Horror Film Review: Poltergeist (dir by Tobe Hooper)


The 1982 film Poltergeist tells the story of the Freeling family.

There’s Steven the father (Craig T. Nelson) and Diana the mother (JoBeth Williams).  There’s the snarky teenager daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), who has a surprisingly good knowledge of the local motel scene.  There’s the son, Robbie (Oliver Robins), who is scared of not only a big ugly tree but also a big ugly clown doll that, for some reason, sits in his bedroom.  And then there’s the youngest daughter, Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke).

They live in a planned community in Orange County, sitting just a few miles away from the cemetery.  (Or so they think….)  They’ve got a nice house.  They’ve got nice neighbors.  They’ve got a nice dog.  They’re getting a pool in the backyard.  There are hints that Steven and Diana may have once done the whole rebellion thing.  They still occasionally get high, though they do it with a smugness that somehow manages to make marijuana seem less appealing.  But, for the most part, Steven and Diana are happy members of the establishment.  Steven sells real estate and is a favorite of his boss, Mr. Teague (James Karen).  Diana is a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t get upset when some unseen spirit rearranges all the furniture in the kitchen (seriously, that would drive me crazy).  They’re the type of family that falls asleep in front of the TV at night, which is a bit of a mistake as Carol Ann has started talking to the “TV people.”

Strange things start to happen.  As mentioned earlier, furniture starts to rearrange itself.  Whenever Carol Ann sits down in the kitchen, an unseen force moves her across the floor.  Diana, for whatever reason, thinks this is the greatest thing ever.  Then, on the night of a big storm, the big ugly tree tries to eat Robbie and Carol Ann goes into a closet and doesn’t come out.  Though Carol Ann has vanished, the Freelings can still hear her voice.  Apparently, she’s been sucked into another dimension and she’s being encouraged to go into the light.

Of course, this leads to the usual collection of paranormal researchers moving in.  The house decides to pick on one unfortunate guy and he ends up not only eating maggot-filled meat but also imagining his face falling apart over a sink.  A medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) comes by and reprimands Steven and Diana for not doing exactly what she says.  Of course, it turns out that Tangina isn’t quite as infallible as she claims to be….

To me, Poltergeist is the epitome of a “Why didn’t they just leave the house” type of film.  Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that once Carol Ann vanished, Diana and Steven had to stay in the house to rescue their daughter.  I’m talking about all the stuff that went on before the big storm.  Seriously, if a ghost started moving furniture around in the kitchen, I’m leaving the house.  At the very least, I’m not going to take my youngest daughter and invite the ghost to push her around the kitchen.  Even stranger is that, at the end of the film, the Freelings still don’t leave the house even though the situation with Carol Ann has been resolved.  They hire a moving truck and make plans to leave but, instead of spending a night in a hotel, they instead decide to spend one more night in a house that’s apparently possessed by Satan.

Poltergeist is famous for bringing together two filmmakers who really seem like they should exist in different universes.  Steven Spielberg produced while Tobe Hooper directed.  It seems like it’s impossible to read a review of Poltergeist without coming across speculation as to how much of the film should be credited to Spielberg and how much should be credited to Hooper.  It must be said that the film does occasionally feel like it’s at war with itself, as if it can’t decide whether to embrace Spielberg’s middle class sensibilities or Hooper’s counter-culture subversiveness.  On the one hand, the emphasis on special effects and the early scenes where the Freelings watch TV and Steven gets into a remote control fight with his neighbor all feel like something Steven Spielberg would have come up with.  On the other hand, the obvious joy that the film takes in tormenting the Freelings feels more like Tobe Hooper than Steven Spielberg.  Or take the film’s finale, where the special effects are pure Spielberg but the scene of Diana getting assaulted in bed and then thrown around her bedroom feels like pure Hooper.  Really, it’s the mix of two sensibilities that make the film compelling.  Poltergeist’s planned community is appealing but it’ll still kill you.

Anyway, I like Poltergeist.  I certainly prefer the original to the remake.  It’s a silly film in many ways but it’s still effective.  Once you get over how stupid Diana acts during the first part of the film, JoBeth Williams gives a strong performance as a mother determined to protect her children.  And Craig T. Nelson gives a classic over the top performance, especially towards the end of the film.  Just listen as he screams, “Don’t look back!”  That said, my favorite performance comes from James Karen, who is perfectly sleazy as the outwardly friendly, cost-cutting land developer.

Poltergeist is still a good, scary film.  And, if anyone wants to play a lengendary prank this Halloween, show it to someone who has a fear of clowns.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Nun’s Story (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


Nun_story

Happy Ash Wednesday!

So, earlier today, I got off work early so I could go to Noon Mass with my sister and we both got our ashes.  And I’m sure that will take some people by surprise because I’m not exactly the most faithful or devout of Catholics.  But what can I say?  I love the ornate ritual of it all.

