Our last view of Don Draper was on a cliff somewhere near Big Sur in 1970, a moment of total peace leading to the eureka of the legendary ‘Hilltop’ Coke ad in his mind. And as significant as that is, as perfect an ending as it remains, there are things we’ll never know. We’ll never get to see how things went between him and Peggy when he returned. We’ll never find out what happened to Megan’s acting career, or to the long-departed Sal for that matter. We’ll never know if Don watched ALL IN THE FAMILY when it came on or what he thought of NETWORK. And we’ll never know what he thought of Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT, which had of course opened in February 1970, months before the series finale even took place. If Don had seen it, and since way back in season 2 he talked about LA NOTTE it’s possible he might have, it’s not at all a stretch to think something in the film may have helped to trigger the odyssey he took during the final episodes. Of course, whether he would have even made it much past the first half hour is open to question. Maybe he might have even decided against going at all after reading the review in The New York Times where Vincent Canby called it “a movie of stunning superficiality”. Roger Ebert, for his part, declared it “silly and stupid” but it’s not as likely that Don Draper would have been looking up film reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times.
45 years later, ZABRISKIE POINT has its admirers or at least a few people who feel like they have to see it again and again in an attempt to pierce the skin of what it’s trying to say. Or at least there’s me, maybe trying to figure out just what this film, released a little over a year before I hit the scene, is still doing in my brain. ZABRISKIE POINT was the one film Michelangelo Antonioni made in the U.S., coming off the huge acclaim and success of BLOW UP several years earlier. His own anti-narrative approach combined with the facilities of MGM at his disposal makes the film unique, a foreign film made in the U.S., a Hollywood studio picture made by someone with total power and yet zero interest in making a ‘Hollywood’ film. It’s a time capsule now whether it’s an accurate portrayal of the era or not as well as a film that possibly hates itself for existing. That it even got made was maybe only possible at that specific moment in time, when the studios were desperately trying to figure out what would possibly make money, that brief period when they were all trying to recreate EASY RIDER but it turned out most everyone wanted to see AIRPORT. In the first half of season 7, set in early 1969, Don Draper went to see Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP would could almost be considered the anti-ZABRISKIE POINT, a film made by a foreigner that finds beauty where Antonioni categorically rejects it, specifically in the city of Los Angeles and some of its people. He apparently not only doesn’t like it there, the feelings seem to go deeper than that as if he’s getting fuel out of his own hatred for the place and everything it represents, striving to find ugliness within beauty. Whether he’s arguing against the very nature of consumerism, everything about the capitalistic way of life found there or if he simply doesn’t like mid-century modernist architecture is something I’m still a little unsure about. In some ways I’m still unsure what to make of ZABRISKIE POINT even after all this time. But as a song that Don Draper once shut off reminded us, Tomorrow Never Knows.
After walking out of a protest meeting saying that he’s ready to die for the revolution, “but not of boredom”, Mark (Mark Frechette) is thrown in jail when trying to bail out a friend arrested at a demonstration. Soon after he purchases several guns for his involvement with the campus protests. When he gets caught up in one of the riots and pulls his gun, a cop is shot although it’s unclear if Mark is the one who pulled the trigger. Meanwhile Daria (Daria Halprin), working as a secretary for the Sunny Dunes Real Estate company, is driving across the desert to a Phoenix meeting involving her boss, Sunny Dunes executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor) and who is in the middle of a massive project to build a resort out in the desert for the rich to live and play away from the smog of the city. On the run from the police, Mark steals a small plane and flies out over the desert where he eventually encounters Daria, buzzing her car in an act of flirtation. The two talk and eventually find their way to Zabriskie Point, the lowest spot in the United States, which represents something they’re about to discover together.
Before his death director Krzysktof Kieslowski talked of making a trilogy depicting Heaven, Purgatory and Hell—he reportedly wanted to set the last film in Los Angeles, but it may not have been necessary since in some ways Antonioni had already made that film as ZABRISKIE POINT. Written by Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe, it’s America (or, more specifically, Los Angeles and the nearby desert) as stark landscape, full of billboards and smog and freeways and guns and factories (including a sign for Bethlehem Steel, a company that was a plot point on a season one MAD MEN). The imagery is placed up against what was going on at the time which is something that Antonioni seems to only partly understand, taking two non-entities meant to represent the struggle going on between the separate halves of this world and they don’t seem much different from the mannequins featured in a Sunny Dunes commercial that we see. It’s the stark Antonioni look at the world with all the alienation that exists crossed with a cinema vérité look at the surroundings crossed with the undeniable awkwardness that becomes apparent the instant the lead character speaks his first line of dialogue.
