We took a bit of a Saturday Night Horror Double Feature break, but we came back just like the first inhabitants of Cuesta Verde, though we did leave the kitchen furniture alone. For our return engagement we decided to each pick a film from our childhood/adolescence, choosing a film that stuck with us and at one time terrified us to see if they still lived up to our memories. I chose a film that preyed on all those childhood fears we all keep with us, a film that was one of the first scary movies I ever saw in the theater. My husband chose one that left a mark on both of us primarily for its unanswered questions and iconic scenes with tall, suited up morticians and knife yielding, flying silver orbs.
The first choice was mine, a 1982 modern classic (the 80’s still qualify as “modern”, right?) co-written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, about a family whose home is invaded by the undead and whose youngest daughter is taken into the other world whose portal is located in a childhood closet. The movie, which originally scared my thirteen year old self, still doled out a few jump scares and caused chills to dance up my spine, this time around, though, hitting on a different set of embedded fears, the ones of a parent.
My husband’s selection was also a start of a horror franchise that first hit theaters at the end of the seventies. This one I did not see at the time of release, but years later as part of a “must-see” movie marathon with a horror fan boyfriend who introduced me to this series, as well as the Raimi/Campbell Evil Dead franchise. Though I did not remember every twist in the plot, the soundtrack music, and the iconic scenes in Morningside mortuary were alive and well in my movie memory bank. The “Tall Man” feels like a precursor to the Slender Man of current “creepy pasta” fame.
So, without further delay, we take you into our past to share with you two films that still linger in our horror memories, and hold a place in our own movie collection. We welcome your own thoughts and comments about the this week’s Saturday Horror Movies, and would love to hear recommendations for future viewing choices. Feel free to drop a suggestion in the comments below, or send an email directly to email@example.com. Please note, no choice is too cheesy or possibly bad, we accept the challenge to watch them all, the good, the bad, the awful, the hilarious, and everything in-between.
Directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor
Poltergeist was my first real introduction into a cinematic family haunting story. It was a movie that heaped on the scares I had as a child, universal “kid fears” really, with the horrific clown doll, the tree that appears to have a face and outstretched arms inconveniently located right outside the children’s bedroom window, the monster in the closet, and finding yourself lost from your parents. We all had those fears as kids, some more tangible and visceral than others, and the filmmakers toyed with this in the film, bringing these terrors to life. I had a tree that loomed outside my bedroom window that when the moonlight hit just right seemed to have a face that stared in at me. I had those irrational closet fears, too, though I have to attest to never having a hideous clown doll in my possession. If I had I would have lost it quickly, something I still find myself puzzled at that Robbie doesn’t do, especially since the clown in question seems to terrify him even before the real terror begins.
Watching the film again as an adult, though, I found new fears tapped on that I hadn’t acknowledged, or really felt, before. The old kid fears have now manifested into parent fears, the fear of losing a child, of harm coming to your children, and worst of all, you not being able to do anything to save them. The idea of your children being terrorized, taken and toyed with, it is a miserable feeling to contemplate, and I felt the chills and innate fears that this movie dished out when watching it this time around. JoBeth Williams’ portrayal of Diane Freeling, a mother who traverses an emotional landscape that starts with curiosity and almost delight that turns fast into gut-level terror and desperation. Her performance and perspective got to me enough so that there were moments I actually had tears welling in my eyes.
The film starts us out with a glimpse into the family dynamic that makes up the Freelings. We are not just handed a cookie-cutter family, but we are given a realistic young-ish couple who have worked to have a nice home and stable life to raise their kids in, but who are still their own people, with insecurities that age brings, desires that still being into each other provides, and their share of relatable flaws. Diane and Steven are realistic to me, and not some overly-fictionalized, image of the “perfect” cinematic “mother and father”. The kids read real, too. They fight, they act selfishly (even after her sister has been stolen and their house is completely taken over by the dead, Dana, the eldest teen daughter, still manages to have time to make out with someone – as the very noticable hickey on her neck at the end of the film shows), they don’t listen, and they are scared of believable things like storms and clowns (really, why did Robbie keep the damn clown in the first place?). They even have a family dog.
The Freelings actually remind me a lot of the Lambert’s from the Insidious franchise from James Wan and Leigh Whannell, a commonality comparison that doesn’t stop there actually. A relatable family terrorized in their home and the taking of one of their children the basis of both films, both done in a way that feels real, even in the most unreal of moments. Its no wonder I love both films so much.
This time around watching Poltergeist I was taken by the adult’s story, Diane’s especially. She is the real hero in this film, the believer from the start, the strength that persists throughout all of the story, and the one who goes into the unknown to bring back her child.
JoBeth Williams was wonderful in this, her characterization of Diane both complex and realistic. Moments when she was communicating with Carol Anne through the television, when she was reacting to Carol Anne’s cries of terror that she could not soothe or help, when she feels Carol Anne move through her, and those last scenes, when she physically is kept away, over and over, from her kids, yet she still persists, screaming at the unknown forces to leave her children alone, are powerful moments that throw hefty emotional punches. Diane really is my favorite in this story.
