Monday, February 25, 2008

"Noisy ghosts"

On Saturday night I caught an unedited broadcast of Poltergeist, which was probably one of my favorite films of my youth, and by far my favorite horror film. I must have watched that movie 20 times on HBO, and then when it came out on VHS, I rented it multiple times. I have no idea what attracted me to it so strongly when I was a kid, but I have no doubt, after watching it the other night for the first time in years, that it was the most influential film of my childhood.

I guess I never realized just how scathingly critical it is of the suburbs, and sprawl, and reckless development. The patriarch of the Freeling family, Craig T. Nelson, plays a somewhat bumbling and disingenuous realtor/developer who can't even muster up enough enthusiasm towards his own cookie-cutter subdivisions to sell them to families desperately hungry for a place to call home. JoBeth Williams is the ideal suburban, stay-at-home mom, excpet that she was also a teen mother and is still a pothead. Though both of these things are presented quite matter-of-factly and entirely without judgment. When the home is first invaded by the "TV people," and they're playing harmless pranks, she's so excited for a distraction from the mundacity that she can't even contain herself.

The film turned the national anthem into an ominous signal of doom, and, even as a child, made me start questioning what was underneath the everyday blandness of everything shiny.

Mocking the complicity and peace of the suburbs, or at the very least, turning over the rock and looking at what lies underneath it, has been a staple of indie film since the 80's at least. But I bet Poltergeist was one of the first, mainstream, star-fueled films to take a sledgehammer and ax to Middle America and criticize everything it holds dear. And then sell their clueless optimism back to them in what is no less than a raging, politically-driven popcorn movie.

Spielberg kind of specializes, I guess, in looking at the extraordinary among the oridnary (i.e., weird shit in boring-ass suburbia), but Poltergeist felt to me like a particularly angry and frightened film. Like nothing less than a warning call to Americans everywhere mindlessly gobbling up resources, and rotting their brains with television and soulless lives.

Maybe I'm reading far too much into it, but it seems so obvious when I watch it now. And makes me like it that much more.

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