Tag Archives: Tobe Hooper

Poltergeist #30DaysOfFright

polt1A young family finds they have paranormal activity within their home, it’s a poltergeist (meaning noisy spirit in German).What starts off as something playful soon descends into terror as the children are attacked in their rooms. The daughter, Carol Anne, is taken by the spirits and makes contact via the television – in the film’s most iconic moment – can she be saved and can the family stop themselves being dragged to the afterlife?

What sets Poltergeist apart from most haunted house movies is that it is set in a nice house, in a nice neighbourhood and everything looks normal. There is no Scooby-Doo haunted mansion vibe, no evil eyes like the Amityville house. It could be our house or yours, and that is its power.

polt2We are the Freeling family and that is what Spielberg does best, take an ordinary person or family and put them in an extraordinary situation. Just look at Chief Brody from Jaws, Roy Neary from Close Encounters or David Mann from Duel.

To many Poltergeist was Spielberg’s darkness to E.T.’s light, they both came out in the same month in the US in 1982. He served as writer on this and Executive Producer, although it has oft been mooted he had a closer hand in direction as well, rather than Texas Chainsaw-helmer Tobe Hooper. But that is a whole other blog entry.

All horror films should of course be watched with the lights off but Poltergeist loves the darkness, especially when the strobing effects kick-in. Fittingly, it really drags you into the television.

polt3The good thing is that since the advent of 24 hour television, whether that be rolling news or rolling balls around a roulette wheel, you will never again wake up with a Poltergeist television. There’ll never be that snow dancing shadows madly across your walls.

So the original Poltergeist seems more nostalgic and further away than ever. The film starts on that typical Spielberg world of safety and harmony, the suburbs, and actually the first half has plenty of sunny and light moments. Even the Poltergeist activity is initially treated as a joke and something to have fun with, the moving kitchen chairs for instance. Carol Anne states it is the TV people; I certainly never had that problem with Radio Rentals!

But that is what is great about this film, haunted houses don’t have to be scary and there doesn’t have to be fork lighting. Their home could be our home and that is what makes it so effective, and it’s the same with the more recent haunted house films, such as Insidious and The Conjuring.

There are signposts aplenty though, even the remote control cars that cause the man hulking beer to come off his bike in the opening scene are a precursor of things to come with toys coming to life and causing chaos. The dead budgie, Tweetie, even in its coffin cigar box it warns us of the shape of things to come when it is unearthed by a digger for the swimming pool.

There are even clues on the television, in an early scene the old Spencer Tracey film A Guy Named Joe plays on TV, there are already ghosts in the machine as it’s about a man who dies and comes back as a ghost. It was of remade by Spielberg seven years later as Always.

polt4Robbie and Carol Anne’s room is cool, full of Star Wars posters and toys, although I’m not sure about the Alien poster. The film really taps into those childhood terrors of open closets, things under the bed, thunderstorms, clowns and ominous trees tapping on your window. Ten fold, it could also be seen as an extension of a similar scene in Close Encounters when Barry’s toys come to life as aliens – and again some glorious light, a Spielberg staple – envelop the room and also bring toys to life.

A bit like the spirits at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, at first they beautiful, the spirit from the television that dances round the room before leaving its ectoplasm all over the bedroom wall is as haunting as it is enchanting. 

This is echoed in the sublime score by Jerry Goldsmith, beautiful but creepy, magically dark, especially the haunting dips in sound.

But then the spirits turn with fearful effect. That ruddy tree outside the bedroom window though, the impending thunderstorm marching closer not further away, it still gives palpitations. Then, the tree grabs the son, it’s startling and surreal, but it’s just misdirection so that Carol Anne can be sucked into the closet and to the other side. From here on in as ludicrous as things get, by and large you go with it simply because you are wrapped up in the emotion.

polt-9Crucially, it’s the performance from the mum and dad that really ground it and their efforts to do anything to get their daughter back, it’s the little things like her mum, JoBeth Williams, thrilled to be smelling her daughter after a blast of air travels through her and Craig T. Nelson (Patrick Wilson being a great substitute in the very Poltergeist-like Insidious) forced to get angry with Carol Anne to tell her to do as she is told or he’ll be forced to spank her. Amid all this supernatural fantasy is real, heart-wrenching drama

about a family with a ‘kidnapped daughter’, it just happens to be by a ghost. They are the emotional core of the film.

polt5And when they finally get Carol Anne back it is less smoke and mirrors and more wind machines and fantastic lights displaced by fish tanks. It’s dizzying, effective and so simple. This rescue is headed up by movie-stealing Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina, the spirit guide who pronounces the house is clean; she isn’t in the film half as much as you think she is. It is only for about ten minutes duration, but she leaves a lasting impression on both the family and the audience.

