Saturday, October 21, 2017
Hubrisween 2017 :: P is for Poltergeist (1982)
Somewhere in the sun-drenched acres of Orange County, California, it’s a big day for the Freeling family, who live a quiet, normal life on a quiet suburban street in the planned community of Cuesta Verde -- where the grass is always greener on either side. For today a construction crew officially breaks ground on a new family swimming pool in their backyard. But that night things turn a little strange when the youngest daughter, Carol Anne (O’Rourke), awakened by strange noises -- a kind of whispering, is drawn to the TV in her parents bedroom, who fell asleep with it on, which is now showing nothing but static after the channel signed-off the air. And as if mesmerized by the glowing cacophony, Carol Anne begins conversing with … someone -- or some thing in the TV. Then suddenly, a ghostly hand reaches out of the screen for her, followed by a violent tremor that shakes the whole house, waking everyone else up. And once the shaking subsides, Carol Anne announces, “They’re here."
But with living near a fault line and all -- funny how none of the neighbors noticed a thing, Steven and Diane Freeling (Nelson, Williams) shrug it off as life in So-Cal and write off their daughter’s proclamation as nothing more than childhood whimsy. But after Steven leaves for work (-- he’s a real estate developer whose company built Cuesta Verde), and their other two children, eldest daughter, Dana (Dunne), and son Robbie (Robins), head out for school, more strange events start to occur around the house: the silverware has pretzled itself; the lights start flickering constantly; and the furniture starts rearranging itself on its own -- and rather dramatically. When asked, Carol Anne confirms it’s the “TV people”. And when Steven returns home, Diane has marked all the hot-spots of activity, which, on top of the furniture, will magically push or pull people across the floor, too.
And while all of this paranormal phenomenon appears to be benign at first -- even whimsical, things quickly escalate to sinister overnight, announced by the approach of a terrible thunderstorm. And the only thing that scares Robbie more than a storm is an old gnarled tree that sits right outside his and Carol Anne’s bedroom window (-- well, that and that freakin’ clown doll that no one in their right mind would buy let alone gift to someone). And when the storm breaks wide open, to his sudden terror, the very same tree breaks through the window; and not only does it seize him with its anthropomorphic branches and yank him outside, the flora appears to be trying to devour the terrified child! His screams bring the rest of the family running, but while they focus their efforts on rescuing Robbie, back in the bedroom, Carol Anne is just as suddenly and violently sucked into some kind of vortex emanating from the bedroom closet -- her screams unheeded due to the chaos outside.
Meanwhile, all physical evidence points to a freak tornado knocking the tree into the house and then sucking Robbie outside, but the traumatized child knows better. Still, everyone is happy to be in one piece -- until someone notices Carol Anne is missing. And after a quick check of the house finds no trace of her, Diane realizes she might have been sucked outside, too, and wound up in the fetid water at the bottom of the unfinished swimming pool. And while the others search it, Robbie suddenly hears Carol Anne’s voice and starts screaming due to its source. He calls for his mom, who thinks he’s found Carol Anne when she hears her, too; but when asked where his little sister is, Robbie keeps screaming and pointing at the TV. And sure enough, a panicked Carol Anne’s voice is emanating through the static on the dead channel. She’s lost. She’s somewhere else. She cannot find her way back. They cannot get to her. And wherever she is, she’s not alone...
Since it’s debut in April, 1951, there has been a contentious debate by film nerds on who really directed the seminal alien invasion classic, The Thing From Another World (1951): Christian Nyby, the credited director, or Howard Hawks, the uncredited executive producer. (The film fell under his Winchester Pictures banner and was released through RKO.) All the Hawks trademarks are there: the rapid fire dialogue that constantly overlaps, untold backstory slowly leaking through, professionals doing a professional job in an isolated location against an overwhelming threat, a strong sense of camaraderie, comedy in the face of stress, and a strong female lead who can keep up with the boys all serve as the root cause of the controversy. And yet Nyby was very familiar with this formula, having served as an editor for Hawks on films like To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946); and Hawks had always claimed Nyby saved Red River (1948) for him when he took over the editing from Francis Lyon and Jack Murray, earning himself an Academy Award nomination -- losing to Paul Weatherwax and The Naked City (1948). And as a way of thanking him for those efforts, knowing his editor wanted to give directing a try, Hawks pegged Nyby to direct his proposed sci-fi epic so he could get the proper union credentials.
