Poltergeist (1982)


You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

(1982) Supernatural Horror (MGM) Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Dirk Blocker, Allan Graf, Lou Perry, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Joseph R. Walsh, Noel Conlon, Helen Baron. Directed by Tobe Hooper

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Our home is our castle; it is our safe place, somewhere we escape to from the cares and troubles of the world. We are protected by our walls, our windows, our doors. Those we love the most are there with us. Our home is our security.

Steven Freeling (Nelson) has a suburban castle, brand spanking new in the center of a spiffy new development. He sells property in the neighborhood and is responsible for most of his neighbors having the lovely new homes they all have. His family includes wife Diane (Williams), son Robbie (Robins), daughter Carol Anne (O’Rourke) and teen Dana (Dunne) from his first marriage. Life is sunny and perfect.

Then odd things start to happen. Chairs are found stacked by themselves. Carol Anne hears strange voices coming from the TV set. Toys begin to move from themselves. They see strange lights and hear strange noises. Unable to account for any of these phenomena, they consult Dr. Lesh (Straight), a renowned parapsychologist and she concludes that their home may be haunted by a poltergeist. When tests confirm a malevolent presence (to put it mildly), things begin to go from bad to worse – and even worse still, Carol Anne disappears.

Desperate, they bring in Tangina Barrons (Rubenstein), a powerful psychic and medium, to help them get their daughter back. She detects a horrifying presence, something malevolent and deceitful who is using Carol Anne to control all the other spirits locally. Getting Carol Anne back however won’t be the end of the affair.

This was a collaboration between Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Steven Spielberg and two more diverse styles I don’t think you could find. There has been a great deal of controversy over the years regarding Spielberg’s role in the movie. He is listed as a co-writer and producer but many have said that he did many things a director might do and that he was on set all but three days of the shooting schedule. Certainly there are many of Spielberg’s touches here; the quiet suburban setting, the family in crisis pulling together, the escalating supernatural crisis. However, even today it remains unclear just how much creative contribution Spielberg made to the film. Keep in mind he was filming E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as filming was wrapping on Poltergeist. Some of the scenes though are very definitely NOT Spielberg-like.

Nelson used his performance here as a springboard to a pretty satisfying career that has shown a great deal of range, from his sitcom work in Parenthood to dramatic roles in movies like The Company Men. His solid performance as the dad here – a dad who is not the perfect sitcom dad but for all his faults and blemishes still cares deeply about his family and would put himself in harm’s way for them – changed the way dads were portrayed in the movies. Nelson also gets to utter one of my all-time favorite lines in the movies: “He won’t take go to hell for an answer (so) I’m gonna give him directions.”

Rubenstein also made a memorable appearance and while her career was cut short by her untimely death six years ago, she will always be remembered for her absolutely mesmerizing performance here. There’s no doubt who steals the show here and even while O’Rourke was incredibly cute, she didn’t stand a chance against the hurricane force of Rubenstein’s personality.

The movie set horror tropes on their ears. Rather than the haunted house being a spooky old mansion, it was a suburban split level of the type that many people who flocked to see the film back in 1982 lived in. That brought the horror home for many; they could see spider demons in front of their master bedroom; skeletons emerging from their swimming pool and their dining room chairs stacked on their dining room table. It could happen to anyone and that’s what makes it truly terrifying.

The effects here are not groundbreaking and most of the time practical effects were used, sometimes in some quite clever ways. There really aren’t a ton of special effects here in any case; it is the unknown that scares us most and Hooper/Spielberg wisely left the best scares to our imaginations.

There’s nothing scarier than death and this is all about what happens to us after we die. Sure, atheists probably think all this is nonsense but no more so than a bratty teenage boy on some backwater desert planet being the savior of the universe. It’s all a matter of how you look at things. Hardly anybody wants to die, but nobody wants their afterlife to be worse than their life. Poltergeist taps into that fear, the fear of death and brings it right into our living rooms. What could be scarier than that?

WHY RENT THIS: It’s one of the scariest movies ever made. Relocating a haunted house flick to a suburban environment had never been done before. Nelson and Rubenstein give career-making performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people have issues with kids in peril.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images and scenes of terror. There’s also a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zelda Rubenstein was a medium and a psychic in real life before becoming an actress.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 25th anniversary DVD edition has a 2-part documentary on poltergeists. The Blu-Ray includes that and a digibook that includes essays, trivia, production notes, photos and cast and crew bios.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $121.7M on a $10.7M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Dressmaker

The Quiet Ones (2014)


Sam Claflin perfects his "What's that noise?" look.

