Saturday, March 5, 2011

You're Jammin' my Frequencies-Poltergeist and Ronald Regan

I have a confession to make.

I am in love with Zelda Rubenstein

This Zelda Rubenstein
I recently watched Poltergeist for the first time. Until now, I've kind of written it off as a quirky, fun family horror movie where there are some spooky ghosts in a house with some cute little kids. A Halloween movie. Fun, cute, but not fantastic. Cheesy. Certainly not scary. 
I was pretty incredibly incorrect. This movie is very, very scary. It's a little strange that Tobe Hooper's other most famous film is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I'm pretty sure is widely considered to be the most gory and inappropriate of the classic slasher films. They play Poltergeist on ABC Family. It's rated PG, for goodness sake.

Honestly, I think this is a pretty brilliant move on Hooper's part--there's no real nudity, only one incidence of the "s" word, an I guess because there's no direct human-on-human violence, it somehow gets away with this rating. Because, for the first half of the movie, it has that happy, family feel that Stephen Spielberg (writer and producer,) is so apparently good at capturing, it can play to the target audience of that film--then BAM! Scary time!

Brilliance. Pure unadulterated scare the pants off of children brilliance. And I hate children, so I love scaring them. The fact that the scary part opens with a tree coming into the kids' window is so terryifyingly wonderful, and certainly intentional--what are kids in 1982 more afraid of than the creepy tree outside their window?

There were parts in this movie that legitimately freaked me out. It is cheesey--a result of its time, I think, more than anything else. It fell victim to the terrible effects available in 1982, but considering how bad it could have's ok. And again, some parts were really very creepy. Like the following, which I literally had to turn away from because it was so disturbing and went on for so long:
PG rating, you guys...

Or this thoroughly creepy scene, which occurs after JoBeth Williams (pictured) gets a nice implied rape from an invisible spirit:

Even better than the horror in this movie, though, is the hilarious satire that makes up the beginning of the movie--which ends up being relevant to the horror as well. The whole movie is mocking American suburbia--from the starting notes of the national anthem that we hear in the first shots of the film, to the degradation of the family as the spirits take over their house--a house that is, of course, the basis of their entire family structure. The father, played by Craig Nelson, is a real estate agent for a suburban development in California in which he lives--and where his home is ground zero, if you will. The satire that comes from this is subtle enough that, I believe, millions of happy families were tricked into believing this was just a nice film about them--"satire" or "humor" is not listed in the genre notes on Netflix, nor is it mentioned in the summaries or FAQ's on IMDB. I thought the jokes were hilarious, and I noticed a lot of them, but they were often subtle or visual.
For instance!
 In the scene where the poltergeist first shows itself, the last shot is of the kitchen chairs stacked precariously on the table--which then fades to an empty table in the same room, and zooms out so we see that the father is showing another identical house to an old couple. In an earlier scene, the father argues with the neighbor over TV channels--because the families have the same remote control, they can control each other's televisions. ...More on the importance of TV in this movie later. Then of course, there was my personal favorite visual joke about suburbia, the new right, and how silly California is:
As the mom laughs over her small box of marijuana. Just say no!

It also mocks how suburbia feels about and treats death, which ends up being an incredibly important set up for the rest of the movie. One of the first scenes shows Heather O'Rourke walking in on her mother as she goes to flush the recently dead canary. ("Oh shit, Tweety, couldn't you have died on a school day?"). When the family goes to dig in their backyard to build an in-ground pool, we see the shoe-box coffin of the dead bird being carelessly shoveled away with the dirt.

Little do they know! (SPOILERS). After the infestation of ghosties and beasties has begun, we witness a conversation between the father and his boss, the CEO of the development company, offering the father a promotion and a bigger house on the hill. Neilson looks behind the hill where they are standing, indicating and expansive graveyard--"Not much room for a pool..."
It is at this crucial point that it is revealed how the development company builds their neighborhoods so cheaply--they build them in places where graveyards used to be. The new neighborhood, for which the family's new house will, again, be "Phase one," is built over a graveyard, as well as the neighborhood where the film takes place. The father is concerned about this, but the CEO is not, and reassuringly utters some famous last words--
"Nobody has ever complained before."
It doesn't take an above average analyst to realize that this is the root of the problem--the poltergeists in the house clearly are the unhappy spirits of those buried under the suburbs, entering into hyper perfect American life to take revenge on American progress by attacking the most important part of it--the family.

Or, wait a minute. Although they do capture the young daughter, their real target is the house. The mother of the family, a stay at home soccer mom who spends all of her time taking care of the kids, is deeply upset by this, and through the film and the beyond-the-grave kidnapping of her daughter, she undergoes a transformation and rebirth, and, very obviously, emerges from some yonic imagery covered in gloop. The father, however, does not under go this rebirth and replaced importance on family. He is, arguably, the center of the humanized American-ness in the film--as we movie into the eighties,  the new right is taking over and the ERA and the sexual revolution of the previous decades fade into the background. So is it the father who the spirits are really attacking? Stealing the daughter is possibly just a side effect of their true victim--the house. The father's life centers around the house, it is not only his home but his entire source of income and a symbol of his manhood. So while it seems that the center of the suburban family structure is, well, the family, it is in fact the house itself--materialism!

And what better way to enter that house, that pure symbol of American suburbia, which is in a development full of identical abodes, the perfect symbol of Californian ridiculousness, than through the essence and symbol of Western progress, a virtual tangible synechdoche for the American Way of Life--the television. 

I was going to stop there, but lets keep this going! Let us take a step back from the movie--literally. Imagine that you are sitting in your house, sometime in October, and the film in question is playing on ABC family, as it does every year, as part of their thirteen nights of Halloween gimmick. The camera of your mind, your visual screenshot, is focused on the TV, but let's say it starts zooming out--and there you are, in your house (the symbol of your fathers manhood and ability to provide for his family,) enjoying the mostly uncensored entertainment really only available in the West in such a form, on the American Family channel--perhaps it is at this point that you realize the magic of Tobe Hooper and Stephen Spielberg--Poltergeist, like so many films, has become a mirror of its audience. You are watching television if you are watching this movie! The visual and auditory information of Poltergeist is invading your mind like so many little angry spirits, and perhaps the scary pictures will prevent you from sleeping to well, or perhaps your brain will be invaded with the social commentary!

Mind. Blown. 
Zelda Rubenstein!!

This house has been cleaned!

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