And as much as the prolonged opening sequence which features actual revolutionaries of the time arguing over their goals (including Kathleen Cleaver and several Black Panthers) it’s not clear whether Antonioni has any actual interest in the politics of the day or if he just wants to show the futility in what was happening then in order to display some combination of contempt, pity and hatred for the people who live in this world. He never quite seems interested in what the lives of any of the characters would be like just as he’s not particularly interested in the geography of the city or what surrounds it, what it’s really like to live there or even the simple passage of time. There are protests on the unnamed campuses which contain what appears to be some actual documentary footage (Kent State happened several months after the film’s release), Vietnam is mentioned on the radio and anyone wearing a uniform, whether a police officer or even a lowly security guard, is a flat out Bad Guy. The revolutionaries, meanwhile, don’t seem to have any alternatives beyond their bickering. The film feels like it wants to be of the moment and yet it has little interest in strict realism—the majority of the story seems to be set over one day but it would have to be an impossibly endless one considering how much transpires before the sun goes down. Maybe the very nature of Los Angeles renders all of that irrelevant to Antonioni and soon after Mark flies off, giving us some impressive looks at the freeways below (including where the 10 connects with the 110, showing us how different downtown looked back then) the film soon leaves the city behind almost entirely.
The desert is where it heads to, breaking away from all that, and just as the real place is, ZABRISKIE POINT the film is also a blank for you to put anything you want onto it but after many viewings it still feels a little too much like an ink blot that isn’t formed enough for me to make a guess at. With some of Antonioni’s films a complex response isn’t the problem, letting me to soak into LA NOTTE as I ponder everything in life imaginable while losing myself in all the imagery. My continued reaction to ZABRISKIE POINT is more complicated as I’m always trying to find something in there to latch onto, mesmerized by certain moments but I find myself getting lost amidst all the dialogue that I can’t quite make out, but it doesn’t matter anyway, along with all that Pink Floyd music on the soundtrack.
Questions about plot and character are basically admitting that I’m thinking too much about realism but I can’t help it. Does Mark really know how to fly a plane or in the Antonioni universe does he just climb in and start it up? Daria is temping at Sunny Dunes then in the blink of an eye has some sort of relationship with Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen-- is she a private secretary he’s taken a friendly interest in? Something more personal? The real estate office is an intriguing, if fairly simplistic, metaphor (with a muzak version of the old standard “Don’t Blame Me” playing in the lobby—don’t blame Sunny Dunes for what they’re doing, that’s someone else’s problem) and the imagery of Rod Taylor looking out at the desert that he hopes to develop has a power to it, we feel how conflicted he is as the deal is possibly falling apart but too much isn’t clarified. Basically this film’s version of Don Draper, it’s frustrating how much his few minutes of screen time imply an unexpected dimension to things which never feels resolved, placed up against the blank personas of the two leads that presumably represent the blanks of the youth. Elements throughout are intriguing but not entirely clarified--Daria goes looking for a town she doesn’t know the name of, presumably where some sort of meditation center is, only to learn she’s already there and encounters a group of feral kids roaming around but never the person she’s looking for, ends abruptly too. Too often, the points are obscured or obvious and some bit parts that are clearly meant to portray the crassness of Americans, like a pair of tourists whose only response to the beauty of Zabriskie Point is that a drive-in would do great business there, feel like they belong in one of Richard Lester’s SUPERMAN sequels.
