at the time.  Imagine my surprise when I saw this for the first time at 19 in a friend’s dorm room.  I wouldn’t call it scary, per se, but shocking for sure.  From the beginning of the film, with the excavation of an apparently dark relic, to the ghastly abuse the demon inflicts on Linda Blair’s Regan character, The Exorcist is not only very effective as a horror film, it succeeds on such a grand level for being so low-key and forthright in its’ presentation, as well as the undertones of losing faith and God in general.

Poltergeist is an entirely different ballgame.  It’s scary and oozes nostalgia (thanks, Spielberg).  I saw it at age 5, and everything that bothered me then is in this film.  Scary-looking tree in the backyard?  Check.  Creepy toy that you’re 100% positive will attack you?  Check.  Looking under the bed for monsters?  Check.  Lightning and thunder?  Check.  A sibling going missing?  Check.  Your child going missing?  Check.  A predator chasing your child?  Check.  House sucked into a void?  Check.  Disappearing into your closet?  Check.  Real-life tragedies surrounding the franchise?  Check.  You get the idea that Poltergeist touches on some of our most primal fears as both adults and children, and somehow comes off as even slightly believable.  I feel that’s because Spielberg (as well as brilliant composer Jerry Goldsmith) has his name all over this classic, and he knows how to create characters and give them a full life we identify with in two short hours.  It has meant different things to me at different times, evolving into one of my all-time favorites.

4. Alien– I have multiple thoughts on this movie, and it warrants a full-scale review at some point.  For the purposes of this list, I’ll just say that no film before it OR after it has captured the same visceral reaction from me.  In fact, this was my intro to the genre, at roughly 8 years old.  My parents built this movie up so much that I had a knot in my stomach, and that feeling didn’t relent until sometime after the film ended.  I literally cowered as Kane writhed about the table, and held my throbbing chest as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley tears through the Nostromo on her way to the shuttle.  Ridley Scott’s first major movie is still perhaps his best- a moody, claustrophobic, organic, and quite frankly, awesome film that stands the test of time, which also gave rise to the modern female hero, spawning countless imitators, including several entries in the same franchise.  This made such an impact that a simple scene that takes place in the derelict ship grew in legend, spawning an entire movie 33 years later- 2012’s Prometheus and likely its’ sequel.

3. The Mist–  Despite his occasional bout with being difficult to work with (reportedly), Frank Darabont is truly a savant when it comes to bringing Stephen King’s work to screen.  The Mist is no different- simple, yet terrifying.  The contrast between simple, God-fearing townspeople and the nightmarish creatures they encounter is the hallmark of this story, which combines the supernatural with an all-too-realistic portrayal of a situation where humans get frightened and turn on each other.  The monsters are there, sure, but more frightening is how the paranoia, spearheaded by Marcia Gay Harden’s Bible-filth spewer, spreads like a disease.  The ending, lauded by some and decried by others, is simply a gut-punch to me, sucking the joy out of life.  The Mist, like few other films, creates an impending sense of dread that never relents.  For a film that primarily takes place in a supermarket, it seems larger in scope, a clear illustration of its’ brilliance.

2. The Descent– This small little flick didn’t register for me until I saw it on the shelf for rent.  The DVD artwork sold me- a woman emerging from what appeared to be a literal blood bath as if being born.  I went home, watched it unfold, and found my subconscious cowering in a dark corner along with the rest of the film’s motley crew.  If you’ve ever gone spelunking, you may understand that feeling of claustrophobia.  If you’ve ever had a dream, you may understand that feeling of monsters lurking in corners.  If you’ve ever had a fear of heights, you may understand that light-headed feeling that overcomes you like a wave of fear.  Combine all of these things, including endless chasms and cannibalism, and you have a general idea of The Descent.  I love that this film doesn’t relent, and at least bothers to take itself seriously.

1. The Thing’ (1982)– John Carpenter’s Magnum Opus is the quintessential horror film for me, even if it’s a remake.  A group of ‘manly men’ alone in Antarctica are systematically hunted by a being that can imitate them.  So they’re isolated, in harsh conditions, and inside of a sterile, hostile environment.  What could go wrong?  There are innovative (for the time) effects in this film, combined with the crankiness of Kurt Russell, Keith David, and ol’ Mr. Beetus himself, Wilford Brimley.  There are incredibly frightening ‘boo’ moments, especially involving petri dishes.  There are gross-out moments, including a man’s detached head sprouting spindly legs and walking away.  There are hard to watch moments, including the ‘moistening’ and subsequent imitation of sled dogs.  The impressive, understated score of Ennio Morricone gives the entire film a sinister nature, one which the 2011 prequel couldn’t quite match, despite its’ best efforts.  The ending is also brilliant in that it doesn’t give in to the audience with a tidy resolution.  It’s basically hopeless, which is the general, gut-churning feeling this film gives.  Carpenter might be more famous for Halloween, but his best is The Thing.

*Honorable mention to: Jaws, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Psycho (1960), The Shining, The Conjuring, Halloween (1978), Nosferatu (1922), and Scream.

So.  What’s your favorite scary movie?

Josh Adams

The Film Fan Perspective