After that rescue the Freelings prepare to move out, of course, it turning out that the whole estate had been built on a graveyard, the headstones had been moved but not the bodies and Carol Anne – a beautiful and natural performance by Heather O’Rourke – was the focus of the spirits as she had been born in the house.

After all that went before, they and we think it is all over, and as they pack and play in their rooms they discover it is not. A great ending to the film, complete with mum being dragged up her bedroom wall and ceiling Fred Astaire style and some unwelcome guests in the unfinished pool, but I don’t buy the family not just leaving, and even if I did I certainly wouldn’t be letting my kids play in the room where one of them went missing and another was attacked by a tree. It was the clown that got him this time.

polt6As the dead explode from the ground in their caskets, to great effect, the Freelings do escape; thankfully complete with dog, E Buzz, by the way is a great dog actor as well with some brilliant expressions. Checking into a motel, this time they aren’t taking any chances and leave the TV outside. It’s a wryly observed ending to a satisfying and emotionally exhausting tour de force of emotions and effects.

Whether it’s a product of the publicity machine or not, Poltergeist came with that horror film staple, the curse. They said it happened with The Omen, with The Exorcist and now this. 

polt-7Rumours were rife that actual skeletons were used in the swimming pool scene and the murder of one of its stars prior to release didn’t help matters, nor did major players dying after parts 2 and 3. The remake seems to have bucked that particular trend – unless you count its death at the box office.

You know what though; I enjoyed the updating, such as the family having little choice in moving to the once aspirational suburbs. It didn’t add anything particularly new or did anything better but I certainly found it suitably creepy if not as visually memorable as the original.

King of Kings: The best Stephen King Adaptations

salems.lot_.barlow[1]On page he has terrified for decades but on both the big and small screen the results have sometimes been decidedly mixed, but here – in no particular order – is my ten fave Stephen King translations to film and TV.

10. The Dead Zone (1983)

This sterling adaptation is one of Director David Cronenberg’s more mainstream, accessible films. Christopher Walken excels with a haunting performance as school teacher Johnny Smith who is involved in a car accident and awakes from a coma several years later to discover he is ‘blessed’ with the ability to see a person’s secret or future by touching them.

It’s got an uneasy, claustrophobic feel throughout in everything from camera shots to lighting and especially Walken’s off-kilter turn. A fantastic psychological thriller with more than the odd jumpy moment which also sees fine support from Herbert Lom, Brooke Adams and Martin Sheen. A great ending.

9. Stand By Me (1986)

King isn’t just all about horror. Stand By Me is an adaptation from one of his novellas, The Body, and it’s a life-changing film that is right up there with It’s A Wonderful Life in the timeless classic stakes.

Semi-autobiographical, it recounts the tale of four young friends as they spend a summer holiday searching for a dead body. They set out eager to get a peek at the corpse but each of them grows and changes along the way.

The ending is now all the more poignant since the death of River Phoenix and those dullest tones of Richard Dreyfuss scattered throughout add gravitas. With dialogue like, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

8. Salem’s Lot (1979)

Made for TV in two parts but released theatrically in a shorter form in the UK, it’s the two-part version that is getting the thumbs up here. Directed by none other than Tobe Hooper this has to be one of the most jump inducing things to have ever graced TV screens.

Vampires taking over a small town are the order of the day as a best-selling author (David Soul) returns home but all is not as it seems. James Mason is kooky and his business partner, Mr Barlow, is clearly Nosferatu inspired and frankly disturbing. The scene where a floating vampire child appears at a window scratching and beckoning its next victim, with smoke and shot backwards to complete the eerie effect, still holds up as a classic scene to this day. You’ll never leave your curtains open again.

 

7. IT (1990)

Another made for TV adaptation, this time directed by John Carpenter alumnus, Tommy Lee Wallace. Tim Curry is electric as Pennywise the Clown. The first part is brilliant stuff, part Stand By Me, part your worst nightmares. It’s just a shame about the really lame giant spider in the (anti) climax.