The leads are blanks and the plot they’re in is a blank, with a meaning that falls between nothing and something, whatever you want it to be. For all that’s said about whether or not Mark shot the cop ultimately the answer to that doesn’t matter. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He doesn’t seem to care and maybe the film doesn’t either. After Mark decides to return the plane to Los Angeles and Daria’s response to the aftermath of his decision, there is of course the legendary ending of ZABRISKIE POINT which involves a house growing out of the natural rock as if like an alien virus, the most stunning piece of architecture you’ve ever seen and a desecration of the earth all at once, looking out over the desert which represents the Eden they’re hoping to destroy. Daria spots a few women lounging near the pool without a care in the world, presumably the wives of the executives meeting inside, and we can barely make out what they’re saying but it doesn’t matter. They’re not human. The endless explosion and materialistic aftermath set to Pink Floyd’s “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up” that we get to witness during this climax may be the only thing some people know about the film, is its own APOCALYPSE NOW ending years before Coppola got his shot at it. Multiple angles on that house, a TV, a refrigerator, a closet full of clothes, a loaf of Wonder Bread, magazines, an enormous bookcase (Books? You lost me, Antonioni. What’s wrong with books?), everything about the evils of capitalism done anyway with. I’m never bored by it for a second and yet there’s a poison to the film that I can’t deny, it’s a film about what it hates and doesn’t offer much of an alternative.
That’s all how I feel. It’s the truth. But the more I watch ZABRISKIE POINT the more I’m drawn to it, fascinated by it. There isn’t another film like it, not even other Antonioni films. Forget the acting, forget the story, just watch the film and the jaw-droppingly astonishing cinematography both in the city and desert by Alfio Contini. Freeze on any random shot. Construct any film around that shot. Find the story, the meaning, in that moment, how the people connect with the environment from moment to moment. Maybe it does what a film should do. I can watch ZABRISKIE POINT compulsively knowing that it’s ugly and beautiful and haunting and essential. It’s a Los Angeles that I don’t want to visit and yet I know I live there and don’t want to be anywhere else. I can’t stop watching it because I’m trying to figure it out while as much as I don’t want to hear the message I suspect there’s some truth to it. The movie goes out there in a way few films ever do, even if it does go too far out on the ledge, with billboards that are everywhere and the messages the give off creates everyone’s lives, so they want nothing more than lots of mayo on their sandwiches. If the imagery was meant at time to portray any sort of exaggeration, whether satirical or otherwise, it doesn’t play as that now and a few brief moments in gun stores are even sadder in that realization. It feels like for the director it boils down to two sides: the revolutionaries who are fighting over nothing as the cops close in while the rich are interested in just getting richer (of course, the more things change…). No matter how irrevocably dated it may be in every sense of that word it feels like it still means something now.
But there is the feel that Antonioni began the film with the idea that he hated what he was portraying and never changed his mind which gives it all an unfortunate sense of stasis. The film begins with its male lead turning his back on organized revolution and ends with the female lead, the one who has an eye towards the future unlike the self-destructive Mark, turning her back on both the more organized power structure and her own fantasy of destroying it. It’s a reflection of the time she spent with Mark and how they each viewed the desert—she saw peace, he saw death. In the end, turning your back from that hate towards the sunset, towards the promise of a new day, might be the healthiest response. But maybe that message isn’t enough. The other key scene in the film is the legendary orgy (because just as the explosion is ZABRISKIE POINT, the orgy is as well) where she and Mark begin to make love in the sand, leading to countless other people just appearing, joining in with them. The sequence features members of the Open Theater, a New York experimental group, and it seems to signify both everything and nothing imaginable.
Whether by accident or design many of the others involved could almost be doubles for Mark and Daria as if the film is saying that the future begins here thanks to these two meeting up in this place, that they are in effect everyone, in addition to how we’re basically watching a lengthy orgy sequence. It makes me think of the famous Coke ad, the one Don Draper apparently came up with, which was conceived a year after ZABRISKIE POINT played theaters and the message it gives off of hope and inclusion is the polar opposite. Don Draper’s idea presumably led him back to the world of advertising, yes, and however cynical that might be is open to debate. But however poisonous Antonioni clearly believed creating such a message that way was, it’s also a very clear message. With ZABRISKIE POINT Antonioni is presenting a question mark without either a clear question or answer. Maybe if Don Draper saw the film he realized that he needed to get his message across. And as Joan Holloway (well, maybe someone else too) once said, the medium is the message.
