Friday, November 8, 2013

Halloween Horrors: Haunted Houses








POLTERGEIST is the bastard stepson of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.I don't mean that merely in terms of aesthetics, although that would also be accurate to a degree.No, I mean it literally, at least, as far as movies and their scripts can have bastard stepsons.It's also a bit of a bastard half-brother to E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, for that matter, which in turn could be considered the legitimate heir to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.When CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was released in 1977, it became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, and naturally, Columbia Pictures, the studio behind the film, was eager for a sequel.Spielberg wasn't keen on the idea (it's not really the kind of film that lends itself to a sequel, is it?), but neither did he want Columbia to go ahead and make a sequel without him and tarnish the brand, like Universal had with JAWS.So Spielberg whipped up a sequel treatment titled Watch the Skies, one of the working titles for the original, which put a horror twist on the material, involving malevolent aliens that terrorize a family farm and was said to be inspired by the John Ford's 1939 classic film DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, about a family of settlers terrorized by British forces and American Indians during the American Revolution.From there, the film evolved further to include one friendly alien, a misfit from his vicious peers, who befriends a boy in the family.Special effects maestro Rick Baker was even hired to design the creatures, completing a $70,000 prototype of the lead alien, while Spielberg was in Tunisia filming RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.RAIDERS was a dreadfully exhausting production, and Spielberg decided that instead of taking on another high-octane special effect extravaganza that Night Skies (as it came to be known) would be, he wanted to return to something more tranquil like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.It wasn't a total waste though, because Spielberg found much of the material for his next film, E.T, in Night Skies, with the subplot of the friendly alien befriending a troubled boy.Annoyed at the development of E.T and not wanting to make a "wimpy Walt Disney movie," Columbia sold it to Universal, where it became the highest-grossing movie of all time, and the elements of a family terrorized by supernatural creatures were applied to POLTERGEIST, which Spielberg took to MGM to be directed by Tobe Hooper.For all the legends about the behind the scenes of POLTERGEIST, I think that one is most interesting, so now that we've gotten past that...

POLTERGEIST is an old-fashioned haunted house movie packed with big budget special effects, about the Freeling family, Steven and Diane (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), and their children in descending order of age: teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne), obnoxious boy Robbie (Oliver Robins) and the littlest, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke).Steven is a successful real estate developer, and the family lives in a suburban neighborhood that the company he works for developed, but starting with strange interactions between Carol Anne and the "TV people" who she speaks to through the television static in the middle of the night, strange occurrences appear throughout the house.At first, freethinking Diane is actually thrilled at these paranormal events, but the occurrences become increasingly disturbing (as the tend to), to the point where the scary old tree outside Robbie's bedroom window reaches through and grabs him, and Carol Anne vanishes, but they can hear her calling to them through the television static.With the help of a team of parapsychologists (see: ghostbusters) and Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein), a spiritual medium, the Freelings try to retrieve Carol Anne before it's too late and she passes on to another world entirely, while discovering the dark secrets that have cursed their home.

Directed by Tobe Hooper, who was selected by Spielberg after the success of his shoestring-budgeted horror hit THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), it's widely rumored that Hooper was really more of a stand-in while Spielberg, contractually obligated not to direct any other films while making E.T. at Universal, was in fact more responsible for directing POLTERGEIST.The reports vary, and the undoubtedly unusual nature of the director-producer relationship on the film makes it difficult to sort out the facts of who deserves credit.Admittedly, it does mostly feel like a Spielberg film, with some very strange anomalies mixed in, but while Spielberg has a strong reputation for directing children in films without them coming off as annoying, Oliver Robins as Robbie, is really annoying a lot of the time (I wish that tree had eaten him), so there's that against the rumors.Spielberg received top credit out of three credited writers for the film's screenplay, in addition to producing, but in an open letter to The Hollywood Reporter, in an attempt to clear the air, Spielberg described Hooper as allowing him a "wide berth for creative involvement".Some people have dismissed the media claims that Spielberg was de facto director on the film by claiming that it was mere coincidence that Spielberg was helping on set during some press visits, while other members of the cast and crew have stated the opposite, including Rubenstein, who said in an interview in 2007 that of all six days of shooting her scenes, Spielberg was directing.Whatever the case, Spielberg's touch is blatantly evident in the film, while subtler moments testify to Hooper, but what was supposed to be Hooper's big break into mainstream filmmaking proved to be a false start and he never fully developed past low-budget horror.Rubenstein mentioned in the same aforementioned interview that she believed Hooper had being using illicit substances during production.Whatever the case though, both Spielberg and Hooper seem to agree that each had a fair level of influence and involvement.

