When I was in college, a professor brought it up on how we have designed our bedrooms, living rooms and dens around the TV. In the olden days, someone could turn on a radio and hear it all around the house. TVs have to be seen. That’s part of their word, “vision.”
One year, I slept at the foot of the bed because we had arranged the dorm room is was the only way I could see it. A lot of other people would bring chairs, sofas and couches and have them positioned so they could watch TV in their rooms. Older TVs had a wood finish around them so they blended in more with the furniture.
But now, we have huge TV sets we hang on walls, watch shows and movies on computers, smartphones and tablets. While I still have a TV to watch in the living room and another in the bedroom, we have evolved because we’re consumers. I watch things on my tablet and smartphone. That’s what we do. We buy the latest new things.
A movie like Poltergeist, the original 1982 version, is really about the dangers of greed and consumerism in America as the Freeling family at the center of the movie represent the Middle-American nuclear family of the era. Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is the head of the family, a breadwinner in only his early 30s, who drives a station wagon and is one of the top sellers for a top real estate developer. His family live in Cuesta Verde, a planned community in the California suburbs. His wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams) is only 32 and a stay at home mother.
The Freelings have three kids: Dana (Dominique Dunne), 16 who is the typical All-American teenage girl; Robbie (Oliver Robbins), 8, who is the typical American boy with playtoys galore who is also scared of the tree near the house; and there’s sweet little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), only 5 and just a cute little girl with golden locks of hair. They have the perfect family with even a golden retriever dog, E. Buzz, who has his own personalized food bowl. In a humorous way E. Buzz is able to find some potato chips Dana is sleeping on and gets to them while spilling most on her pillow. He’s a consumer as well. They have a parakeet, Polly, who dies early on but when they bury her, Carol Anne happily asks if they can get a gold fish now.
The Freelings live so close to their neighbors that remote controls sometimes interupt TV frequencies while Steven has the boys over to watch the big game while Diane does chores around the house. The movie opens so innocently with the Freelings all sleeping in their home until Carol Anne starts talking to the static on the TV as Steven has fallen asleep in his chair. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith at first presents a very inviting pleasant look at the Cuesta Verde community where kids play outside with remote control cars and men eat spare ribs for dinner while construction crews dig holes for pools.
It seems the Freelings are living a perfect life, but strange things begin to happen possibly with Polly’s death at first. It’s never made clear. Then, there’s strange events such as Robbie’s juice glass breaking at breakfast for no reason. But then, Diane notices the chairs at the breakfast table are still pushed out. When she pushes them back in, she turns her back and they’re now arranged on top of each other on the table.
At first, Steven and Diane seem amused by the tricks in the house. Then it all turns bad one night when during a rain storm, the tree seems to come alive and pull Robbie out trying to consume him. Leaving Carol Anne in the bedroom she shares with Robbie, lights come out of the closet and a heavy force pulls her and other items into the light. Steven saves Robbie with the help of a tornado that comes out of nowhere to take the tree. But they can’t find Carol Anne, but Robbie hears her on the TV in the living room.
Stranger things happen as Steven goes to the nearby college to speak with parapsychologist Dr. Martha Lash (Beatrice Straight). Her and her assistants including, Dr. Martin Casey (Martin Casella), who’s somewhat skeptical, and Dr. Ryan Mitchell (Richard Lawson) get a eyeful when they realizes that all the kids’ toys have a life of their own as an Incredible Hulk doll rides a toy horse. The furniture spins around and books flap in the air by themselves.
One thing director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg, who co-wrote the movie with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, get right is how the kids’ room feels like an actual kids room. Robbie’s got Star Wars bedsheets and toys that are strewn all over the place. Some might consider it product placement or help from Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas, but it adds to the feeling that the Freelings are a real family. Part of the reason Nelson and Williams, who were mostly character actors at the time, were cast was so the audience would sympathize with them more instead of bigger name celebrities in the role.
In one of the most memorable and unsettling scenes, the more skeptical Marty who thought the voice of Carol Anne might be transmitting via the TV, gets a heavy dose of the poltergeist’s wrath Not only is he bitten by an entity on the torso, but he may swear off eating meat forever. While going into the kitchen late at night, he finds a steak to cook and chicken drumstick to snack on. As he searches for a skillet, the steak moves on the counter until it begins to grossly rip itself apart as its innards spew out. Marty also sees the drumstick has maggots in it so he goes to a sink in a utlity closet to vomit.
