Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Signs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A terrifying but hopeful film that suffers from a cultural divide but benefits from an incredible musical score.

Review:  There are some movies that stick with you.   Little bits of soundtrack, snippets of dialog, memorable images that excited or traumatized you.  Since before I can remember, I’ve had a bit of a problem with aliens; well, the pop culture conception of them as home-invading demons with psychosexual tendencies.  When I first saw Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’, it scared the hell out of me.  It was the sum of all my nightmares.   It didn’t end when the credits rolled; I kept seeing the monsters in my living room and in blank television screens, I heard their voices over my shoulder while that awful, brilliant music heralded their arrival.  ‘Signs’ was nightmare fuel unleaded.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that, even though it has some peculiar flaws, ‘Signs’ is one of my favorite films.   It’s because of the way that M. Night skillfully turns a horror story into an uplifting parable of the divine hand.  It’s my greatest fear and my greatest hope combined.   It still chills me at the right moments, but my newfound affection for it has dimmed the alien monsters in my peripheral vision.

‘Signs’ has a major flaw, a storytelling hiccup that defines the latter half of Shyamalan’s career thus far.   That is, he doesn’t speak the same language as most filmgoers.   He has a distinctly Eastern worldview, one that remembers the power of folklore and allows, in a childlike fashion, for leaps of logic.  A filmmaker risks it all on an audience’s capacity to understand the story he or she tells.   Shyamalan tells stories from another time and place, and doesn’t bother to explain the philosophy; probably because he can’t.  It’s a communication breakdown.  I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I breathed in Eastern philosophy along with the incense.   Shyamalan’s storytelling resonates with me.   He speaks a language I’m lucky enough to understand.   Most critics of his work, it seems to me, come from a Western, rationalist background, which values logic and clarity above all else.   The problem with ‘Signs’ is that it’s a Western movie with an Eastern soul, and that disconnect prevents the story from reaching everyone that it could.

The film’s cinematography is superb.   It feels like a Hitchcock film with a more dynamic camera.  The frame bleeds suspense.   But, of course, sound is half the picture; much like Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Psycho’ and John Williams’ score for ‘Jaws’, James Newton Howard’s jaw-dropping music is insanely good and exceeds the film’s own quality.  It is equally wonderful and twisted.   The mark of a good score, such as this one, is that it fires the imagination on all cylinders, even without the film.

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen out of vogue, but I’ll always think fondly of his distinct style, and I’ll continue to revisit this film again and again.

Classic Review: Jaws

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A mesmerizing, thrilling adventure that transcends the trappings of its genre.

I can almost guarantee youve seen this poster before.

I can almost guarantee you've seen this poster before.

Review:  Bah… dum.  Bah…. dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum.  Bah-dum. Bah-DUM!  Almost anyone you ask will identify the theme to this film, a testimony to the brilliance of a young John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with director Steven Spielberg.

This first film was ‘Jaws’.

Based on a popular novel, Spielberg’s clever adaption has earned a reputation entirely detached from its source material.  It’s an amazing testament to the production crew’s resilience that this film was ever finished.  They were beset with numerous problems from the get-go, but as necessity is the mother of invention, they managed to turn these lemons into a pitcher of suspenseful lemonade.  Audiences in 1975 clearly agreed, and the film became the very first bona-fide summer blockbuster.  It is clear that ‘Jaws’, due to its broad appeal and lasting popularity, is more than a horror film; it is a suspense masterpiece on the level of Alfred Hitchcock himself.

The film opens with what is arguably the most horrific moment of its entire narrative.  The death of a young woman, going for a midnight skinny-dip, is the only time I felt truly disturbed.  Granted, it’s bloodless and simply ends with her being pulled underwater, but the sound effects, music, and especially the young actress’ convincing performance makes it unwatchable.  It also proves only an implication is necessary; the minds of the audience members are quite adequate in deducing the lurid details.

After this, it picks up. Amity’s Police Chief, Martin Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, goes out to investigate the report of a body on the beach.  After discovering the woman’s remains, he immediately concludes that there is a killer shark on the loose, and sets out to close the beaches.  And now we are introduced to our first conflict, presented to Brody by the Mayor.  He warns that the July 4th weekend is coming up, and thus the beaches must stay open, for the sake of the town economy.  Amity’s biggest week can’t be shut down based on one isolated incident.  Brody, still skeptical, continues to lobby for closing the beaches, while the word gets out about the shark attack.

