Weekly Post-mortem 10/28 – 11/3

If forced to be honest, this probably deserves the subtitle “My attempts to try new things” because “Look, I didn’t get around to a lot last week” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

10/29/12 Poltergeist (1982)

If you’ve paid attention, the last few weekly recaps have been governed by horror selections, abusing the month of Halloween to check off gory items on my bucket list. As it turns out, Poltergeist isn’t horror. I’ve seen horror, and there’s something… off about this. I’m blaming Steven Spielberg. Upon seeing Mr. Tobe Hooper’s name as the director for this, I got very excited. Gee whiz I can’t wait to see what that Texas Chainsaw Massacre guy did with a bigger budget! His precise involvement with the actual directing remains in dispute, and conspiracy theories claiming Spielberg did the heavy lifting don’t seem all that outlandish.

As expected, a haunted house film might naturally veer its focus toward the people living inside it, and there’s a demented but strangely warm sentiment at the heart of the Freelings’ desperation to find daughter Carol Anne, who’s abducted by restless spirits during a spate of ghostly domestic phenomena. Although it seems strange Spielberg’s overwhelmingly optimistic (Jaws or Jurassic Park are indifferent at worst) filmography includes face melting and grave diving, Poltergeist’s familial core has that same Amblin rosy sentiment of E.T. or Close Encounters (or if you’d prefer, J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg love-fest Super 8).

What is known however, is that this film looks gorgeous. The resolution on the transfer I watched was 720p at best, and the compositions and colors were still as eerie as they were entrancing. Spielberg and longtime collaborator Michael Kahn’s editing blows up whole sequences only to pop these increasingly larger balls of tension. The pacing is akin to a series of cannonball attempts, with each swimmer growing larger and fatter than his predecessor. And if you ever wanted proof that George Lucas should have shut up about digital effects in Crystal Skull, look no further than Poltergeist’s thrilling practical work. Taken alone, the mysterious chair stacking (along with influencing an early Sixth Sense gag) deserves praise for its execution.

And despite all these accolades, Poltergeist is not a successful horror film. There are horrific moments of course — a backyard tree’s sudden attack, floating skeletons — but all the trauma the Freelings go through after their daughter is sucked into the inexplicable portal of what was once a bedroom closet eventually goes away. Parents Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams turn to a spectral psychiatrists, not the police. And for all the initial panic and disbelief over such a strange occurrence, Nelson mostly gives a glazed expression as a strung-out, overcaffeinated father. He’s fantastic, but probably not mad enough. Is Poltergeist’s destruction of a far too sunny town an indictment of suburban America? Is the phantom television a critique of the cathode ray tube’s dumbing powers? Or is this an extreme cautionary tale of comeuppance through (brutally) honest real estate practices? It’s a mixture of all of them, and it’s an impressive creative effort.

But it’s not horror.

 10/31/12 Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

I came sooo sooo close to wussing out and rewatching John Carpenter’s Halloween. Thankfully, I went with a less contrived option and tried something new(er)… Michael Dougherty’s Halloween anthology Trick ‘r Treat. Dougherty, who before 2007 was known mainly for co-writing Superman Returns with director Bryan Singer, had his anthology project scuttled by Warner Bros. from a theatrical release, and it was subsequently forced to languish as a straight-to-video property two years later in 2009. Talk about an unconventional production life, though I guess that’s fitting given how weird this thing is.

Now, weird can also mean good and with Trick ‘r Treat, it does. The collection of stories runs at a brisk 82 minutes, and that’s for the best. As refreshing as I found this werewolf ‘gotcha’ nested inside a slasher story nested inside a ghost story nested inside a demented morality tale, I’m not sure how much more narrative jostling I could take.

For all its faults, which include some obvious twists and a partially unearned sense of self-importance, the uncertain Celtic ‘mythology’ that Trick ‘r Treat pulls from is aided by the fact that we’re never really told what the Chuckie-esque ‘Sam’ character has to do with preserving Halloween’s traditions. Does it even have any? I was unaware that jack o’lanterns should never be artificially extinguished, but hey if it means avoiding a candy bar shiv to the achilles, I’ll do whatever you ask of me.

* * *

I did see Cloud Atlas on Friday, but I’ll post my thoughts on that later.

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