Spielberg is not a name well-associated with horror though, despite having his first major success on JAWS, which I am adamant is not a horror movie (it's an adventure movie; adventure movies can have scary/horror elements, but it's still an adventure movie).While POLTERGEIST is clearly a horror movie, it has definite Spielberg elements that are not so much associated with horror, especially the monologue by Rubenstein's Tangina character explaining about ghosts and the afterlife, that's like a sentimental counterpart to similar The Twilight Zone (which Spielberg produced and co-directed a film version of released the following year), specifically the Season 3 episode, "Little Girl Lost" in which a six-year old girl falls through a rift in dimensions in her bedroom and can still be heard, but not seen.While The Twilight Zone, a low-budget television series had to get by on subtle implications and big ideas, POLTERGEIST tells essentially the same story, but with big, slimy, uterine canals at the entrances of the dimensional rifts, giant monsters that emerge from said canals, a tree that tries to (and should) eat a little boy, all topped off by an entire house being swallowed up into the Earth.

meditations on extra-terrestrial life in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T.Also, POLTERGEIST relies far more heavily on special effects than is typical of the horror genre, and that doesn't necessarily work to its advantage most of the time.Spielberg is often criticized for relying on big-budget spectacle and if he really was as hands on in this film as is rumored, it wouldn't make a decent defense case for him.The story borrows heavily from the classic anthology television series,

I don't think POLTERGEIST is very scary, it's too flashy to be so, and it lacks the fluidity and consistency it should have.It's interesting though, and clown dolls and television static finally received the fearsome reputation that they deserve.But personal favorite part, even while it's probably more silly than scary is the climax when all the partially-decomposed corpses rise out of their graves, the kind where a coffin comes out of the ground upright, then creaks open to reveal a skeleton, and so on.That's my kind of "scary" movie.I like the Gothic b-movie spooks.








THE CONJURING is an unusually good horror movie, and it was accordingly received.Exceptionally for a horror film, let alone an R-rated horror film, it opened at #1 on a July weekend, in the heat of the fanboy sci-fi summer movie season, with $40.1 million, earning back more than twice the cost of its production within the first three days of its release.Through the course of its release, the film grossed $137.3 million stateside, with the worldwide gross bringing it up to $309.9 million.Not bad for a $20 million R-rated haunted house movie.

So very few movies elicit any sort of 'scare' reaction for me, and it's not for lack of trying.I turn off all the lights and watch 'scary movies' in the wee hours of the morning in an attempt to experience the fullest potential of a horror movie's intent, but THE RING is boring and a bit silly, HOSTEL is just shamelessly sadistic, and THE EXORCIST is more interesting than anything else.Rest assured, however, THE CONJURING is in fact a very scary movie, and in the best way.Haunted house movies are my personal favorite kind of scary movie, I'm traditionalist in that way, and it is a grand haunted house movie.

Based on the (naturally) uncertified true-life case files of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), paranormal investigators and husband and wife who became well-known for their involvement with controversial alleged "hauntings" through their illustrious careers, accounted in multiple books of their own and other authorship.While the Warrens are definitely best known for investigating the infamous Amityville Haunting, which served as the basis for the 1979 film and 2005 remake, THE CONJURING is an account of what was supposedly their most personal and disturbing case.