Sam Claflin perfects his “What’s that noise?” look.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Sam Claflin, Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland, Max Pirkis, Tracy Ray, Richard Cunningham, Eileen Nicholas, Rebecca Scott, Ben Holden (voice), Aretha Ayeh, Max Mackintosh, Harman Singh, Dean Mitchell, Nick Owenford. Directed by John Pogue

There are things that we can’t explain yet. Phenomena that occur that seem without rational, scientific explanation. Many of these eventually will be explained once you dig deep enough. Sometimes though, our ignorance can be dangerous.

Professor Joseph Coupland (Harris) specializes in abnormal psychology. He has a theory that people who have been labeled “possessed” – people around whom paranormal events seem to occur – have traditionally been institutionalized, or harm themselves or others before that happens actually manufacture these occurrences through the powers of their own minds. Coupland believes that these occurrences are due to strong negative feelings inside and that if you can get the patients to transfer these feelings into a doll or some other inanimate object that they can be cured. “Cure one and you cure the world,” he tells his class at Oxford.

To that end he has a patient – one Jane Harper (Cooke) who has been in and out of foster homes and institutions all her life. She is said to be clairvoyant and haunted by poltergeists. Coupland believes that she can be cured of these issues by manifesting her negative feelings and pushing them into a doll. He is assisted by students Harry Abrams (Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi Dalton (Richards). Documenting it is a graduate, Brian McNeil (Claflin).

This being 1974, the dons at Oxford are none too pleased about the noise (the students keep Jane awake by playing loud rock music at all hours in order to get her into a state where she can manifest) and less pleased still about the subject of Professor Coupland’s thesis. Predictably, they pull their funding.

Enraged but still determined, Prof. Coupland rents a spooky looking house in the English countryside some distance from Oxford. There, isolated and essentially free to do as he wants, he starts working on Jane, keeping her exhausted and locked up to keep her from running away – or harming anyone.

At first, the manifestations are more startling than terrifying – things moving, doors opening, distinct rapping noises. In the meantime, Harry and the oversexed Krissi have become a kind of thing (although Krissi has also shown some affection for the chain-smoking Professor) and the shy Brian and the fragile Jane have also shown signs of attraction.

But things don’t remain this way for long. Tension is beginning to build among all five people, isolated in the middle of nowhere – Krissi likens it to being in a prison. Prof. Coupland has become more obsessive, refusing to admit that he may be wrong about his hypothesis. The manifestations have begun to get more sinister as Jane’s spirit guide Evie, a little girl who apparently died in a fire, has grown more agitated and almost cruel. Brian begins to suspect that there may be something going on beyond what Prof. Coupland can explain. Can he get Jane out of this environment before the experiment goes tragically wrong?

This is the most recent movie by Hammer, the venerable British horror production company that back in the day made the Christopher Lee Dracula movies and more recently, the excellent The Woman in Black. This one was actually completed back in 2012 but hasn’t been released until now. Considering the tepid reviews it’s gotten, that’s not surprising although it must be said that the studio has released movies far worse than this one in the interim.

Claflin has been slowly building up a leading man resume and while he hasn’t broken through with a star-making role just yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does sooner rather than later. He has the looks and the charisma although in this particular part he doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with. Cooke and Harris come off as the best of a nondescript bunch. Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris, has settled into a character actor’s lot in life and this is the kind of role that he excels at – officious, smart but corrupt in ways that aren’t always apparent. He is the glue that holds this movie together. Cooke gives us a classic possessed girl performance but adds a touch of melancholy to the role which is the perfect grace note. She’s an English rose, even as unkempt and unglamorous as she is much of this film.

The era of the 70s is captured very nicely, not just with the period audio-visual and scientific equipment but also with the cars, hair styles, clothes and more importantly, attitude. Modern audiences might be horrified at the amount of smoking that goes on in this film, but that was pretty much standard for its time (I lived through it, remember?) and especially place.

A horror film’s job is to scare its audience and the movie is successful at that more often than not, although there is a tendency to rely on cliches of the genre a bit too much. That makes the movie a little bit more pedestrian than it needs to be. I think partly too the filmmakers were waffling between making an atmospheric ghost story with gothic overtones, and making a slam-bang scarefest and wound up with neither. There’s even a “found footage” kind of sequence during the movie that reminded me how overused that particular genre has become. However, the climax while not breaking any new ground delivers one of the best scares of the film which goes a long way to redeeming some of the films more glaring faults.

This isn’t a bad movie; it’s well-acted for the most part, delivers some nice scares, shows off some young female breasts and is spooky and atmospheric at times. It just isn’t particularly innovative nor is it going to kick you in the seat of your pants with its scares nor is it going to creep you out with its atmosphere. At the end of the day the movie ends up being blander than most horror audiences – including me – tend to like.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent scares. Captures time and place adequately.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on horror film cliches overly much.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terrifying moments, some violence, bad language throughout, some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on the Philip Experiment which took place in Toronto with eight participants.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Jodorowsky’s Dune