Soon to get the remake treatment. Keep Curry and the storm drain; squish the spider in a giant tissue.

6. The Shining (1980)

Stephen King has never had much time for this adaptation but this is the ultimate haunted house (well, hotel) movie. It’s not so much scary per se but with its astounding visuals, it being one of the first films to fully utilise the steadicam, symbolism and uneasy foreboding it certainly leaves you breathless. Added to that Kubrick really makes you feel the coldness and isolation.

Nicholson defines bonkers with his splendid turn, whilst his son, played by Danny Lloyd, criminally in his only film role, manages to make his finger one of cinema’s scariest things ever. Redrum, redrum, redrum. Lifts and indeed triple Grand National winners were never the same again.

5. Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates even outshines Jack Nicholson here and is the only actor to pick up an Oscar for a role in a Stephen King film as the ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly as nice as pie’ Annie Wilkes. Dirty bird. Simple, terrifying and almost primeval in its horror.

James Caan’s character is ‘rescued’ from a car crash by his number one fan, just turns out she is a tad loopy and none too pleased he has killed off his lead character. Features one of the most wince-inducing moments in cinema, a tour de force, essential viewing and far more horrific than all of King’s possessed cars, vampires and children with strange powers put together.

4. The Green Mile (1999)

After The Shawshank Redemption this is Frank Darabont’s second stab at a King adaptation and for me is the better, more absorbing of the two. I know for many they find it overlong and over sentimental but you cannot deny its power to grab you, to fall in love with a mouse, to hate that guy who played Tooms on The X Files, swear at the television as you release his actions and fall in love with the gentle giant of Michael Clarke Duncan.

Once again Tom Hanks proves why he is this generation’s James Stewart and is therefore rather fitting that although it deals with death row inmates and supernatural undertones it has a distinct Capra-esque feel to it. I defy you not to cry.

3. The Mist (2007)

Also directed by Darabont this dark tale was pretty much ignored upon theatrical release, which is a crying shame as it’s a blinder. A small town is effectively cut off after a mysterious mist descends on it. Much of the town hole themselves up in the local supermarket until something starts attacking people and dragging them into the mist.

Essentially a classic 50s B-movie monster movie this has scares and effective special effects aplenty. To underline this fact it was even released on DVD in America with the option of you watching it in black and white, which it works in fantastically well.

Many of the towns folk are as terrifying as the creatures themselves and it has a real post 9/11 feel about it in places, as ever King showing us that people can be just as monstrous as actual monsters themselves. It could also be viewed in many ways as the anti-War of the Worlds and has a truly dystopian ending that will leave you reeling. An effective piece of film making that never loses your attention.

2. Pet Sematary (1989)

The film boasts some genuinely scary scenes, possibly the most frightening flashback sequence ever and Hermann Munster!

It’s undeniably creepy and raises some interesting questions about morality, death and how we deal with grief. Kings own screenplay adaptation, he even has a cameo at a funeral, blends supernatural horror with the ultimate real life horror of losing your family. The person you bury may return to life, but they aren’t the same person, there is something missing, something evil about them.

It also has an ancient American Indian burial ground, which is never, ever a good sign in a horror movie, even though it looks brilliant thanks to some excellent production design, a zombie cat, a murderous toddler with a scalpel that makes Chucky look like Maggie Simpson, and one helluva an ending. As former Munster, a fantastic Fred Gwynne, utters, “sometimes dead is better”.

1. Carrie (1976)

Fittingly both the first novel penned by King and his first ever film adaptation, helmed by Hitchcock super fan, Brian De Palma. The split screen technique may have dated it all somewhat but that still doesn’t deny the film its power and ferocity. Nobody likes a bully and Sissy Spacek ensures we have a character that is both likable and much misunderstood.

A high school revenge coming of age horror, Degrassi Junior High was never like this; Carrie is note perfect in showing that bullies never prosper. The pig’s blood scene is truly iconic and disturbing whilst the scare the bejesus out of you ending has been oft-imitated but rarely bettered. With its soft focus at times it has a dreamlike feeling to it, but don’t fool yourself this is bonafide horror.

Top Ten vampires from film and TV

10. Katrina (Vamp)
Grace Jones vamps it up to 11 with a typically flamboyant over the top performance as a seductive stripper vampire in the horror comedy, Vamp, where she manages to be both sexy and darned scary in this film that might give fans of From Dusk Till Dawn – this came first – the odd sense of Déjà Vu.

