Retro Review: Don’t Go Into the Light—Go Into the Plaza Theatre! Splatter Cinema Scares Up Some POLTERGEIST Activity!

Posted on: Sep 8th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents POLTERGEIST (1982); Dir. Tobe Hooper; Starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson and Zelda Rubenstein; Tuesday, September 10 @ 9:30 p.m. (photos and merch table open @ 9 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s Splatter Cinema time once again! And with September upon us, and the first hints of autumn in the air, it’s also time for ghosts to take flight. With that in mind, Splatter Cinema and the legendarily haunted Plaza Theatre join forces to bring you POLTERGEIST! Come by at 9 to have your picture made in a recreation of a scene from the movie, and stop by the merch table!

POLTERGEIST, man. It’s a movie that comes with a lot of baggage if you’re a horror film fan. It’s impossible to dig into the movie at all without getting tangled up in contradictory recollections of who’s responsible for the final product. And it’s incredibly easy to wind up in vicious arguments with fellow horror geeks just by venturing into that subject. The question that inevitably gets asked and debated over is this: who actually directed the movie?

It’s a tough question to answer. Superficially speaking, it’s a Tobe Hooper film. His name is on it as director, the Director’s Guild of America states that he’s the director, and there are plenty of people who worked on the movie who steadfastly insist that Hooper directed it. But on the other hand, there are also plenty of people who worked on the film that say that producer Steven Spielberg was the man really calling the shots (Spielberg himself even implied as much in pre-release interviews, only to have to backtrack and issue public apologies afterward). Many claim that Spielberg took over for an unreliable Hooper, but due to DGA rules and his exclusive contract with Universal Studios to make E.T., he could not remove Hooper’s name from the project and claim ownership for himself. Others claim that it was a much more collaborative effort than simply one-or-the-other, and that all of Hooper’s directorial decisions were made in conjunction with Spielberg. (In any case, most people agree that Spielberg had final say.)

Then you have those who believe that this whole “Spielberg was really the director” rumor came from the studio itself. That when faced with having to market a “family friendly” film helmed by the director of 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE—a man whose name wasn’t a sure-fire selling point—the studio leaked that Spielberg was the “real” director of the movie. A behind-the-scenes featurette was made that only showed Hooper once: standing alone, silent, drinking a can of Coke and identified only by a subtitle. In the set of film stills released to the press to promote the film, there were several shots of Spielberg on set, but only one of Hooper—and in that shot, he’s sitting next to Spielberg, who is telling Hooper what to do. In the trailer, Spielberg’s name is mentioned and appears onscreen twice before Tobe Hooper’s, whose name is never spoken and in much smaller type than the credit “A STEVEN SPIELBERG Production.” The whole thing does smack of the studio wanting to distance itself from Hooper.

Add in that Hooper hasn’t had the most spotless track record beyond TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, SALEM’S LOT (1979) and POLTERGEIST (though I love 1977’s EATEN ALIVE and 1981’s THE FUNHOUSE more than I have any reasonable right to; I’m in the distinct minority on that issue) and the picture gets muddier and muddier, and it’s just a messy situation any way you look at it.

The real question, though, is this: is POLTERGEIST a good movie? And the answer is—no matter who’s responsible for it—yes. It’s a good movie. But it’s not great. It feels like a compromise in many regards, and that’s what has given the authorship argument legs over the years. You get the feeling that it wants to be a lot scarier than it is, but that it too frequently errs on the side of playing it safe. It seems really conscious of the fact that it must receive a PG rating. There are certainly some terrifying moments (please note: a scene that begins with a steak crawling across a countertop can’t end well, and clowns are always harbingers of doom), but any suspense tends to get overshadowed by Spielbergian spectacle.

However, it’s a tremendously fun movie. The story is simple: the Freelings are living in quiet suburban comfort when their house is suddenly plagued by poltergeist activity, and their daughter Carol-Anne is taken by the spirits into their ghostly realm. The family calls upon a team of psychic researchers and a medium to exorcise their home and save their daughter. Within this basic framework, any number of frightening set pieces have been constructed, and to see them executed on the big screen is a rare treat. POLTERGEIST is the kind of movie that just doesn’t translate to home video viewing effectively; it must be seen LARGER THAN LIFE for the visuals to really deliver. The performances are engaging and authentic, drawing the audience in and rooting them in the movie’s emotional core. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson have a chemistry together that both makes us believe them as the married couple they’re portraying and allows us to share their fright and torment as the supernatural elements ramp up. And though her performance has been parodied and lampooned endlessly, Zelda Rubenstein as the diminutive medium Tangina Barrons is incredibly memorable and effective, her kindly demeanor and small stature belying the force of will and strength she brings to the surface.

So forget the controversy over who did what. Nobody knows to this day whether Howard Hawks or the credited Christian Nyby directed 1951’s THE THING, but what is remembered is the film itself. Likewise, enjoy POLTERGEIST for the movie it is, rather than whose movie it is.

Now, who wants to speculate over the film’s relationship and debts to Richard Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost,” and why Spielberg was so quick to get TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE into production?

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Space Invaders Hit Drive-Invasion 2013! The Starlight Drive-In Blasts Off With 1980s Sci-Fi Classics!