If Antonioni wasn’t interested in having actors for his leads, is it necessary to discuss the performances? When Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, both dead in the eyes, finally come together out there in the desert, exchanging dialogue about heroes and villains that’s supposed to mean everything it’s as much of a void as what they’re staring out at. They may be unknowns, they may both be good looking, but it’s all one big blank, an intentional void at the center of the film. In fairness, they both have a few off the cuff moments that feel slightly genuine even while neither one ever seems entirely sure how to compose themselves in front of the camera. The endlessly silent, enigmatic looks Daria Halprin gives off during the last 20 minutes almost pays off but maybe you just need Monica Vitti for that to work. And as beautiful as she is, she's no Monica Vitti. Along with the few beats that Rod Taylor gets to do something with here and there, character actor Paul Fix (many western credits as well as playing the Enterprise doctor in the second STAR TREK pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) in his brief role as the Ballister café owner brings an undeniable feel of truth to what he’s saying about what’s happening to his town but naturally the film loses interest in him pretty quickly.
One person who might not be in the film is Harrison Ford even though various sources have him appearing briefly although though no one can say where—apparently he did audition for the film just as he almost played the lead in MODEL SHOP, another way the two films can be connected. Incidentally, the film has a fascinating history, more than I can go into here ( for starters, the Sept 1992 Film Comment article Michelangelo and the Leviathan: The Making of ZABRISKIE POINT by Beverly Walker is particularly valuable) as do some of the people who were involved—Antonioni’s next film in 1975 was the acclaimed THE PASSENGER starring Jack Nicholson. Frechette and Halprin eventually broke up after living together for some time in a commune. Frechette was later arrested after a bank robbery along with two other members of that cult and died after a suspicious weight-lifting accident in prison. Halprin married Dennis Hopper and had one child before their divorce in 1976 after which she co-founded the Tamalpa Institute which focuses on expressive arts education and therapy. Rod Taylor’s career continued on after this, making his final appearance playing Winston Churchill in INGLOUIOUS BASTERDS. He sadly died earlier this year at age 85.
Then again, maybe Don Draper didn’t see ZABRISKIE POINT after all—maybe MAD MEN actually exists somewhere within the film’s continuity which would let Don and Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen meet up eventually. Maybe it would turn out Elizbeth Reaser’s Diana who Don became briefly obsessed with is actually Daria’s older sister so Don and Lee hire INHERENT VICE’s Doc Sportello to find both of them. See, I really have been thinking about all this way too much. I can’t find confirmation that originally Antonioni wanted to end the film with a plane sky-writing “FUCK YOU AMERICA” but one interesting point about is that the ending on the U.S. DVD is apparently not his preferred version, instead an alteration that MGM made at a certain point during the film’s unsuccessful release. It seems that while his curtain call had a reprise of the Pink Floyd track fade up during the ‘END’ title card, MGM inserted a newly written Roy Orbison track (which is not mentioned during the song listings in the opening credits) ‘So Young’. It brings a feel of serenity and acceptance to that final moment, in how the lyrics try to convince us that “Zabriskie Point is anywhere”—oddly, the lyric “If you live just for today/today will soon be done” ties in with much of Don Draper’s philosophy through the years—but it feels like the opposite of anything the film itself is trying to say. Antonioni’s ending is more insistent, more of a piece with what we just saw, as if saying that the revolution of the mind can somehow continue into the real world. Either way, as Daria drives off into that sunset she’s heading towards the 70s which I suppose in the context of this film means she drives off to nowhere. Maybe when it comes to ZABRISKIE POINT the best thing to do is just kick back with the desert footage, absorb yourself in the music and try not to reconcile the myriad elements because you really can’t, not with a straight face anyway. Like when I watch this film and find myself wondering, what does anything mean? Does anything really matter while these billboards are starting down at me? Maybe if I ever figure that out I’ll never have to see ZABRISKIE POINT again. But I don’t know what the point of that would be.
POLTERGEIST and E.T. feel irrevocably connected to each other and that’s just the way it is. The reasons are obvious and just as intertwined, particularly that Spielberg suburbia north of Los Angeles in some Simi Valley neighborhood that I’ve never ventured, making it feel as if both films are taking place right down the street from each other. They each also came out in the summer of ’82, only a week apart--POLTERGEIST came first, notching a strong opening weekend even though it was released the same day as the all-holy STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN while E.T. had it a little easier the following Friday opposite GREASE 2. E.T. owned the world in the blockbuster summer of ’82 but doesn’t seem to have the same sort of cachet these days, maybe because it’s too sentimental, maybe because everyone just had enough of the thing by a certain point. It’s also long been blamed on the concurrent box office failures of the R-rated BLADE RUNNER and THE THING that same month and those films becoming officially sanctioned classics by now feels like someone atoning for some sort of cinematic sin that was committed (in truth, I’m kind of an E.T. agnostic but that’s a conversation for another time).
