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

Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!