And, as a part of my own personal ritual, I washed my forehead before I left the church.  Erin and I had a great vegetarian lunch at Cafe Brazil and then we came home and I turned on the TV and what should be finishing up on TCM but the 1959 best picture nominee, The Nun’s Story.  Fortunately, I had already set the DVR to record The Nun’s Story and so, on this most Catholic of days, I was able to watch this most Catholic of best picture nominees.

The Nun’s Story tells the story of Gaby (Audrey Hepburn), the daughter of a famous Belgian doctor (Dean Jagger).  At the start of the film, Gaby has entered a convent because she wants to become a missionary nursing sister in the Belgian Congo.  However, before Gaby can go to the Congo, she has to learn to give up her own rebellious streak and individual independence.  Taking the name Sister Luke, she excels at her medical training but, because it is felt that she is still too independently minded, she is not sent to the Congo but instead assigned to work in a mental hospital.  It’s there that her independent streak nearly gets her killed when she is fooled by a dangerous patient who claims to be the Archangel Gabriel.  It is only after she takes her final vows that Sister Luke is finally sent to the Congo and it is there that she’s forced to work with the abrasive agnostic Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch).  Of course, as Sister Luke goes through her own spiritual struggles, the world inches closer and closer to the start of a second world war.  When war does break out, Sister Luke finds herself torn between her vow of obedience (which includes remaining political neutral) and the realities of living in a country that’s been occupied by the Nazis.

1959 was apparently a good year for religious films.  Not only did Ben-Hur win best picture, but The Nun’s Story also received 8 nominations.  Reportedly, The Nun’s Story was the most financially successful film to be released by Warner Bros, up to that point.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was also Audrey Hepburn’s personal favorite of the many movies that she made.

When seen today, probably the first thing that people notice about The Nun’s Story is that it’s extremely long and occasionally rather slow.  The film follows Gaby from the minute she enters the convent to the moment that she makes her final choice about whether to be obedient to herself or to her vows and, during that time, it examines every single detail of her life in glorious Technicolor.  A lot of emphasis is put on the rituals that Sister Luke goes through on her way to taking her final vows.  Now, if you’re like me, all of the rituals are fascinating to watch and produce a whole host of conflicting emotions.  Even as I found myself admiring Sister Luke’s dedication and her sacrifice, I still kept wondering — much as she did —  if it was all really worth giving up her independence.  But, I also have to admit that I found myself wondering if someone from a Protestant background would feel the same way.

To a certain extent, I really hate to say that you probably have to come from a Catholic background to truly enjoy any film.  But I certainly think that’s the case with The Nun’s Story.  But, even Protestants and skeptics will appreciate Audrey Hepburn’s wonderful lead performance.  She keeps this film grounded and makes her mostly internal conflict of faith compelling.  In a career that was full of great performance, this is one of Audrey’s best.

Embracing the Melodrama #33: Endless Love (dir by Franco Zefferilli)


endless love

Do anyone remember a movie that came out in February that was called Endless Love? If you do, you’ve got a better memory than I do because, even though I saw it, I really can’t really remember much about it beyond the fact that I was disappointed by it. I know I had high hopes because the trailer was damn sexy but the film itself just turned out to be rather bland and forgettable.

Well, the 2014 version of Endless Love may have been forgettable but the same can not be said of the original 1981 version.

Endless Love tells the sweet story of two teenagers who want to have sex.  Well, actually, it’s debatable how sweet the story is  because the boy is a creepy stalker-type and the girl appears to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome but director Franco Zefferilli directs the film as if he’s bringing to life the greatest romance of all time.  The entire film is full of lush images and the swelling musical score suggests that we should hope that these two end up together, even as the boy is burning down the girl’s house.

(Believe me, I love elaborate expressions of love and romantic feelings as much as the next girl but I draw the line at burning down my house.)

David (Martin Hewitt) and Jade (Brooke Shields) both live in the suburbs of Chicago.  Jade’s parents are aging hippies.  Her father (Don Murray) may smoke weed with the neighborhood teenagers and play the trumpet at wild parties but he’s still very protective of his daughter.  Her mother (Shirley Knight) is far more permissive and open-minded.  Jade’s brother, Keith (played by a really young and dangerous-looking James Spader), is friends with David and invites him to a party at his house.  David meets Jade and soon, the two of them are obsessed with each other.

However, not everyone is happy about their newfound love.  Jade’s father doesn’t trust David.  Keith soon starts saying stuff like, “Just because you’re fucking my sister, that doesn’t make you a part of the family.”  (And, as rude as that may be, it’s really hot when said by a young and dangerous-looking James Spader.)  Meanwhile, David’s mom (Beatrice Straight) doesn’t want David hanging out with a family that she describes as being “a relic of the 60s.”

Eventually, Jade is spending so much time thinking about David that her grades start to suffer and she finds that she can no longer sleep.  She starts stealing her father’s sleeping pills.  When she’s caught in the act, David is forbidden from seeing her until the end of the school year.  “It’s only 30 days,” Jade’s mom promises him.

Well, that’s 30 days too long for David!