In addition to its ongoing popularity POLTERGEIST maintains an unending air of mystery due to people wanting to know just what went down on set between producer Steven Spielberg, who had not yet begun principal photography on E.T. at the time, and director-of-record Tobe Hooper with many reaching the conclusion that the fingerprints of Spielberg are just too obvious to ignore. But people still ask those questions, as if trying to solve the unanswered mysteries of our own childhood, something we really should have moved on from long ago, holding on to the hope that someone who’s still around will eventually write a tell-all book or do an audio commentary. There are films I’ve seen way too many times by now to get much from and POLTERGEIST may be one of them—it’s basically the equivalent of an Eagles song that I wish the classic rock station would just stop playing already. So is there anything left to say about POLTERGEIST or is it an evergreen beyond any sort of commentary?
There’s definitely not much point in spending time on a plot synopsis about the Freelings of the Cuesta Verde Estates and how their idyllic suburban existence is shattered when supernatural forces apparently abduct daughter Carol Anne, leading to the horrible secrets they discover about their beautiful home. A look at the doing away with of 60s ideals and how 70s cover-ups gave way to the corruption of the 80s, the decade is clearly forming in POLTERGESIST. With a plot (story by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor) that focuses on the tearing apart of the family in the one place where everything is supposed to be secure, it’s about an America that just wants to put the past away and sell out so everything can look the same, letting them just fall asleep in front of the TV, which is the one part of the house that matters most, after drinking too much beer. Unlike, say, the working class middle American couple played by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson’s Diane and Steve Freeling apparently have some sort of counter-culture past that they’ve buried except for those nights when Diane brings out the joints while Steve reads about Reagan to rid himself of the way he was back when he ‘had an open mind’ once and for all (while A GUY NAMED JOE, later remade by Spielberg as ALWAYS, plays on the TV). Presumably this was a past when 16 year-old Diane gave birth to their first daughter, now 16 herself--I always imagine there was a break after having Dana so young considering the gap between her and the other kids so she never seems to be treated as more than a visiting relative by the family. Whatever the story is involving Dana it feels like the stuff that would interest Spielberg the least and it’s a background that feels drained out as the running time goes on in order to make them basically another suburban family in the movies.
That background at least roots POLTERGEIST in some sort of time-frame, even if it doesn’t matter that much; both films may be set in the early 80s but E.T. doesn’t have much interest in the specifics of the era beyond pop-culture ephemera and makes no bones about how its adult characters are essentially as irrelevant as the teachers in old Peanuts cartoons. POLTERGEIST, on the other hand, while it contains some of those same pop culture signposts (did the Freelings really let their kids see ALIEN?), is about the terror and desperation felt by the adults in trying to protect their children while feeling very much aware of the yuppie rot sprouting up at the beginning of the Reagan era to terrorize the American Dream. Everything’s going to be ok, says E.T., childhood can be eternal if you want it to be and that’s all that matters. POLTERGEIST seems to know that it’s not so easy. It’s a film that doesn’t have any answers. The film’s best, most potent moments are when the adults realize just how powerless they really are.
The director gets “A Tobe Hooper Film” during the opening credits but they also take the time to declare itself “A Steven Spielberg Production” at both the beginning and close of the film and I wonder if that’s a violation of some DGA bylaw. Of course, I’m hardly the first person to speculate who really directed POLTERGEIST and there’s not much point in pretending to reach a grand conclusion in regards to who’s responsible for what. There are elements that feel like Hooper, much as they’re overshadowed by the film’s producer. But it’s all just guesswork. Of course, different people who worked on the film have provided different answers when asked through the years and each one of them would have a different perspective anyway—Jerry Goldsmith, for one, was quoted as saying he never worked with Hooper at all and since Spielberg’s regular editor Michael Kahn cut this film (E.T. was in other hands) that of course causes one to reach certain conclusions.
