Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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A young family are visited by ghosts in their home. At first the ghosts appear friendly, moving objects around the house to the amusement of everyone, then they turn nasty and start to terrorise the family before they "kidnap" the youngest daughter. - from IMDb

You asked me to do it; I did it! Late last night, on Halloween Eve, I finally saw the horror classic Poltergeist.

Poltergeist is one of those films you think you know even if you've never seen it. The poster is iconic, the lines are oft-quoted ("They're here"), Family Guy remade it in an episode. It's very easy to walk into Poltergeist and be underwhelmed. Where's the opportunity for surprise and suspense when every twist and turn is part of popular culture?

Well, let me get out of the way first: Poltergeist is not really that scary, and I don't think you can completely blame overexposure for it. The film just doesn't work that way. The ghosts are big special effects creations, shining lights floating down like the aliens in Cocoon, or else monstrous skull demons roaring and throwing their heads out of closets. Monstrous and ugly, but not scary. There are moments that made my skin crawl -- the chairs on the table, the steak, the tree -- but it's not like I shivered and sat on the edge of my seat. It's spooky, certainly, but not terrifying. For me, anyway.


But it'd be nuts to base the quality of Poltergeist off of that alone. After all, not every ghost flick has to be chew-your-nails terrifying, and Poltergeist is obviously not concerned with that anyway. Its focus instead is on the effects these supernatural events have on a family, in particular the mother, played by JoBeth Williams.

I think this is what separates Poltergeist from all others. Craig T. Nelson's dad Steven is the one who actually goes out and calls on parapsychologist Dr. Tesh (Beatrice Straight) for help, but Williams' Diane is the film's focus. She refuses to leave the house, not wanting to leave her baby stuck in the spirit realm, but she is far from the helpless, hysterical mess this would imply. Instead, it's Steven who sits by in a chair, doubting the capabilities of his visitors, visibly exhausted, uncertain what to do. As the man, the protector of the family, he is left defeated by a force he can not understand, unable to bring his family through this horror -- it's emasculating, and Nelson gets this emotion through his slack face and confused movements.

As I said, it's the wife who takes charge. She refuses to leave her baby. She stays up with Dr. Lesh, forming a bond in a moving late-night conversation scene, learning more about this thing that has taken over her house. She puts her trust in medium Tangina. She is the one who puts on the rope so she can fetch Carol Anne from the other side, and she is the one who brings her children out of the house while Steven yells at his boss outside. Of course, she's also the one who at first toys with the idea of having these spirits around, using first her chair, then her own daughter, in an experiment to see them rush across the floor. She's flabbergasted and excited, but not afraid, and perhaps her vigilance later on is just as much a product of guilt as it is maternal instinct. After all, she literally offered up Carol Anne to the ghosts; what are they gonna do, deny it?


The conflict between husband and wife is hinted at throughout the film. I love the scene where Diane smokes pot in the master bedroom while Steven, unable to roll a joint, gives up and picks up Reagan: The Man, The President instead.


I love when she's trying to show him the chair moving across the kitchen and tells him to "Reach back into our past, when you sued to have an open mind. Remember that?" I love when Tangina asks the disciplinarian of the two to call Carol Anne's spirit closer using force and anger, and they argue about which one fits the role. I love most of all when Dr. Tesh asks Steven to name everyone in the house, with ages. And he names his wife Diane, 32, their oldest daughter Dana, 16....that kills me. You get a real idea of who these two were and are, understanding the dig at Steven's former open-mindedness and Diane's expert rolling of a joint.

It also provides a purpose for the presence of Dana in the story, a character who says nothing, does nothing, and might as well not exist. Ah, but what insight Dana's presence lends! The first child, there's eight years difference between her and son Robbie. And since her parents were both, presumably, in high school, there is a looser hold on her. She is frequently out with friends, apparently allowed to stay out on school nights, and while not open about her sex life, her references to her experiences are left virtually unchecked.