I love her relationship with her husband, Steven, in this. Their playfulness at first, their shared strengths, their partnership, and the love that is obvious between them. I also really enjoy her interaction with psychologist/ghost hunter Dr. Lesh. The shared flask, the moments of honest admission of fear, the bond they seem to forge quickly is an interesting detail that I enjoy watching. Their is humor peppered into this film that is often missing in a lot of horror films today, but that I think really helps to make up the humanity in a story like this one.
The movie itself is filled with recognizable Spielberg-isms. Cinematic cues that are impossible to miss if you’ve seen any of his iconic films. There is the kiss in the glow of the closet turned portal between Diane and Steven, which is a recognizable silhouette that was used in E.T. (when Elliot kisses his blonde school mate in the same way that ET sees in the classic movie back at home) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (between Indy and Marion), and the scenes in the muddy swimming pool when Diane and the skeletons surface and face off which visually seems identical to some of the Indiana Jones scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are other moments, too, in the use of music, the planned community neighborhood which looks like the same one from E.T. (and actually is the same neighborhood that Spielberg later used in E.T.), and the sibling dynamics that are very Spielberg. I like it, though, being able to recognize these things, it adds this “insider” feel to the movie watching experience.
All in all, the movie still holds up and though it did not scare my daughters like it did me, they both enjoyed it – a lot.
Thoughts from my husband:
The film still holds up well as a family-friendly scary movie, one that you can still feel safe watching with your kids without having to worry about dealing with their nightmares. Its nice to see the atypical white family reaction to haunting has never changed, “what does one do when shit starts flying around your house? Make a game of it, rather than the logical time to get the hell out of Dodge reaction”. Besides “Coach” and the Mom, is anyone else who was in this film still alive?
A few fun facts:
The production crew used real human skeletons because it was cheaper to purchase them instead of plastic ones.
Steven Spielberg’s premise for Poltergeist was based on the history of Cheeseman Park in Denver, Colorado. The park was originally a cemetery, which was converted into a park during city beautification efforts in the early 20th century. The man hired to move the bodies scammed the city of Denver into overpaying him, and the city quickly ran out of funds to pay for moving the dead. With no money left in the coffers, the city decided to simply leave the remaining ‘residents’ buried in unmarked graves underneath the sod. The park was completed as scheduled, but supernatural occurrences have been reported ever since.
During all the horrors that proceeded while filming Poltergeist, only one scene really scared Heather O’Rourke: that in which she had to hold onto the headboard, while a wind machine blew toys into the closet behind her. She fell apart; Steven Spielberg stopped everything, took her in his arms, and said that she would not have to do that scene again.
Heather O’Rourke, who played the little girl Carol-Anne, and Dominique Dunne, who played the teenage daughter, are buried in the same cemetery: Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Dunne was strangled into brain-death by her boyfriend in 1982, the year of the film’s release. Six years later, O’Rourke died of intestinal stenosis.
JoBeth Williams had a supernatural experience during the making of the film. Whenever she came home from filming, the pictures on the walls of her house were crooked. Everytime she fixed them they would hang crooked again. Zelda Rubinstein also had an experience when a vision of her dog came to her and said goodbye to her. Hours later, her mother called her and told Rubinstein that her dog had passed away that very day.
The house used to film this movie is located in Simi Valley, California where it still stands today. The family who owned it when this movie was filmed still live there today.
Though on-screen credit goes to Tobe Hooper, a wealth of evidence suggests that most of the directorial decisions were made by Steven Spielberg. In fact, Spielberg had wanted to direct the film himself, but a clause in his contract stated that while still working on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Spielberg could not direct another film. Members of the cast and crew, including Executive Producer Frank Marshall and actress Zelda Rubinstein, have stated that Spielberg cast the film, directed the actors, and designed every single storyboard for the movie himself. Based on this evidence, the DGA opened a probe into the matter, but found no reason that co-director credit should go to Spielberg.
Despite being a horror/thriller film, there are no murders or fatalities depicted in the film. Body count: 1 (the bird in the cage. Tweety).
Directed and Written by Don Coscarelli
As I mentioned earlier, the memories I retained from this movie through the years were the music, which is immediately recognizable to me, and the iconic mortuary scenes at Morningside, including the stark surfaces, the silver orb, the Tall Man himself, and the cinematography of the framed shots whenever in Morningside, which add to the chilling suspense of the scenes as they unfold. Watching this again for the first time since the first time I saw the start of the Phantasm franchise I found myself noticing entire parts of the movie that I had no recollection of, which has me concluding that those missed scenes were probably not seen due to being distracted by making out with said boyfriend who brought the movie over to my house to watch together one night.
I did think that seeing the movie in it entirety would grant more of an understanding of the story, the motivation of The Tall Man, or deciphering of the ending, but it did not. The movie is oddly paced and leaves a myriad of questions unanswered, which can make one lose interest in the movie, as my oldest daughter did, or make for some interesting speculation and mutual looks of confusion, as my youngest daughter and my own reactions were made of. All that said, the movie is still an interesting watch, albeit a dated one, and cannot help to leave the viewer as off-kilter and on-edge as the movie itself is.
