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

Paranormal Activity 2


Paranormal Activity 2

Has this franchise already gone to the dogs?

(2010) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Sprague Grayden, Seth Ginsberg, Vivis, William Juan Prieto, Jackson Xenia Prieto, David Bierend.  Directed by Tod Williams

If at first you succeed, goes the Hollywood logic, make a sequel and if possible, put as little variation into the formula that made the first movie a success as possible. Sometimes that works out nicely and other times, well…

Daniel Rey (Boland), his wife Kristi (Grayden) and their teenage daughter Ali (Ephraim) have a new addition to the family; newborn son Hunter (the Prieto twins) who’s just come home for the first time. Unfortunately, their house gets trashed by apparent vandals who take nothing but the incident is sufficiently disturbing enough for Daniel to install a system of security cameras in the house.

Flash-forward a bit. Hunter is crawling and able to stand, although he’s not walking yet. Things are beginning to go bump in the night and clang in the day; a frying pan falls from its place, seemingly without provocation. A pool cleaner rises up out of the pool without explanation. Cabinet doors fly open by themselves.

Most of the activity seems centered around Hunter. Further explanation comes from Ali’s internet research, and the fact that Kristi is sister to Katie (Featherston), who along with Micah (Sloat) were the protagonists of the Paranormal Activity. This takes place in the two months before the activities in Paranormal Activity and in case you didn’t figure it out, a graphic reading “60 Days before Micah Sloan’s death” should fill in the blanks. Portentous ain’t it?

What worked really well in the first movie was the sense that you had no clue what was going to happen next. Things were done with light and shadow that made even ordinary vistas creepier; you looked long and hard at the footage, trying to determine what was moving all by itself or was about to. You were thrown off-guard in nearly every frame.

This time that doesn’t happen so much. The trouble with sequels is that you do have a clue what’s going to happen next and let’s face it, the sequel follows the original here pretty faithfully in terms of structure. Of course as a studio film the new one has a budget which while miniscule by Hollywood standards is still quite a bit more than the first movie.

Featherston and Sloat (who are top-billed in the credits) make only cameo appearances. The new family may have more dynamics because there are more members (including the nanny Martina (Vivis) who dabbles in Hispanic spiritualism on the side. However, there just isn’t as much realism in the relationship as with the first couple, who bickered and flirted and kidded each other so naturally they felt like a real couple. Here, this is more of a typical Hollywood family who  act the way Hollywood thinks families act.

I don’t have a problem with that, but in a case where you’re trying to give the movie a documentary you-are-there kind of feel, it makes it more difficult to achieve that feeling. The first movie did it; the second movie doesn’t and that is really where the crux of the differences between them lies. There are scares, sure – plenty of them, mostly of the gotcha variety but the atmosphere of absolute dread, the feeling of being trapped in an inevitable spiral that was going to end badly just isn’t there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of reasons to rent this movie, none the least of which is that it is competently made, it gives you some background about events in the first movie and lays down the seeds for the next one which hopefully might give the series closure, or at least this chapter of it (the beauty of the concept is that it can be set to different houses and different families easily). I suppose that the movie already has a strike against it in that if you’ve already seen the first, this might not feel as new and refreshing. I imagine if you watch this one first you’ll wind up being fonder of it than the original. Still in all, it doesn’t really sour you on the franchise and while it doesn’t measure up in terms of impact, it still packs plenty of wallop of its own.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice scares and a bit of explanation behind the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too formulaic. The relationship between Daniel and Kristi is far less convincing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the father’s character – Daniel Rey – came from an indie rock producer who among others produced albums for the Ramones and the Misfits, posters for each can be seen in Ali’s room.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.7M on a $3M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: X-Men: First Class

Paranormal Activity


Paranormal Activity

Things that go bump in the night.

(2009) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong, Ashley Palmer, Randy McDowell, James Piper, Crystal Cartwright.  Directed by Oren Peli

We think of haunted houses of being old Victorian mansions and Gothic monstrosities in fog-shrouded, rain-soaked streets with black cats and kudzu aplenty. However, paranormal activity can occur even in the most innocuous of settings.

Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) have been together for a few years now and have taken the big step of moving in together, into a beautiful suburban San Diego home. He’s a day trader and a pretty typical modern 20-something guy. She’s an English student and a pretty typical modern 20-something gal. They have high hopes for the future.

Then strange things begin to happen. Doors open and shut of their own accord. Things fall off of shelves. They are awakened by loud bangs in the night. Micah, however, being a pretty typical modern 20-something guy, has a major league digital video rig. He determines to film the goings on in the house; this becomes something of an obsession with him. As things escalate, Katie grows more terrified (she’s had experience with paranormal events in her past), Micah grows more determined and the strain begins to show on the couple. The question is: what does this entity want?

This is as successful a horror movie as you’re likely to see, both from a profit standpoint (see below) but also from an artistic standpoint as well. The movie has almost no budget and very few visual effects that aren’t practically generated. This is a found footage movie consisting entirely of Micah’s videotaping which can be both good and bad; it allows us to be privy to some very intimate moments for the couple (not the sexual kind) but also leads to long periods of really not much going on.

Fortunately, Featherston and Sloat have a natural chemistry together; they act and feel like a real couple, with Featherston getting exasperated with Sloat and Sloat being a guy about things. They argue, they kid each other and they show each other affection the way couples who have been together for awhile do. There are other actors here (such as Friedrichs as a paranormal expert) but it is Featherston who is onscreen for nearly every shot with Sloat being more often the voice of the guy holding the camera.

There are some genuine scares here but the movie goes for atmosphere more than anything else. The movie works because it generates a mood and relies on that to elevate the tension. The scares pop the balloon nicely, leaving us unbalanced for most of the film which is what a good horror movie is supposed to do.

The fact that the setting is so ordinary and mundane makes the film even creepier. It could be taking place in our own homes. And that ability to make it relatable is what makes the movie all the more effective. A lot has been made of the film’s very effective marketing campaign, the low budget and the big box office. All these things have tended to obscure the fact that this is a well-made horror movie that will keep you hooked until the very end. Now that the Saw franchise has come to an end, Halloween has a new franchise to look forward to.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most effective “found footage” movies yet. Surprisingly good performances from unknowns Featherston and Sloat. Atmospheric and scary yet believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Starts out very slowly and there are a lot of stretches where nothing exciting happens..

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad language and some really disturbing moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was filmed in director Oren Peli’s home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Limited Edition comes with an unrated version with an alternative ending, a collectors card with a film cell on it and a limited edition t-shirt.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.3M on a $15,000 production budget; the movie was a blockbuster and maybe the most profitable movie ever on a budget under six figures.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity 2