But over the ensuing years whenever the question arose of who actually directed the damned thing, no one could get a straight answer from cast or crew. "[Nyby] was the director in our eyes, but [Hawks] was the boss,” said William Self, who played the disaster-prone Barnes. He also claimed Hawks was always directing the picture from the sidelines, saying, “Nyby would stage each scene, how to play it. But then he would go over to Howard and ask him for advice, which the actors did not hear.” Co-star Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Carrington) agreed, saying, "Chris always deferred to Hawks [and] maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it." And misinterpret it they did. Actor George Fenneman (Dr. Redding) recalled "Hawks would once in awhile direct, if he had an idea, but it was Nyby's show." But lead actor Ken Tobey (Captain Hendry) always contended "Hawks directed it, all except one scene.” Perhaps Self sums it up best: “Even though I was there every day, I don't think any of us can answer the question. Only Chris and Howard can answer the question."
For the rest of his life Hawks vehemently denied he ever directed any part of the movie, and yet he gave Nyby only $5,460 of the $50,000 salary paid by RKO for directing the picture. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks said of Nyby, "[He] had done an awfully good job as the cutter on Red River and he'd been a big help to us too, so I let him do it. He wanted to be a director and I had a deal with RKO that allowed me to do that." When asked if he was ever on set, Hawks answered, "I was at rehearsals and helped them with the overlapping dialogue -- but I thought Chris did a good job." And for the rest of his life, as well, Nyby would plead with anyone who would listen that he was the true director of The Thing from Another World, telling Cinefantastique in an interview during a cast and crew reunion for the film to mark the release of John Carpenter’s remake in 1982, “Did Hawks direct it? That's one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I've ever heard, and people keep asking. That it was Hawks' style? Of course it was. This is a man I studied and wanted to be like. You would certainly emulate and copy the master you're sitting under, which I did. Anyway, if you're taking painting lessons from Rembrandt you don't take the brush out of the master's hands."
As to who I think really directed the original The Thing? Well, that’s an answer for another review for another day because, speaking of 1982 and hands on producers overwhelming personally appointed directors, that year saw the production of another film which would also spawn decades of film nerd speculation as to who really directed Poltergeist (1982): Tobe Hooper, the credited director, or Steven Spielberg, the credited executive producer.
Now, we’ve already covered how E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) sprung from the ashes of the contentiously aborted alien invasion flick, Night Skies, a couple of reviews back so I won’t bother to rehash all those details here. To sum up, Hooper was on a shortlist of directors for Night Skies, a tale of malevolent aliens harassing some farmers, until it all fell apart. And while Spielberg geared up for the singular and more benevolent E.T., he still felt the idea of a family under siege by some outside force still had legs. (It was often referred to as Straw Dogs with aliens.) But when Universal, the studio financing E.T. after paying off Columbia, made it clear they wouldn’t be too thrilled if Spielberg directed another alien movie for a rival studio -- in fact, there was a clause in his contract with them that said he couldn’t, then, depending on who you asked, both Spielberg and Hooper claimed to have originally come up with the idea of switching the plot from marauding aliens to petulant ghosts. Hooper claimed the idea was inspired by a book on poltergeists he’d found in his studio office at Universal -- an office formerly occupied by Robert Wise, who had directed The Haunting (1963). Spielberg, meanwhile, claimed the story was personal and, like always, all about him. “Poltergeist is the darker side of my nature,” he said. “It's me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death when they were growing up."
Moving the haunted house project forward and looking for a green-light, again, after being jilted on Night Skies but pacified somewhat by the release of the Close Encounters Special Edition (1980), Columbia took a pass when Spielberg offered it to them first. And so, with Universal only interested in E.T., the director took the bare bones of the idea for Poltergeist to an eager MGM. And so now, with two films set for a near simultaneous release in 1982, Spielberg still wasn’t sure which film he wanted to direct -- and from what I’ve read, I’m not sure if he wanted to direct either and would rather have just produced the films, which he had never done before. Thus and so, Spielberg offered Hooper E.T. first, but he turned it down, wanting to tackle the horror movie instead. And so, Spielberg would direct E.T. and Hooper would direct Poltergeist; and the rest would be convoluted history -- once they had a script.
Spielberg was responsible for the first draft of Poltergeist and, at some point, he contacted noted scribe Richard Matheson for a copy of his Twilight Zone episode, Little Girl Lost, in which a young girl rolls under her bed and winds up in another dimension, which is eerily similar to one of the major plot points of the finished film. To help flesh out the script, Spielberg had the brilliant marketing idea to bring in another famed horror author, Stephen King. But after a productive initial meeting with King, his publishers demanded an astronomical salary that MGM refused to pay for, which officially pulled the plug on that notion. And so, Spielberg turned to Michael Grais and Mark Victor, a couple of novice scriptwriters he’d initially hired to pen a remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943) -- another ghost story, which was eventually realized as Always (1989).
