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.

Classic Review: The Shining

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Shockingly effective, if not always horrifying.

Review:  Very strange things take place in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’; and it’s certainly extreme in its depiction of isolation-induced insanity, its suspenseful build-up, and its violent and graphic imagery.  But I’m just not sure if any of it was really frightening.

A young couple agrees to spend the winter caretaking a remote hotel hidden deep within the mountains.  For husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, this seems a perfect place to work on his new novel, with plenty of solitude and time on his hands.  As the winter settles in, however, he begins acting strangely towards his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and it seems he is cracking under cabin fever.  Not only that, but it seems the hotel itself, scarred by a violent and dark past, is calling out to him, sending him twisted visions and messages.  Danny, who possesses a unique telepathic gift called “Shining”, is also receiving strange, horrific visions.  It’s only a matter of time before both the elements and the supernatural push these people to their breaking point.

That’s the gist of the story, but while watching the movie it’s rather difficult to figure out what exactly is going on.  Because of the dual ideas of dementia and paranormal activity, the film has a way of confusing the audience, making them wonder what’s real and what’s imagined.  Are these people really seeing ghosts, or is it all in their heads?  Are evil spirits driving Jack, or has he just snapped under the isolation?  They are interesting questions that are, unfortunately, left unanswered.  Granted, such ambiguity is a trademark of director Stanley Kubrick, so I suppose I can’t be all that surprised.

This is, of course, one of only thirteen films made by Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime, and it certainly shows Kubrick’s strong direction.  He was man of unique ideas and opinions, and they always showed through in his works.  It’s possible he had some particularly weird notions about this film.  According to Kubrick himself, any story involving ghosts was inherently “optimistic” because it seemed to promise a life after death.  In that weird sense, ‘The Shining’ is a hopeful, arguably religious experience.  Do I really think this film is optimistic?  No, the idea of “optimism” in a film about evil spirits, simply because they imply eternal life, is a sad irony, and I doubt Kubrick was going for that.

There’s a lot in this movie that’s gruesome and mysterious.  It has a spine-chilling score and weird cinematography at times.  Nicholson gives a truly creepy performance as Jack grows ever more deranged.  It all should be scary, but I just didn’t think it was.  It’s not that I was bored or uninvolved; I just wasn’t terrified.  Something about the film didn’t tie all the elements together.  Granted, there were some very shocking moments, and the idea of the film certainly has great potential, but the overall story didn’t scare me the way it should have.  Things felt too distant.  The characters were strange and far away to me.  I guess I wasn’t as involved with them as I was with mysteries of the hotel they were in, and it’s hard to feel afraid for characters you don’t feel much for.

Even if it’s not particularly scary overall, this is still a solid, suspenseful, and very entertaining film.  A strong story (based on Stephen King’s original novel) with unique camera work and music, coupled with really great work on Nicholson’s end, make it a classic in my book.  One watch will promise at least a few shocking moments, and you might just find yourself surprisingly engaged in the story, even if you have no problems going to bed that night.

Classic Review: The Sixth Sense

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A thoughtful, philosophical horror film that’s one of the best ever made.

Review:  Of all the films nominated for Best Picture, only four have been horror films; ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Jaws’, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Sixth Sense’.  What these works have in common is that they use horror as a gateway into otherwise inaccessible realms of human drama, in contrast to the low-brow horror film which promotes fear for fear’s sake.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ attempts to open the minds of the audience to the weight of human beings on their world.  Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s undeniable that the dead have a far-reaching influence on the lives of their loved ones and the places they inhabited.  The belief in ghosts is the belief that this influence is not limited to the past.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ counters the use of ghost stories for cheap scares with the conviction that true horror lies in the breakdown of communication between human beings, living and dead.

The central relationship is between Bruce Willis’ character, a child psychologist named Malcolm, and Haley Joel Osment’s character, a profoundly disturbed little boy named Cole.  All ghost stories are fundamentally about the collision between past and future.  Malcolm’s tragic past entangles him, and it creates a rift between him and Cole, whose ability to lucidly experience the supernatural both empowers and cripples him.

Cole’s subverted wide-eyed wonder is the fountainhead of the film’s horror and plays in a very Spielbergian manner.  It’s a remarkably simple premise and a testament to the proper use of ideas.  Too many films lack a powerful idea at the center and thus attempt to patch up their flaws with a thousand weak concepts.  Shyamalan, whatever his flaws, has steadfast faith in his simplest ideas, which is more than most filmmakers can show.  It’s that faith that has a hypnotic effect on the audience and makes cinema work.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ is slow, measured, and thoughtful, letting suspense build and the characters breathe and feel real.

It’s common in the postmodern world to deny the supernatural, but the belief in ghosts, true or not, says something profound about what people think of each other.  Ghosts are often seen as invaders, intruding on everyday life with the whispers of an unresolved past.  They’re scary because they’re people like us.  Perhaps in today’s world, we no longer believe in ghosts for the same reason we find it difficult to speak to our neighbors.  We want insulation.  Jean Paul Satre believed that hell was other people, and it’s a prevailing idea; hauntings suggest that we live in a very crowded hell.

‘The Sixth Sense’ is one of the best horror films ever made.  It’s paradoxically mature and child-like, which is the condition we’ll need to embrace if we want to start believing in ghosts again.