Whatever the absolute truth is, the lived-in world of POLTERGEIST brings to it the right tone and adds immeasurably to its believability. The cluttered Freeling home has a natural feel that every Spielberg family, doesn’t right down to the eerie quiet after the kids head out to school. The plotting never feels too calculated and gets down to business surprisingly fast, with a pace that makes every second count as the tension of the first half-hour builds and we get to know the family (makes me think of that early scene which has always concluded with an odd edit—it’s been there whenever I’ve seen it in 35mm too). The film shows its affection for them while still maintaining a playful way of teasing us, whether the iconic use of that clown doll seated near Robbie’s bed or even that shot of the chair immediately after it’s pulled across the floor which makes it seem like an actual character for a brief instant. The film clearly enjoys itself in laying out the jump scares—even after all these years, when the big tree attack first happens it always occurs a few beats before I think it will. We know it’s happening eventually but Robbie doesn’t and the lack of buildup at that particular moment, almost as if the movie is willingly jumping ahead of itself, works beautifully. There is the feel that we’re also skipping past a few big chunks to keep up that pace—I always imagine more scenes of Steven at work and I can’t help but picture somebody ripping ten pages of emotional breakdown and police investigations out of the script during filming to cut to the chase faster, reminding me of how the original cut of THE EXORCIST cut out the doctor’s examination because William Friedkin knew all that was just a waste of time.
The pop nature of POLTERGEIST means there isn’t that much of a feeling of dread in this suburbia outside of ominous clouds telling us what’s coming—Steven Freeling may drink too much beer but this isn’t THE SHINING, after all. Even when the door is opened for the big rescue of Carol Anne we’re greeted with wind and flashing lights instead of horrific imagery to keep everyone away. But amidst all the light and sound and ILM effects work and monologues from Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina Barrows it’s surprisingly small scale for what was once thought of as a summer blockbuster so what sticks out are the small moments that build to the gradual fracturing of this family, showing that in the Spielberg universe that’s a more horrifying occurence than anything having to do with the supernatural. Whatever the true motives of the spirits they’re nothing compared to the real world personified by the great James Karen (previously in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and later in NIXON, making him as ideal a figure of big business corruption imaginable) as Steven’s boss Mr. Teague—his phrasing of how they’re moving the cemetery by stating, “It’s just…people.” is so beautifully cold in how he can’t even refer to the residents of that cemetery as “they”. Things. Not individuals. They don’t matter.
There are points when I’m most interested in the characters are just being observed during the silent moments, particularly the kids, holding on Oliver Robins’ Robbie as it creates almost a full character arc out of that silence or Dominique Dunne’s Dana crying that she can’t stay in the house any longer. And maybe because the iconic nature of Zelda Rubenstein’s Tangina has become so connected to the franchise I now find myself wondering more about less flashy spinster Beatrice Straight’s pre-GHOSTBUSTERS parapsychologist Dr. Lesh and her flask of whiskey, an interesting type of character that summer movies don’t care about anymore, one who doesn’t get to do much in her last moments onscreen beyond stare lovingly at this couple, a fulfilling life that she in her stuffy academia never got to experience. Again, these outside forces are almost more of a threat to the family like Lesh’s colleague Marty (played by Martin Casella, Spielberg’s assistant on RAIDERS) wrongly raiding the Freeling’s fridge late at night looking for a steak. It’s not his house--then again, the house doesn’t belong to any of them--but he’s even more of an intruder than the Freelings are and he pays the price for it. Plus tying it all together is the score by Jerry Goldsmith (presumably because John Williams was on E.T.) which feels almost psychically connected to the characters in its emotion—if it’s not one of the best Goldsmith scores ever it at least contains one of the best cymbal crashes in a Goldsmith score ever. We never follow Diane into the closet when she goes to retrieve Carol Anne but that score almost convinces us we have, it tells us what it looks like, what it feels like.
It’s a case where I’m not entirely sure if POLTERGEIST still works because I’m so damn familiar with it or if it just works. Even after all these years I’m a little hazy on the whole go into the light/don’t go into the light confusion that throws things for a loop briefly during the Tangina setpiece, as if they’re just trying to give that part of the plot busy work before the inevitable happens. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Whatever the parental origins, it’s hard enough to make a film that works as well as this one does after all these years. Plus it takes cojones for any film to reach a narrative point where anyone would by any logic would ever go back in the house after what’s happened, allowing the climax to take place. Maybe we buy it because the film knows it has to happen, for this family to break away from Cuesta Verde completely in the end it has to isolate them from the experts who supposedly knew everything and even their annoying neighbors who couldn’t care less. Maybe I buy it because I’ve seen the film so many times already.