What happens next nearly got the movie an R rating as the entities play with Marty’s mind making it think his face is peeling off until he beings to start ripping off flesh until all that can be seen is his bloodied skull. But it’s an illusion. This scene has been parodied on Family Guy and in the 1995 Casper movie. Spielberg, as a kid, use to tease his siblings by putting wet toilet paper on his face and chasing them around the house saying his skin was peeling off. Hooper and Spielberg had to appeal the rating as this scene is believed to be responsible for the R rating. It was later changed to a PG rating as the PG-13 rating hadn’t been invented yet. Ironically, two years after Poltergeist’s release, Spielberg would spearhead a campaign for the PG-13 rating.
Casella, himself, who hasn’t had many screen credits joked with the make-up people that this would be one of the most memorable scenes. It’s unsettling to say the least. And audiences probably were shocked to see it in a PG-rated movie. My guess is since it only happens to mess with Marty’s mind and not real, that justified the PG-rating.
The trauma of missing his daughter and unsure if he’d ever see her again as well as trying to keep a family together causes Steven to miss some work. One day with the cameras and VCR equipment set up, Steven’s boss, Lewis Teague, comes to visit and shows him some new property they are developing a few miles away. But Steven notices there’s a huge cemetery near the same plot which Teague says they can move the gravesites as they have done it before in Cuesta Verde.
Video recordings of entities show human-like shapes moving down the stairwell of the Freelings’ house. Dr. Lash notes that there’s antique cameo and more recent watches and jewelry that have fallen through a portal in the first floor ceiling. By now, you probably have deduced that Teague just moved the headstones but left the coffins. In an earlier scene this is hinted when the construction workers digging the pool area turn up Polly’s cigar box coffin.
With help from a medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein), they are able to lead Carol Anne away from the entity holding her in the other life and move her closer to the light so she can be rescued. Tangina was planning on going into the portal in the kids bedroom closet but Diane convinces her Carol Anne won’t come to her. This scene is actually well directed and acted. Even though they use special effects, some of the more practical effects are just as good as using a light machine and wind machine to show the portal into the other world. And ever since I saw the movie as a child, I remember being freaked out by the gooey ectoplasm on the rope Ryan pulls out of the ceiling portal on the rope.
Even though they get Carol Anne back, the entities aren’t happy and as the Freelings try to leave as soon as possible, all hell breaks loose. And here’s where we see the coffins with the decomposed bodies coming out of the ground. There’s even things that happen to their neighbors as fire hydrants go flying off spewing water into the air and fire bursts out of manhole covers. Why the evil entity targets the Freeling is on account of something Tangina says about it speaking to Carol Anne as if it’s a child. My guess is the Freelings are the only family in the area to have a child as young.
Poltergeist was released about two months after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Both movies deal with young children in suburbia, most notabled planned communities as in E.T., you can see some houses are under construction. In E.T., the nuclear family is dissolved as it deals with a single mother and three kids. Spielberg himself grew up in post-World War II Phoenix. As a Boomer he was subjected to anti-Semitism as well as affected by the divorce of his parents in his late teens, which still was uncommon at the time. I think both E.T. and Poltergeist are about breaking down the mythos of the nuclear family Boomers were exposed to.
The Freelings seem like the perfect family, but underneath the surface things aren’t right. Considering that Dana is 16 while Diane is 32, that means, she got pregnant when she was 15-16 which might have been acceptable back in the mid-1960s but still troublesome. The fact that there is an eight-year age gap between Dana and Robbie hints that maybe things weren’t too great at the beginning. It’s possible Diane at one time had to work and her and Steven were living paycheck to paycheck. That might explain their need to have it all.
Now, that Steven is successful and lives in a nice home, he shows it off. That’s why he invites a dozen or so guys over to watch the big game. In a scene where he is showing a house to potential buyers, he can’t help but mention that he lives in the area. While this is a selling point, it’s also bragging rights. But it was Teague’s greed that destroyed everything. Moving headstones isn’t easy, but it’s less expensive than moving dozens of coffins. I wouldn’t even put it past Teague to use cheap labor and grease bureaucrats on code inspections.
In the end, the Freelings leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs, even though they had boxed up a lot of things earlier, to stay at a Holiday Inn. In a final middle finger, Steven rolls the TV set outside the motel room. There’s some things families can do without.
In closing, yes, I know all about the Poltergeist curse where several people associated with the movie, including Dunne and O’Rourke, have died young. I also know about the theories over the years that Spielberg actually directed while Hooper was a ghost director. That’s not really what I wanted to touch on with this post.
What do you think? Please comment.