As originally scripted, Carol Anne was supposed to be killed in the first act and then come back to haunt the family in the second. Deciding this was too dark a turn, and wanting a PG rating to maximize ticket sales, this was scrubbed for a supernatural kidnapping instead. In fact, almost all of the darker elements were removed from the film, which made it more of a safe Spielbergian type movie -- who was well removed from the same director who sunk his teeth into Duel (1971) and JAWS (1975), as opposed to the studies in terror Hooper had been producing ever since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), like Eaten Alive (1976) and The Funhouse (1981), adding even more speculation as to who really directed the film as the Freelings bring in several paranormal investigators from UC Irvine, led by a Dr. Lesh (Straight), who visit the house to try and communicate with their missing daughter, and who are all very rattled by the incredible intensity and ferocity of the manifestations they find.
Already convinced the haunting is real, a scientific study of the house must still be performed. And over the next couple of days the team manages to capture several phenomenon -- again, both magical and ghastly, on film, and even capture a conversation with Carol Anne on tape as they piece together what happened to her. Meanwhile, Steven’s boss, Lewis Teague (Karen), checks in on his prized salesman, concerned all his sick days are really in service of finding another job. Steven, of course, isn’t, but to make sure he stays put, Teague offers the prized lot and a brand new house in the next phase of Cuesta Verde, which will be built on top of an old cemetery on a hill looking over the established subdivision. And while Steven feels this is rather morbid -- even sacrilegious, Teague reveals the company already did this once before; meaning Steven’s current house is built on top of another old graveyard, which might help explain his current predicament.
Passing this info onto Lesh, she arranges for a “spiritual cleansing” by the psychic medium, Tangia Barrons (Rubinstein), who offers a glimmer of hope for Carol Anne’s safe return. Seems the multiple ghosts currently haunting the house are lingering behind, refusing to crossover into the light. Barrons also senses a powerful malignant presence in the house -- something powerful enough to punch a hole between dimensions, and fears it is using Carol Anne’s life force as a false beacon, keeping the others in check; and so they must get her away from it so they may crossover and find true peace. This they manage to do after a harrowing sequence with Diane tethered on a line and sent into the vortex in the closet, whose exit is in the center of the living room ceiling downstairs. And despite the beast’s best efforts, the mission is a success. And with that, Barrons triumphantly declares the house is clean.
Clean or not, the Freelings are taking no chances and quickly pack up their belongings. But they tarry too long as night falls and Steven gets hung up at the office arguing with Teague over his immediate resignation. Back at the house, in not the wisest of moves, Diane allows Robbie and Carol Anne to sleep in the very same bedroom where all this started. (I mean, seriously. Who in the hell in their right mind would do that?!) And sure enough, “the Beast” isn’t as vanquished as they thought as the portal once more rips open, leaving it to Diane to run through a phantasmagorical obstacle course from hell to rescue her children; one of them currently locked in battle with that damnable clown doll.
Anyhoo, as the house literally detonates around her and caskets and corpses explode out of the ground, it becomes quite obvious that Teague only moved the headstones but left the bodies behind to save costs when they built the houses; and the Freeling’s digging that swimming pool disturbed the spirits of the dead -- and now here we are, as Steven and Dana get home just as Diane vacates the house with the other two children in tow. They all pile into the family station wagon and burn rubber, leaving Teague and their neighbors to watch flabbergasted as their entire house implodes as it gets sucked into the vortex and disappears. Thus, the Freelings flee Cuesta Verde without looking back, eventually checking into a Holiday Inn for the night -- but not before Steven rolls the TV out on the balcony and locks the door between them.
You know, with it’s suburban setting, the shrill and screaming kids, the komedic elements, and Jerry Goldsmith doing his damnedest to emulate John Williams, it's easy to understand why folks tend to forget Hooper, and not Spielberg, was the credited director of Poltergeist after it hit theaters. Both E.T. and Poltergeist were in pre-production at the same time and were also scheduled to shoot almost simultaneously. And all of this controversy might’ve been averted if Carlo Rambaldi had delivered the alien puppet on time. And so, with E.T. facing several delays, Spielberg spent a lot of free time on the Poltergeist set. And like with Hawks and The Thing, the majority of the cast and crew felt Hooper was the director but had no doubt who was really calling the shots. “My enthusiasm for wanting to make Poltergeist would have been difficult for any director I would have hired,” said Spielberg. “It derived from my imagination, from my experience, and it came out of my typewriter."
During the production, co-producer Frank Marshall told the Los Angeles Times "The creative force of the movie was Steven. Tobe was the director and was on the set every day. But Steven did the design for every storyboard and he was [also] on the set every day.” A month into the shoot The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner sent a reporter to the set, who witnessed Spielberg directing what he later claimed were just a few pick-up shots. Regardless, the paper reported that Hooper was no longer directing the picture. Hooper responded, saying Spielberg’s actions were no different than what any executive producer usually did. Spielberg, in turn, offered a less than stellar defense of his director, saying, "Tobe isn't ... a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of our collaboration."
