Weekly World MonsterVision 100% Weird Week of November 15, 1999

100% WEird

BEDLAM IN THE 'BURBS
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It seemed like a good idea at the time. Just bulldoze over an old sacred Indian burial ground and build a subdivision on top of it. That's what the real-estate developers do in Poltergeist and the unsuspecting Freeling family pays the price for it shortly after moving in. At first glance, the Freeling's new tract home looks indistinguishable from all the other houses in the neighborhood. But soon, what looks mundane and ordinary on the surface takes on a menacing quality. A backyard tree becomes a child-eating monster. A favorite doll tries to strangle its owner. A haunted mirror offers nightmare visions of your face after hands-on surgery. And television screens become the gateway to the spirit world.

Who actually directed Poltergeist continues to be a point of contention. Though Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is given screen credit and was probably responsible for the mechanical aspects of shooting, a close viewing of the film reveals Spielberg's fingerprints all over its aesthetics. As in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) clouds roll in as tension escalates, television broadcasts foreshadow plot developments, toys operate on their own and an out-of-this-world force abducts a small child. Echoing E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), a dog factors large as a symbol of domestic normalcy and a closet is at the heart of dramatic action. But the real giveaway may be Poltergeist's numerous allusions to Hollywood films — a Spielberg hallmark. For example, the 1943 back-from-the-dead movie, A Guy Named Joe (remade by Spielberg in 1989 as Always) is on the television in an early scene. Then there's Mrs. Freeling's line, "Mmmmm...Smell that mimosa," taken directly from The Uninvited (1944). Other Spielbergian elements: bright lights shining directly into the camera; well-lit, cheery scenes alternated with gloomy, dimly lit sequences; pans favored over cuts to reveal new information; and perspective-breaking dolly shots and zooms.

Finally, some argue, Poltergeist features Spielberg' s characteristic variation on Alfred Hitchcock's well-known stratagem: an ordinary but resilient family is placed in extraordinary circumstances. We leave it to you to discover more clues about the true authorship of this flick.

Besides the fact that this picture features one of the strangest collaborations on record — Hooper, Spielberg and Frank Marshall (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) — there is the strange series of deaths that plagued the series' cast and crew. Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest daughter in the first Poltergeist, was murdered by her live-in boyfriend shortly after completing the film. Julian Beck and Will Sampson, both supporting players in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), died shortly after that film was finished. And Heather O'Rourke, the 12 year-old star of all three Poltergeist films,died during a routine operation in 1988, making you wonder if this series really carries a curse.

Poltergeist received Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Effects Editing. One especially inventive effect was used for the scene at the end of the film in which a house gets sucked into a black hole. The building used was actually a highly detailed model, about 4 feet across. The camera was placed directly above the model, which was mounted over an industrial strength vacuum generator (the front door was facing directly up, straight at the camera). The model had about 100 wires attached to various points of the structure, which went down through the back of the house, and down through the vacuum collection sack. Once the camera was turned on and running at the required 300 frames per second, the cameraman gave the cue. The vacuum was turned on, the wires were yanked suddenly, and several SFX guys blasted the house with pump-action shotguns. The entire scene was over in about two seconds, and they had to wait until the film was developed before they knew if they would have to do it again. When played back at 24 fps, would take approximately 12 seconds for the house to collapse. Luckily, they got it right on the first go. Spielberg had the remains of the model encased in Perspex, and set it on his piano. The model itself, which took weeks to construct, was worth well over $25,000.

Poltergeist (1982)
Sunday, November 21 at 3:45 a.m. ET/PT
Rating: TV-14

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