We start this film with a sex scene of sorts, a standard for many seventies horror and slasher films. I say “of sorts” because honestly when you look closely at the body positioning of the graveyard couple as they “get busy” you have to wonder how they can actually be having any kind of sex like that. It looks more like too bodies, splayed out flat, on top of each other. Whatever their half-hidden bodies are actually up to, the choice of location is a poor one, as is the guy’s choice in girl’s, because as we are soon to realize, she is really a disguised he, as in a gender and body shifting Tall Man hidden in the shape of a blonde, horror movie bombshell. If you blink though, you’ll miss the flash of identity revealed, and yes, even when you see it, it does leave you confused.
The blonde/Tall Man in disguise kills her sex partner and we are then given a glimpse into a Morningside hosted funeral. At said funeral we meet Reggie, the victim’s brother, and his prodigal son of a best friend, Jody, who has seemingly returned home after his own parents’ death to help take care of his thirteen year old brother. Jody is rather shitty at the whole parenting thing, and seems to be more parented by the thirteen year old, who fixes his car, drives said car, and shadows brother Jody to make sure he is okay. Their sibling relationship is an odd one, and though one could explain away the younger brother, Mike’s, obsession with Jody as part and parcel to his abandonment issues after losing his parents, it still borders on creepy when Mike follows Jody everywhere, spying on him at the bar, trying to sex up that cursed blonde in the cemetery (seriously, does anyone have indoor, non-graveyard sex in this town?) and even when Jody is just driving during the day.
Mike is spying on the funeral when he accidentally spies the Tall Man (this time not disguised as a sex-obsessed/murdering blonde) lift a heavy coffin by himself, and shuttle it away suspiciously in the back of a hearse, instead of putting it in the ground. The Tall Man is tall menacing, tall (obviously), lumbering, and full of unknowns. We never quite understand his motivations about anything, nor do we have any answers to what is in the other plane of existence, what he does with the corpses he steals away, or what he needs with Jawa-looking dwarfed versions of the dead.
Things happen, warnings and wishes are ignored as Mike becomes the late Seventies version of irst season Carl Grimes (i.e. The Walking Dead), never staying in the house, the car, his bedroom, the antique store (yes, that one was an odd choice), or ANYWHERE is brother asked him to stay safe within. The movie draws to a close and so many questions remain open and unanswered that its hard to feel that there was any ending at all. There is a twist, but because of all the other confusions it is hard to feel the twists impact. It does make me want to watch the rest of the series, even though I know that the franchise has still not answered all the questions. Maybe they will finally give us some closure when the fifth is released next year and we revisit the Morningside funeral home.
Thoughts from my husband:
With the upcoming release of Phantasm 5: Ravager (Yay! Finally! Final answers!), I was glad to sit through this being one of my favorite 70’s horror movie franchises, a franchise that has taken thirty-five years to conclude, and without a reboot! Angus Scrimm is just as an opposing figure as he was then, in 1979, not bad for a character who technically only had five lines in the entire film, one of which I still use on our son (“Boy!!!” <insert Tall Man bellow>). I only wish there had been some merchandising for this film, as I would love to own a blade-laden orb for our living room. You just can’t go wrong with a film that crams aliens, alternate worlds, living dead dwarfs and remote control killer balls in it.
A few fun facts:
The genesis of the story came to Don Coscarelli in a dream. One night, being in his late teens, he dreamed of fleeing down endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating his skull with a wicked needle. There was also a quite futuristic “sphere dispenser” out of which the orbs would emerge and begin chase.
Don Coscarelli got the idea of The Tall Man’s living severed finger while drinking from a styrofoam cup. He punched his finger through the bottom and started moving it. He loved the visual effect of it and decided to include it in the story.
The film was originally rated X by the MPAA because of the famous silver sphere sequence, and because of the man urinating on the floor after falling down dead. Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin made a phone call in a favor to a friend on the board. Thanks to him, Phantasm was downgraded from the original dreaded X-rating to a more acceptable R. Champlin’s positive review was quoted on the film’s promotional posters.
This film’s original running time was more than three hours, but writer/ director Don Coscarelli decided that that was far too long for it to hold people’s attention and made numerous cuts to the film. Some of the unused footage was located in the late 1990s and became the framework for Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998). The rest of the footage is believed to be lost.
There are several references to Frank Herbert’s Dune, including a bar named “Dune” and a scene where Mike is forced to insert his hand into a black box that inflicts pain as part of a test.
Co-Producer Paul Pepperman approached Angus Scrimm at a sneak preview of Kenny & Company (1976) and told him that Don Coscarelli had written a role for him in his next production. When informed that he would be playing an alien, Scrimm became very excited and immediately asked to know what country his character would hail from. Pepperman said: “He’s not from another country, he’s from another world.”