Most actors in the film were pretty mum on the subject except for Zelda Rubenstein, who wasn’t a big fan of Hooper, claiming Spielberg directed all six days she was on set. She also alleges Hooper allowed “some unacceptable chemical agents into his work" and felt the director was seldom “all there.” Assistant cinematographer John Leonetti agrees with the assessment. “Hooper was so nice and just happy to be there,” he said. “[Spielberg] was the producer, but really, he directed it.” Even Spielberg’s agent, who had a cameo in the film, later reported “Well, I now know what an executive producer does: he sets up the camera, tells the actors what to do, stands back and lets the director yell ‘action’.” And all of this kinda makes one wonder if Hooper was just a straw man all along so Spielberg could ghost-direct the film and do an end run on that fine print in the Universal contract. And would the same fate have befallen Ron Cobb if Night Skies had gone ahead? That’s me shrugging AND winking right now.
And once filming wrapped, Spielberg oversaw all of the post-production for Poltergeist, supervising the visual-effects personally at ILM. He was also responsible for the editing of the film, choosing his regular editor, Michael Khan, to cut this film while Carol Littleton edited E.T. He also handpicked Goldsmith to score the film since Williams was already occupied with E.T. But again, Goldsmith was trying so hard to emulate Williams one can’t really tell the difference. And once the film was ready for release, the MPAA slapped it with an R-Rating but this was later knocked down to a PG on appeal. Still, the film was pretty intense in spots and would go a long way in helping usher in the era of PG-13 rated films.
Poltergeist and E.T opened only a week apart back 1982; Poltergeist on June 4th and E.T. one week later on June 11th, causing both Time and Newsweek to tag that season “The Summer of Spielberg.” The suits at MGM agreed and definitely pushed Poltergeist as a Spielberg film, not a Hooper film. (If you look the promotional materials, Hooper’s treatment is just abominable.) So much so, they kinda got in trouble with the Directors Guild of America when the initial trailer for the film over-emphasized this fact. The guild brought suit against the studio and won the case, earning MGM a hefty fine and several published apologies. But the DGA wasn’t through yet as Spielberg commented on the controversy, “I thought I’d be able to turn Poltergeist over to a director and walk away. I was wrong."
Thus, the DGA opened another investigation “into the question of whether or not Hooper's official credit was being denigrated by statements Spielberg had made, apparently claiming authorship." Thus and so, Spielberg quickly backpedaled on those statements, taking out an ad in The Hollywood Reporter to write an open letter to Hooper to clear the air: “Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me... a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.” After, the DGA “found no reason that co-director credit should go to Spielberg”.
From the beginning and over the years since Hooper has been pretty tight-lipped on the whole experience. And what little he does say is usually just a thank you to Spielberg for the opportunity. Spielberg, for his part, kept on apologizing, promising from now on “If I write it myself, I’ll direct it myself. I won’t put someone else through what I put Tobe through.” And true to his word, he hasn’t.
When I first saw Poltergeist in the theater when I was 12 I thought it was pretty great and it scared the piss out of me. But somewhere along the way I kinda soured on the film. Couldn't tell you why, exactly; though I think it might've been the suburban blight and Yuppiegeddon of the thing. But then, not so long ago, I was on a practical F/X kick and gave it another spin and thought it was pretty great. Held up again when I watched it for this review. Cycles, man. Weird. Truth told it’s not really Spielberg or Hooper that explains my love for this film right now. No, that would be Edlund and Muren, or Richard and Dennis, who delivered the goods most mightily in this thing. Three cheers for old-school ILM. Yeah, even with over three decades tacked on, the practical F/X set-pieces in Poltergeist hold up remarkably well with only one, small hiccup. Yeah, the funniest part of this revisit is how badly the face-melting scene, which gave me a bad case of the drizzles back in the day, is the only thing that does not hold up at all.
So, in the end, Spielberg's fingerprints were all over this thing but Hooper's are there, too, fighting to get out, as a battalion of nasty apparitions overrun suburbia. And that climax is just amaze-balls, what with the pool chock full of corpses and the graves erupting out of the ground; it’s a fantastic exercise in the Grand Guignol / EC Comics tradition. And anchoring the whole thing are JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the mom and pop in way over their heads, with an added bonus of Rubenstein as the psychic pitbull who prematurely saves the day. Again, you can sense Hooper and Spielberg's clashing sensibilities through the whole thing but this schism somehow gels into one helluva an entertaining film no matter who directed the damned thing.
What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 16 down with only 10 more to go! Up next: V kosmose nikto ne slyshit, kak vy krichite, Tovarisch.
Poltergeist (1982) Amblin Entertainment :: SLM Production Group :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg / AP: Kathleen Kennedy / D: Tobe Hooper / W: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor / C: Matthew F. Leonetti / E: Michael Kahn / M: Jerry Goldsmith / S: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Zelda Rubinstein