Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Making Monsters #16: Poltergeist

Poltergeist is largely remembered for two things today: the supposed curse surrounding the film and its sequels, and the question of whether director Tobe Hooper or co-writer/producer Steven Spielberg really directed the original film (my take is that there's clearly a lot of Spielberg in the movie, but also more of Tobe Hooper's style than most people realize). Both topics obscure what an excellent movie Poltergeist is and how well it holds up - I watched again a few months ago on Blu-ray, and it honestly stands up against any of this summer's blockbusters, both technically and for pure entertainment value. As a PG Spielberg production that recalls how Spielberg's gift for capturing childlike wonder is matched by his adolescent glee at capturing perfect gross-out moments, Poltergeist was one of the earliest horror movie experiences for many movie geeks growing up in the '80s, and it's a heck of a gateway drug.

As with The Shining, the movie transplants the haunted house story from Gothic mansions and cursed estates to a uniquely American and contemporary setting - in this case, an unassumingly boring planned community where one family is terrorized by ghosts who are very pissed off for reasons that become clear by the movie's end. Hooper and Spielberg pull out all the stops, determined to scare us every way they can. The early scenes are an atmospheric slow burn, an accumulation of the kind of details - chairs moved out of place, bent spoons, the family's youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) chatting with the unseen "TV people" - that are the bread and butter of the Paranormal Activity series. When all hell breaks loose, there are moments of shock, most memorably the payoff to son Robbie's (Oliver Robbins) fear of the very evil-looking clown doll in the corner of his room. And there are even moments of gross-out, like paranormal investigator Marty's (Martin Casella) face-ripping hallucination, that remind of how much Spielberg got away with, MPAA-wise, in the '80s. Poltergeist is great but certainly not subtle, turning horror into a state-of-the-art effects spectacular as effectively as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind did with science fiction.

And Hooper and Spielberg are greatly aided in creating the ultimate haunted house by a murderer's row of special effects technicians, let by visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund (the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters), makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (Altered States, The Funhouse, Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Industrial Light and Magic in one of their first productions as a full-blown effects house. The film uses just about every effects technique of the pre-digital era - forced perspective, models, animation, optical effects, prosthetic makeup, animatronics, even a gimbal set. Oh, and real skeletons in the film's explosive climax for added effect. In the movie's showstopping finale, the possessed house rises from its foundations and implodes, disappearing into another dimension in a flash of light. The effect was achieved by building a scale model of the house, and pulling it with cables towards a vacuum; the model was constructed to break apart in segments, and the effect, which took five seconds to film, was shot at 300 frames per second so that each second of real time would take up fifteen seconds of screen time. The scene completely blew my mind as a kid; even now, knowing how it was done, I find it astonishing and completely believable. The old adage that horror is about not showing everything is often true; however, if your intention is to make a film as credible and beautifully crafted as Poltergeist, by all means, astonish us.

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