Through these moments, Poltergeist presents an interesting peek at the changing nuclear family. The free-lovin', free-wheelin', everyone smoke a jay, fuck-the-man, we won't be anything like our parents 60s and 70s is giving way to the Yuppie nirvana of the Reagan 80s. One gets the sense that whatever Steven and Diane did in that time, she was the instigator and he went along because he loved her. It's the one thing about this movie I cannot shake.

Ok, and Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina.

Get it, girl!

There are lots of other things I could discuss, like Dr. Lesh's own awakening to what she's experiencing, or the fact that after seeing four other Tobe Hooper films, I see his fingerprints on this just as much as Spielberg's. But this was all about introducing me to a film so that I could give a Casting Coup. After the jump, of course.

It's difficult with something like Poltergeist, a movie very much of its time and perfectly cast. But I tried my best. I did not cast the kids, because those should be newcomers. But the rest were fair game. And original cast photos are courtesy Aveleyman.

Who is He: Steven's boss, one of the partners who planned and built the planned community of Cuesta Verde. He promised to move the cemetery, and he did. Well, the headstones at least.

Originally played by:
James Karen (The Return of the Living Dead, The Pursuit of Happyness)

My Choice:
William Atherton (The Day of the Locust, Ghostbusters)
He could do this role in his sleep. He's recognizable enough as an oily creep, but not so distracting that all you'd see is William Atherton.

Who is He: One of Dr. Lesh's assistants, he stays to the bitter, ectoplasmic end.

Originally played by:
Richard Lawson (Wag the Dog, For Colored Girls)

My Choice:
Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice, Argo)

Who is He: Another assistant, the ghosts poltergeisting it up start to target him as well.

Originally played by:
Martin Casella (Six Weeks, RoboCop 2)

My Choice:
Aaron Yoo (Friday the 13th, Ten Years)
The guy plays fear really well. Really damn well.

Who is She: A parapsychologist called in to investigate and help find Carol Anne. Lesh has seen hauntings before, but never on the level of the Freelings' house. She forms a maternal bond with Diane.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Network)
Beatrice Straight (Endless Love, Two of a Kind)

My Choice: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Prizzi's Honor), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Prizzi's Honor, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Drama or Musical/Comedy (The Grifters, The Addams Family, Addams Family Values) and Best Supporting Actress (Prizzi's Honor, The Crossing Guard), SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (The Crossing Guard)
Anjelica Huston (50/50, The Life Aquatic)
Anjelica positively coos with matriarchal warmth. She also gives enough of the wink needed for Dr. Lesh, an experienced parapsychologist who still needs to tip from the bottle in dire situations. Besides, tradition dictates that an Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress must play this role.

Who is He: Freeling patriarch, successful realtor, more straight-laced than his wife, but still warm, affectionate, with a sense of humor. Almost shuts down once Carol Anne is taken.

Originally played by:
Craig T. Nelson (The Family Stone, The Incredibles)

My Choice:
Adam Scott(The Aviator, Step Brothers)
Already a perfect everyman crush object on TV. He could play the dynamo realtor, affectionate husband, shattered father, all of it with subtlety.

Who is She: The matriarch of the clan, a free spirit who at first finds the paranormal activity pretty exciting. When they take Carol Anne, she becomes desperate, even offering to go into the beyond herself to save her.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Live-Action Short (On Hope)
JoBeth Williams (Jungle 2 Jungle, The Big Year)

My Choice:
Cobie Smulders ("How I Met Your Mother", The Avengers)
She's beautiful, but not unapproachably so. I love that Diane is a young mother of three, and I want to keep that dynamic; it informs a lot of her character. Smulders is a strong, solid actress who's been a supporting player in film and television. Time to graduate.

Who is She: The best. A spiritual medium who does not suffer fools. She is the one who knows where Carol Anne is...and how to get her back.

Originally played by:
Zelda Rubinstein (Teen Witch, Southland Tales)

My Choice:
Margo Martindale (Orphan, Secretariat)
Tough to choose someone to replace the irreplacable Zelda Rubinstein. In the end, I went with Martindale for a few reasons. First, she's an actress I love. Second, she can generate both authority and warmth. Third, she's taller than Zelda, so there's an immediate visual cue to remind us that isn't your father's Poltergeist.

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