With the stage set, the filmmakers continue to up the threat- or possibly perceived threat- of the shark until it reaches a breaking point for Brody.  His own son is nearly killed by the shark, and he finally enlists the help of the eccentric fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw), and Matthew Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss).  The three men get on Quint’s boat, the Orca, and head out into open sea in search of the monster.

To this point in the film, the shark, a Great White, is never fully seen.  One day on the boat, Brody is instructed by Quint to throw out chum (dead fish and the various trappings of dead fish), in order to draw the shark.  It sure does, giving the audience- and Brody- quite a shock.  Brody quickly retreats to the cabin, and famously warns Quint, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”.  The men then spring into action, spotting the shark again and estimating its size to be around 25 feet long.  Brilliantly, in this film it doesn’t really matter that the shark is huge, as intimidating as that is.  Since footage of the shark is sparse, due to issues with the animatronic model they used during filming, the shark is more a presence or character than a monster.  You really believe it is out to get those men on the boat.

There is no disputing the fact that the film is quite terrifying, especially if you don’t know anything about it.  Every frame, once they are on the water, is wrought with underlying tension.  The shark is a constant threat.  Nevertheless, there is something that distinguishes it, for me, from being a horror film.  The tone is much closer to one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run adventures, such as ‘North by Northwest’, than that other Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho’.  Some of the shark’s victims do bleed, and some are dismembered, but I never got a sense of violence any more extreme than Spielberg’s later work, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, with one exception, that being the opening scene.

All things considered, ‘Jaws’ is very well crafted.  It has stood the test of time.  It’s a shame that when filmmakers nowadays want to thrill moviegoers with a scary movie, they resort to sadistic, self-parodying schlock films in the vein of ‘Saw’ or ‘Friday the 13th’ as opposed to a genuine adventure like ‘Jaws’.  An adventure, if it is truly an adventure, should be scary.  There’s nothing wrong with having a film that respects human life whilst instilling genuine suspense.  I suppose that’s what truly separates ‘Jaws’ from horror… a filmmaker who knew the audience was there to have fun, not be disgusted.  Sort of like Hitchcock.

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Classic Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  Harrison Ford’s definitive action hero role shines in his debut, arguably the best adventure film of all time.

Heck yes.

Heck yes.

Review:  I first saw ‘Raiders’ when I was about 9 or 10, on VHS.  It scared me to death.  The film’s many surprises, and especially its horrific climax, terrified me.

Now, it’s one of my favorite movies.

The first colloboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas opened in 1981, shattering box office records set by the creators of the film themselves.  Combining Spielberg’s steller direction, understanding of suspense, and whimsical imagination, with Lucas’ inventive story, delivered a one-two punch that is yet to be equalled.

The film used elements of the action/adventure cliffhanger serials of the 1930s to breath life into the action genre.  Indiana Jones, a graverobbing archaeologist, was the protagonist.  Combining James Bond and Humphrey Bogart, he borrowed elements from the heroes of the serials, including a bullwhip from Zorro and a hat from countless others.  The fedora, Jones’ iconic headgear, went on to become his symbol.  Now the fedora is synomymous with Indiana Jones.

The film’s pacing is superb.  There is never a dull moment.  Spielberg uses techniques derived from Alfred Hitchcock to infuse ‘Raiders’ with constant peril.  The action scenes, where some of the most iconic moments where planned on-set, are often parodied or homaged.  In particular the stunt in which Indy slides under a German truck while it is motion, and then works his way back into the cabin.  By understating the action, and keeping it grounded, what might be pedestrian in another movie comes across as mind-blowing in this one.

I mentioned the horror element.  It’s not that the film is extremely frightening, though it is for some children, but that the film critically uses small amounts of blood, gore, and scares to keep you on edge.  The worst scene is the climax, which depicts a man’s face melting off his bones, among other things.  Though rated PG, if it were released today it would earn a PG-13 rating.  Some minor cuts kept it from an R during its initial release.  This is a fun movie, in the vein of ‘Star Wars’, but is much more mature.  It’s not a kids movie, but don’t feel bad about letting teenagers see it.

The film is followed by three sequels, which I will review in the future.  I like parts of all those movies, but ‘Raiders’ is the one I admire the most.