The climax finally pays off a lot of what we’ve been waiting for, including the attack of JoBeth Williams which skirts the edge of R-rated sleaze, something you can imagine Tobe Hooper doing something with if he could have, but avoids it in favor of the ROYAL WEDDING-styled effects as she’s dragged up to the ceiling. Maybe they’re Spielberg ghosts, so they wouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing anyway. The climax throws everything it can at both us and the family, as if the ghosts know this is their one last chance, and it does it in the best ‘haunted house’ fashion. Maybe any problems that occurred during production helped to allow the film to be that much more effective, that much more human, making all those special effects having even more of an impact at times. And whoever it was specifically responsible for directing James Karen’s wordless final scene, the result is every bit as memorable as the quite frankly jaw-dropping implosion of the house. One friend of mine has long been convinced that Dominique Dunne’s Dana, seen incessantly eating at various points, is pregnant throughout the entire film and I’m pretty sure he’s right. She’s her mother’s daughter after all and she’s got a giant hickey on her neck at the end to prove it, just like the one Diane’s father used to check her for. The world of POLTERGEIST is one big circle and no matter how much we try to flee to some lush suburbia to avoid who we are there’s no escaping the past. We’re part of the family we’re born into and eventually we all have to deal with the bodies that have been buried a little too close whether we deserve it or not.
Again, part of the success of the film lies in the performances which keep things grounded during those stretches when the effects threaten to take things over. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are always a completely believable couple and so much of how they interact with each other feels totally genuine. Points to the film as well for giving Williams a slightly stronger role and she’s just wonderful while Nelson never seems afraid to let his vulnerability come through. The kids are most effective when they’re not trying to be movie-cute, when it seems like the camera is just catching them, Heather O’Rourke during certain playful moments, Oliver Robins and his voice cracking during his whispered conversation with Beatrice Straight late at night, Dominique Dunne keeping her secrets while still very much just a teenager. The adults playing against them—Straight, Karen, Rubinstein and Richard Lawson—help keeping things immeasurably grounded and are a big part of why the effect of the film still holds, from our childhood all the way to us finding ourselves relating more to those adults in various ways. And for a film reference that has nothing to do with STAR WARS action figures Joseph Walsh, screenwriter of the Robert Altman gambling classic CALIFORNIA SPLIT (which Spielberg almost directed), is the one who shouts, “I bet my life on this game!” during the remote control battle at the start.
Thinking back to the summer of ’82, POLTERGEIST and E.T. have always been connected in my head as well even though I’m pretty sure I never saw POLTERGEIST until it hit cable a year later. I’m guessing my parents felt the film, originally given an R rating by the MPAA before it was downgraded to a PG, was too much for me. So my initial memories are from watching it on TV but I’d imagine that along with BLADE RUNNER and THE THING multiple viewings helped to serve as a sort of gateway drug for me towards darker films, even if POLTERGEIST seems to belong to the school of the family friendly Spielberg multiplex of the 80s than the pages of Fangoria. The silence at the end right before the end credits roll, as if the movie is stopping on an unresolved note more than actually reaching a true climax, feels appropriate for a film that seems to end with the characters turning their back on the outside world, on technology, on the future, on the 80s. That could never last forever, of course, but it’s a nice final shot. As the credits roll the Goldsmith score tries to tell us that the family will endure, complete with little girls laughing at the very end and we can believe that as long as we want. What came next, aside from real life tragedies and eternal queries about the production, has mostly been tossed aside which is almost surprising considering how even the JAWS sequels are used as punchlines nowadays. The non-Hooper/Spielberg (but with the same writers) POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE is mostly forgotten now and a second sequel made by others was compromised by the death of Heather O’Rourke several months before release. That one’s pretty much forgotten too. Not to mention a recent remake but I don’t care about that and you don’t either so it doesn’t matter. At this point in time POLTERGEIST is pretty much at the breaking point where I’ll never need to see it again. But eventually I’m sure I will anyway, on one of those nights where I want to remember what it was once like to go to the movies during the summer. Those mysteries stay alive in your head, whether you want to keep the ghosts that are in there buried or not.