Taking the advice of a young arsonist (played, in his film debut and with a notably squeaky voice, by Tom Cruise), David decides to set Jade’s house on fire.  His original plan is to save Jade and her family and be hailed as a hero.  Instead, the fire ends up raging out of control and the house is destroyed.

Arrested for arson, David spends some time in a mental asylum and is legally forbidden from ever seeing Jade or her family again.  Eventually, David gets out of the asylum and that’s when the movie gets really weird…

Endless Love is a really creepy movie that makes the mistake of equating stalking with true romance.  There’s no other way to put it.  Yet, at the same time, Franco Zefferilli’s images are so vividly romantic and Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields are both so physically attractive (never mind that neither one of them apparently knew how to act back in 1981) that you can’t help but sometimes get swept up in the film’s silliness.  Add to that, the film has a great soundtrack and you also get a chance to see Tom Cruise act like a total jackass.

Check it out below!

Film Review: Network (dir. by Sidney Lumet)


With the recent passing of director, Sidney Lumet, I decided to watch one of Lumet’s best-known films, the 1976 best picture nominee Network.

Network tells the story of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch).  Howard is a veteran news anchor at a fictional television network.  Because his ratings are in decline, Howard is fired.  Howard reacts to this by announcing that he will commit suicide at the end of the next broadcast.  Ironically, so many people tune in to see Howard kill himself that his ratings improve and Howard gets to keep his job under the watchful eyes of news director Max Shumacher (William Holden) and network executive Dianne Christiensen (Fay Dunaway). 

At the same time, Max and Dianne are adulterous lovers.  The course of the film’s narrative finds Max abandoning his wife (Beatrice Straight) and Dianne, who is described as a “child of the tube,” enthusiastically trying to produce an early reality television show starring a group of Marxist revolutionaries.  They do this under the paranoid eyes of network president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and Frank’s boss, the corrupt Arthur Jenson (Ned Beatty).

However, Howard Beale isn’t just an over-the-hill news anchor.  He’s actually a seriously mentally ill man who hears voices and who starts to see himself as some sort of messiah.  Eventually, this leads to a disheveled Howard giving a crazed speech in which he encourages viewers to yell, “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  Yes, this is the famous scene that is always used whenever some pompous media jackass wants to criticize the current state of television.  Even though I think it’s one of the most overrated scenes in history, here it is:

Anyway, after this scene, Dianne starts to promote Howard as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” and Max gets all outraged over how the news no longer has any integrity (bleh, Max is kinda full of himself) and eventually, Howard’s mad rantings get the attention of Arthur Jenson who has plans of his own for Howard.  The whole thing eventually ends on one of those rather dark notes that’s impressive the first time you watch it but just seems more heavy-handed and clumsy with subsequent viewings.

As you might be able to tell from my review, I almost felt as if I was watching two different movies when I watched Network.  For the first hour, the movie is a sharp and clever satire on the media.  The characters are sharply drawn, the performance are full of nuance, and even the villainous Dianne is allowed a bit of humanity.  And then, Howard gives his famous “mad as Hell” speech and the entire freaking film pretty much just falls apart as suddenly, all the characters start to act like cartoons.  The film’s satire becomes so heavy-handed that you actually find yourself wanting to watch something mindless and brainless just because you know it would piss off self-righteous old Max.  The actors stop acting and instead concentrate on shouting.  Whatever humanity Dianne had been allowed suddenly vanishes and she just becomes yet another stereotypical “castrating bitch.”  Max gets to spend a lot of time telling her why she’s worthless and it pretty much all comes down to the fact that 1) she’s under 40 and 2) she has a vagina.  (Never mind the fact that Max has abandoned his wife, apparently men are allowed to be assholes.)  By the time the 2nd half of the film ends, you don’t care about whatever the film’s message may have been.  You’re just happy that everyone has finally shut up.

As I sat through the second half of this film, it soon became apparent to me why Aaron Sorkin has continually cited Network‘s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major influence.  Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing Network and he’s constantly cited as one of the greatest screenwriters of all time but, quite frankly, his script isn’t that good.  Much like Sorkin’s work, you’re aware of the screenplay not because of what the characters say but because they say so much.  This is the type of film that is often wrongly called prophetic by bitter old men.  This is largely because the script itself was written by a bitter old man.  The only true insight one gets from this movie is the insight that the old will always view the young and the new as a threat.

And yet, even as the second half of the film collapses around us, Network still holds our attention.  We’re still willing to stick around to see how all of this ends (and keep an eye out for a 17 year-old Tim Robbins who made his uncredited film debut at the end of Network).  This has nothing to do with anything written by Paddy Chayefsky and everything to do with the direction of Sidney Lumet.  I once read somewhere that you can’t make a good film out of a bad script.  I’m not sure who said that though it has a definite William Goldman sound to it.   Well, if nothing else, Network proves that this is not always the case. 

To me, there is no more fitting tribute to Sidney Lumet than to say that he somehow managed to create something worthwhile out of Network.