Posted on: Aug 29th, 2013 By:

The Starlight Drive-In presents Drive-Invasion 2013Starlight Drive-In; Sunday, Sep. 1; Gates open @ 10 a.m.; Admission $20 advance, $25 at door, children 3-9 $5; Advance tickets here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Official World Famous Drive-Invasion is upon us, and there’s a whole slew of hot bands from Memphis garage-thud legends The Oblivians to the one and only  MAN… OR ASTRO-MAN? being cooked up at the Starlight Drive-In for all of y’all Drive-Invaders! But let’s not overlook the great movies that will hit the screen as soon as the sun goes down. This year, there’s an action-packed lineup of 1980s sci-fi flicks that run the spectrum from wild and wacky to dark and gritty.

THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION; Dir. W.D. Richter; Starring Peter WellerEllen Barkin and John Lithgow; Trailer here.

Let me tell you a secret.

You may not know this, but our planet was invaded by Red Lectroids from th dimension. This realm had been occupied by clandestine Red Lectroids since October 31, 1938, when Dr. Emilio Lizardo—having been possessed by their leader Lord John Whorfin—brought them to Earth. Specifically, to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This was reported live as it happened by Orson Welles, but he was later pressured to claim that his broadcast was a work of fiction. From that day, they had been posing as humans and developing technology at Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems in order to take over this planet. Thankfully, we were protected by the Hong Kong Cavaliers under the leadership of physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, race car driver, rock star and comic book hero Buckaroo Banzai.

The efforts of Buckaroo Banzai and his crack team/backing band to our planet from the imminent threat of complete takeover by the Red Lectroids were documented by writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter in their 1984 docu-drama THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION. Rauch and Richter present the true-life tales of Banzai with the effortless charm and thrill-a-minute excitement of vehicles featuring pulp heroes like Doc Savage, or radio adventurers like Captain MidnightPeter Weller embodies the role of Banzai with a wry and drolly laconic air. Ellen Barkin is magnificently funny, smart and sexy as Penny Priddy, the twin sister of Banzai’s late wife. And John Lithgow is completely unhinged as Lizardo/Whorfin, sporting a wild red fright wig and speaking in a ridiculously over-the-top Italian accent. Supported by a stellar cast of veteran character actors (Clancy BrownJeff GoldblumChristopher LloydRobert ItoVincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya, among others), the film is nearly as wild, exciting, funny, fast and ridiculous as the real-life events they are based upon.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER; Dir. Nick Castle; Starring Lance GuestRobert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy; Trailer here.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER is essentially what every kid playing video games in the early 1980s dreamed would happen to them. Teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a nowhere kid in a nowhere town, whose only real escape is in playing the Starfighter video game outside the diner where his mom works. One evening he manages to top the highest score on record, which gets the attention of the game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston). It’s revealed that Centauri is a disguised alien and that the game is a test to find people qualified to actually fight in an interstellar war between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire. And it’s up to Alex to save the Rylan home world and protect the universe from the Ko-Dan leader Xur.

As far as STAR WARS rip-offs go, this has long been a favorite. It’s directed with brisk energy by Nick Castle (who played Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN!), and features a spectacular mix of practical special effects and early CGI. Lance Guest does a great job in the role of the film’s ersatz Luke Skywalker, convincingly frustrated by his surroundings and dreaming of something bigger. And he’s bolstered by great performances from Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy. It may be a slight movie, but it’s a lot of fun.

THE THING; Dir. John Carpenter; Starring Kurt RussellWilford Brimley and Keith David; Trailer here.

Something from another world has crash-landed in the Antarctic. Something that can mimic any living thing. It’s already wiped out a Norwegian research station. Now it is inside the neighboring American compound, and it could be taking the place of any person—or persons—there. Who can you trust, when anyone could be…the Thing?

Many people consider this one of the greatest remakes ever made. I am not one of those people. To me, this isn’t a remake at all; this is simply a second adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella WHO GOES THERE? The Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby 1951 film (there is disagreement over who actually directed) was a loose adaptation of Campbell’s story, jettisoning the entire “alien imitation and assimilation” aspect of the plot, and only focusing on the threat of an alien menacing an Arctic scientific outpost. While John Carpenter borrowed the title treatment from the Hawks/Nyby film, everything else is much more faithful to Campbell’s original tale.

Though it’s hard to find someone today who doesn’t love THE THING, this wasn’t the case in 1982. It received mixed-to-negative reviews upon release and was considered a flop, only barely breaking into the top 10 for three weeks and only taking in a third of its cost on its opening weekend. Critics and moviegoers seemed to prefer the “aliens are our best friends” approach of that year’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, which came out just two weeks prior to THE THING. And the special effects of Rob Bottin—now seen as a landmark exercise in visual effects—were largely seen as unnecessarily grotesque and gory at the time, overshadowing the onscreen suspense.

It’s amazing how wrong people can be.

In the years since, a much-needed reappraisal of the film has taken place. It’s now regarded as one of John Carpenter’s finest works, second only perhaps to HALLOWEEN. The ensemble performances are excellent across the board. Kurt Russell makes a believably reluctant hero, questioning everyone even as he questions himself. And each supporting actor—from Wilford Brimley to Keith David, from Donald Moffatt to Richard Masur, and on down the line—creates a unique and memorable take on their character. Bottin’s bravura special effects are shocking and surreal, heightening the alien nature of the transformations on display and providing a sense of “anything goes” unexpectedness to the proceedings. And John Carpenter proves himself a master of onscreen composition, creating gorgeous tableaux with every shot. He keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, but never rushes things. And he ramps up suspense at every turn, continually making you question every person on the screen before you. Add on one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores, and there’s little more one can ask for.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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