9. Jerry Dandrige
Remade with none other than David Tennant in the old Roddy McDowell role (fabulous casting), Fright Night, had Chris Sarandon (he always looked like he had too many teeth so was perfect) as a seductive vampire who moves next door to William Ragsdale. Essentially an updating of Dracula in suburbia this set the scene for a mini-revival in vampire movies, with everything from The Lost Boys, Near Dark and Vamp.

8. Dracula (Bela Lugosi)
He only nabbed the role after Lon Chaney met his maker. Lugosi had also performed the role to great acclaim on Broadway, his performance, with that look and that broken English is the image of Dracula we all know and is still the most oft-imitated in popular culture. Lugosi never could escape the character, even in death, as he was buried with his cloak! And he’s probably spinning in that as well as former American Idol host, Ryan Seacrest, now resides in his house. Now, that is the stuff of nightmares!

7. Mr Barlow – Salem’s Lot
No, not Ken, although he has been in Corrie since time began, so you never know! Most people remember Tobe Hooper for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but first and foremost I will always think of his two-part, three hour adaption of the Stephen King classic, Salem’s Lot, with David Soul and James Mason. This has great visuals and music with set pieces that haunted a generation, from the wind in the woods to the scratching at the windows  (those poor little Glik boys)and shot backwards footage that just has eerie written all over it.

The first time we see the lead vampire though is an image that a whole generation probably never forgot, no even if they closed their eyes, it was still there

Whatever you do, forget Return to Salem’s Lot and also the Rob Lowe remake.

6. Dracula (Frank Langella)
Used to playing villains he’s played everyone from Nixon to Skeletor but Superman Return’s Perry White made for a formidable Dracula against Larry Olivier’s Van Helsing in the 1978 rendition, complete with big hair, of Dracula. Like Lugosi, Langalla came to the role having already stuck his teeth into it on Broadway.

Take away some of the 70s trappings and we actual have probably one of the most underrated performances of Dracula ever committed to film.

5. Dracula (Christopher Lee)
Christopher Lee played the role of the caped one an amazing nine times and it’s no wonder that it is still classed as his signature role. It also had a massive impact on a whole generation of filmmakers who grew up watching them on late night TV, so it is of no surprise that we see him being utilised in film by Spielberg, Dante, Lucas and Jackson…although it will never ever explain Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow.
 

4. Martin
George A Romero isn’t just about zombie’s taking over the earth he’s also about neat little character studies like this as well. The most interesting thing about Martin, also the title of the film, is that he thinks that he is a vampire but he actually isn’t one.  Like Romero’s other work, and all great horror, it makes a stark commentary on society and is as haunting today as it was then. It shares some of the same themes as Taxi Driver, which is very much a horror movie in many ways. Thought provoking stuff and Romero’s own favourite film.
 

3. Selene (Underworld)
Girls, you can keep your R Patz we’ve got Kate Beckinsdale in Underworld. Sure it might be all Matrix-esque in its style but that still doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the carnage in-between…and all those lingering shots of Kate in her tighter than tight rubber outfit of course.

The sequels were awful but the original has bite and action aplenty, showing those Twilight folk how to really do a battle between Werewolves and Vampires.

2. Angel
For me, leaner, wittier, darker, edgier than Buffy, this LA set spin-off had a more grown up feel about it, with Angel’s past owing more than a nod and a wink to Interview with a Vampire in the style stakes. Cinematic in scope, the show hit the floor running with an amazing scene where Angel throws a vampire in a board meeting out of the window of a high rise building, chair and all, with the vampire bursting into flames in the LA sun. It also ended as it began with Angel and co with their very own Butch and Sundance moment against a whole series of beasties, in between that we also had the rather excellent episode where Angel was cursed and turned into a muppet-like character for most of the episode, still voiced by Boreanaz of course. Inspired and did that rare spin off thing of stepping out of the shadows from the show from whence it came.

1. Nosferatu
Salem’s Lot’s vampire had more than a sinister nod in the looks department to the granddaddy of all screen vampires. It may be silent but being a piece of German Expressionism, the pictures speak a thousand words.  The titular role is played by Max Schreck, which, uncoincidently, was also the name of Christopher Walken’s character in Batman Returns. The ‘making’ of Nosferatu was also the subject of Shadow of the Vampire, which supposed that Schreck, magnificently portrayed by Willem Dafoe, was an actual vampire!