Set in 1971, the Perron family, including Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters, move into a dilapidated Colonial Era farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island and fix it up as a family home.There are strange occurrences throughout the house, such as clocks stopping and strange unexplained noises, but these are dismissed as the typical overactive imaginations or incidents that happened while moving into the new house.Gradually though, as these things tend to do, the occurrences become violent and disturbing, such as menacing apparitions that pull and tug on the girls' legs while they sleep, and Carolyn is developing inexplicable bruises all over her body.After attending a lecture given by the Warrens, Carolyn introduces herself to them and requests their help.Although Ed is reluctant, due to Lorraine's fragile state and the still-fresh trauma of their last 'legitimate' demonic cleansing, Lorraine insists that they will visit the house.While investigating the home, Lorraine, a clairvoyant, witnesses a malevolent shadow apparition stalking the family and from the tree beside the lake bordering the farm, she sees the body of a woman hanging.Research of the house's history reveals that an accused witch named Bathsheba attempted to sacrifice her children to Satan and hanged herself from the tree in 1863, and since then, there have been multiple horrific incidents on the land.After collecting evidence of the house's possession, the Warrens submit it to the Catholic Church to begin the convoluted process of obtaining permission for an exorcism, but as Bathsheba's spirit has begun to attach itself to Carolyn, there may not be enough time remaining.

Gothic horror traditionally incorporates elements of old Christianity, namely Catholicism (for some reason, Christian protestants and reformed sects just don't have the same aesthetic effect), and THE CONJURING is a surprisingly religious film, even for a Gothic horror movie, thanks to the religious fervor of the real-life Warrens.The opening titles refer to Ed as the only non-ordained Demonologist recognized by the Catholic church, and the film closes with this quote by Ed: "Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow."

The film's marketing campaign made a point that the film was rated R simply for being "too scary," which really is one hell of an advertisement.In the current market, PG-13 is king, so if that's an option, that's usually what the studios aim for, animated films aimed at families being the exception.When Warner Brothers submitted the film to the MPAA ratings board and it came back with an R for "sequences of disturbing violence and terror," they asked what they'd need to edit in order to get a PG-13.The ratings board responded that the film was just "too adult" and that there were "no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13."There really isn't any violence or gore, etc. that would normally be permissible at a PG-13; there's one brief glimpse of a man stabbed in the cheek resulting in some blood spurts, a couple of gross-out moments of blood barfing, and Bathsheba's ghost appears multiple times hanging from a noose, but other than that, it's all atmosphere.Like I said, very few movies actually have a frightening effect on myself, but when they do, I don't differentiate a level of fright between different films, so I couldn't tell you the difference between R-rated scary and PG-13-rated scary.It's just "scary," and that's it.

What I really like about THE CONJURING is that it's as much a period biopic as it is a horror movie.A pair like the Warrens can be difficult to make the main characters of a film, because as they put it, they've been called, "Ghost hunters.Paranormal researchers. Wackos."As far as the real life Ed and Lorraine Warren (Ed died in 2006, Lorraine acted as a consultant on the production) are concerned, I suppose I'm what they and their devotees might call a "skeptic," but the movie doesn't let that get in the way, while neither does it ignore that glaring elephant in the room.They do seem to be involved with an awfully large percentage of the more extreme paranormal cases reported, but the movie is based on their files, so that's that.The Warrens are presented not unlike a man and wife Indiana Jones of hauntings and possessions, shown giving lectures to packed classrooms (in what context, I'm not sure), while picking up cases along the way and collecting artifacts from each case which they keep in a room they have regularly blessed by a Catholic priest.The film doesn't become bogged down in issues of controversy; if it didn't accept their reports as fact, there wouldn't be a movie; so instead, the Warrens are the patient sufferers of the logic of others.Instead of wasting time on this though, it's a point made, then dismissed so the film can focus on the scares, and the reality of the Warrens' relationship within their "truth".

The film concludes with a nod to their most famous case, when Lorraine mentions to Ed that there's a case for them to investigate on Long Island (Amityville), kind of like the next mission a pulp hero is pulled into just after completing an adventure.It's a fun fright-fest, not groundbreaking or especially heavy, but a near-perfect rendition of the established tradition.
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