Director: Tobe Hooper
Writer: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor
Cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti
Producer: Frank Marshall and Steven Spielberg
by Jon Cvack
Reading Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982), she mentions how Spielberg came up with the story, re-wrote the script, storyboarded the shoot, and was heavily handed in the production. While the credits state a “Tobe Hooper Film”, it’s “A Steven Spielberg Production” and with all that in mind, it’s arguable that the only reason Tobe Hooper was brought in was to lend credibility to Spielberg’s relatively clean image. Similar to The Goonies (1985) or Band of Brothers (2001), the movie abides by Spielberg’s tone and style, demonstrating the power of one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, who was only 36 years old at the time and every bit in command of the story. The movie has become a classic, serving as another testament to Spielberg’s prowess.
The movie explores a world similar to E.T. (1982), taking place in the idyllic suburbs, where the uniform houses stand as far as the eye can see. In the middle of the night, the tv located in the family room of their home turns on, playing nothing but static. An awkward, wavy staircase heads up to the bedroom where husband and wife Diane and Steve Freeling (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) sleep with their three children, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and their youngest, Carole Anne (Heather O'Rourke) in their rooms; the last of which rises up and heads downstairs, hearing voices from the television set.
The next day we see the familiar suburban sights - kids ride bikes in the streets, neighbors wash their cars and mow their lawns. Steve watches football inside with his buddies, smoking cigars and drinking beer; the channel is changed by the next door neighbor who has the same set. Steve tries to argue and get him to stop and it’s all just another day in the life of the suburbs; where the biggest problem is interruption to the football game and Diane discovering their pet bird dead, requiring her to explain death to the young Carole Anne.
That night there’s a thunderstorm, where Robbie freaks out, staring at a massive, ghastly tree outside the window while Carole Anne overfeeds their fish. Diane and Steve are packed away in their room, where another television plays the news and they share a joint; laughing and stoned while Steve glances down at some pro-Reagan book. Steven attempts to calm Robbie, stating that the storm is blowing over. The television then lights up again, calling out to Carole Anne, who heads downstairs, pulled toward the set where her parents find her, delivering the infamous, “They’re here.” A massive 6.5 earthquake then follows.
The next day, construction crews begin digging up the back yard to install an in-ground pool, again adding that more mature Spielberg touch as they sneak food from the kitchen, ogle at their teenage daughter who flips them off, and then proceeds with the mission.
As mentioned in my thoughts on The Evil Dead (1981), I’ve been reading both Bazin’s What is Cinema? Vol. 1 (1967) and Munsterburg’s The Film: A Psychological Study (1916) and their theory about the “plastics” of cinema; that is, the physicality is what provides the dreamlike escape. As mentioned in my thoughts on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2013), Spielberg’s abandonment of physical effects has produced numerous films that have failed to provide the same immersive experience. Alongside Indiana Jones, this film epitomizes the idea, where while all this is going on, Diane is in the kitchen, cleaning up the breakfast table. In a single shot she notices the chairs have been pulled out, blaming Carole Anne, the camera pans with her returning to the sink and then back over and the chairs have been stacked on top of the table; shocking her. It’s such a simple gag but also incredibly creepy. The magic of moviemaking at its finest and simplest.
From there, Diane waits for Steve to come home and demonstrates the spiritual entity that pushes her and Carole Anne along the floor toward where the kitchen table was. That night, the tree outside Robbie’s room crashes through the window, grabbing him and Carol Anne is sucked into the television.
The family hires a family of parapsychologists, led by Drs. Martha Lesh (Beatrice Straight; a role which Pauline Kael thought was distractingly boring; I’m not following that one). They conclude that the spirits are poltergeists; confirmed when they enter Robbie and Carol Anne’s bedroom and find everything spinning in a cyclone, straining their credulity.
It’s a creepy night as the team deals with hallucinations, glowing orbs, and moving steak cutlets. In one scene, one of the parapsychologists heads to the kitchen for snacks, pulling out a t-bone from the fridge which crawls along the countertop and then rots. Freaked, he heads into the bathroom, looks into the mirror and watches as his face melts (the film’s least effective gag; improved upon in Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Later that night, as things calm down, Spielberg engages a brilliant and intimate moment between Diane, Robbie, and Dr. Martha, having them all whisper as the rest of the house sleeps, with Dr. Martha acting as the surrogate grandparent attempting to calm them down, specifically the young boy, explaining how the poltergeists are spirits that weren’t yet ready to head “into the light” and enter heaven; perhaps angry or unworthy. And that the spirits in their Carol Anne and Robbie’s bedroom could indeed be evil.
Later, per the likes of Close Encounters, we see the glowing orbs come down the twisting staircase and we hear Carol Anne’s voice. They decide to head through their closet where the ghost portal resides, hoping to grab Carole Anne by throwing a rope through the closet which appears in the living room. Diane falls through, grabbing Carol Anne and the two are covered in pink ectoplasm; an effect that Ghostbusters (1984) would adopt seven years later.
With Carol Anne rescued, the family decides to pack up and leave. The next day, Steve meets his boss to talk about the next phase of development; where Steve can get the best view in the neighborhood, overlooking the valley. The camera then pulls out, revealing a massive graveyard that will have to be dug up and transferred and Steven pieces it together; much of the neighborhood required the same extraction of the dead, including their current house.
Heading out on business, Steve leaves to go quit his job while Dana heads off on a date, leaving Diane, Robbie, and Carole Anne alone where the evil attacks once again; a clown doll comes alive and attacks Robbie. Diane is attacked by invisible forces in a clever and terrifying scene, dragged across the ceiling of her bedroom and ending in the freshly dug up pool where the corpses rise, their bone and rotted skin hanging off, hidden in the water and she tries to climb out, grabbing her kids as Steve arrives back home and the old coffins and bodies that hadn’t been transferred rise up, and the house completely implodes.
Like Jurassic Park (1994), the movie uses digital effects as a compliment; never trying to take design of complex or ornate elements, but rather using only lights and glows combined with practical light gags to amp it up. Everything else is practical; that is, it’s all plastic and therefore believable. Some might not be homeruns, but all of it is entertaining. It’s the type of movie that has become a classic because real elements don’t age like computer effects. They are timeless and require that filmmakers use the language of cinema to pull off the magic. Only the melting face could be considered bogus, but even that is fun enough to laugh at. I’m not sure why I’ve always thought this was some second tier movie, good but not great. This is one of the greatest horror films ever made; easily in the top twenty, maybe in the top ten. And for as much as I respect that Tobe Hooper contributed, this is a Spielberg movie and it’s no wonder that, yet again, he created a timeless piece of cinema.
BELOW: One of simplest-creepiest scare gags
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