I don't know why I suddenly became possessed to watch this again, but there we are, and it, as usual, satisfies. This is officially directed by Tobe Hooper, but there is extensive informed guesswork that it was actually directed by its producer, Steven Spielberg. The finished result is extremely Spielbergian, with lots of shots of awed faces reacting to things, but also has an edge that he doesn't usually have, which seems more Hooper-esque. The film's Wiki page tells us that Hooper was extremely passive, unable to make a decision, so the way people would have to handle him was to suggest various things and have him agree to one. There's also a Spielberg quote about how no one who wasn't there would understand how closely they collaborated, so it's possible to imagine that Spielberg suggested various camera moves and setups, and Hooper carried them out. Regardless, what we're left with is a terrific, terrifying-though-family-friendly haunted house film.
We open with the Star-Spangled Banner, being played at the end of the broadcast day. For the young ones out there, once was a time when TV went OFF for the night, and they stopped broadcasting, usually around 2am. Then there would just be static, as seen here. We have a very Spielbergian touch right up front as the family dog goes around the house as everyone is asleep, ostensibly checking for food, but actually introducing all of the characters and giving us a tour of the house. The young, adorable Carol Anne wakes, and goes down to the TV, answering questions that only she can hear. The rest of the family wakes up and sees her, then she puts her hands on the TV in what has become the iconic image for this film. The "static light" from the TV was accomplished by numerous strobes set up offscreen, and these have the (perhaps?) unintended effect of establishing a very distinctive look for this film and its ghost effects, one of the few things one hasn't seen replicated elsewhere.
Okay, so, weirdness established, we cut to a bucolic American landscape, panning over to see a middle-class subdivision. Shots during the credits emphasize the sameness of all the houses. This is also extremely Spielbergian, to have a lightly socially-critical subtext enriching the proceedings, but nothing that would offend Republicans. He we open with the Star-Spangled Banner, and proceed soon after to a very American suburb as the setting for the horror to follow. And the conduit for that horror is television. The subdivision here is a virtual double for the subdivision of E.T., which came out the same year, which famously included images of the peaceful place being invaded by terrifying government agents. So there's this very light, Time Magazine-ready social criticism, positing American comforts as a setting for terror.
So the family has recently moved in. Dad is a real estate agent who has sold 40% of the properties in that subdivision, Questa Verde. We have a number of sequences that demonstrate suburban life, including the kids setting up their new rooms, harried mom making breakfast, Dad having his friends over to watch the game, etc. Played for comedy, but also highlighting the surreality and sameness of the setting and modern life is the fact that the neighbor's remote control changes the channel in the house, which underscores how closely the houses are built together. We establish that the young son, Robbie, is afraid of the massive tree outside, and that Carol Anne likes the light in her closet left on, both things that will take on horrific effect later. The kids' pet bird dies and is buried out back, only to have its "coffin" be brought up a few minutes later, prefiguring events that will happen later in the film.
The kids' parents smoke pot in their room, which was a bit of a shocker at the time, to show casual marijuana use among otherwise "respectable" parents of young kids. They also have an Atari 2600 in their room. You'll note that the son, Robbie, has numerous toys from Spielberg's buddy George Lucas' Star Wars. We establish that the kids, particularly Robbie, are afraid of storms, and soon both young kids are sleeping with their parents. The TV is still on, and once more goes to static. Carol Anne wakes and once more talks to the TV, when suddenly spirit vapors emerge from the TV and into the room. Have you ever noticed that the vapors form a skeletal hand that grabs for Carol Anne before losing shape? They then shoot out of the TV, rocking the room and filling it with that "spirit light" the film is establishing as a visual motif. The family wakes and Carol Anne utters her famous line, "They're here."
SPOILERS > > >
At breakfast, bent silverware and suddenly broken glasses. The family leaves, Mom Diane is left alone with Carol Anne, and here's where we have what has always been my favorite moment of the film. Diane notices all the chairs pulled back from the kitchen table, after she has pushed them in. In one continuous shot--it HAD to be a continuous shot to sell the illusion--the camera follows her away from the table, and when it pans back, all of the chairs are stacked delicately on top of the table. I like it because its a very simple effect, and a "harmless" spooky occurrence, yet it has big effect and is just weird enough to be really creepy. That night when father Steve returns home, Diane shows him chairs--and Carol Anne--being propelled across the room by unseen forces. So far it's all just good fun, and the movie throws in a bit of comedy as the parents try to talk seriously to the neighbor while insanely slapping at themselves (to kill mosquitos).
One interesting bit of commentary comes when we fade seamlessly from the kitchen with the stacked chairs to an identical kitchen in an empty house that Steve is showing. The buyers even comment that all the houses look the same, which Steve brushes off like a skilled salesman. It doesn't propel the story in any way, but it's part of the subtext this film is building about the subtle menace of these standardized environments and their quashing of individuality.
That night another storm comes (REALLY bad weather for Southern California), and before you know it, boom, that scary tree reaches in the window and grabs Robbie. Outside is a tornado (again: Southern California), and soon the tree is trying to EAT Robbie. Dad saves him just in time and the tree is sucked up into the tornado (good, because it was REALLY fake-looking) and, honestly, I've always thought this whole tree line of inquiry was simply really flat-out stupid. But it doesn't matter, because what's happening upstairs is so astonishingly AWESOME!
Remember how Carol Anne wanted the light in the closet left on? Well, now the light comes on super bright, and the door opens, and everything in the room starts getting sucked into the closet. I remember seeing this movie in theaters, when I was 14, and sure I was but a wee lad, but the whole idea of ghosts sucking everything into a closet like this was WHOLLY new. Something you had NEVER seen before. As an adult, you can appreciate how they built a set they could gradually tilt on its side, so that everything falls in. By the way, this is the first time I've noticed the DOLL of Carol Anne, turned away and holding onto her bed, that is clearly visible and totally immobile in many shots. It's a testament to how well this scene works that it is RIGHT THERE in plain view, yet I've never noticed it until now. The scene reaches a visceral climax as the beds, stripped to the mattresses, get sucked against the closet door but are too big to get in. This is an example of how Spielberg's films, when they're good, just effortlessly flow... those mattresses cleanly cap off the scene and imply the end of the closet's energy, leading into the parents trying to find Carol Anne. Anyway, she's just gone, sucked into the spirit world.
That whole thing was new at the time as well, that someone could be abducted by ghosts, and provides a great goose to the story in the question of HOW are they going to get her back? Next thing we know, Steve is at some university paranormal institute (no sitting around wondering if it's really ghosts, as in many movies), introducing Beatrice Straight whom we know from Amityville II and Two of a Kind. She brings a paranormal team with all sorts of video cameras and suchlike--common now from numerous cable shows, but most viewers at the time had never seen anything like this--and, well, no sitting around waiting for paranormal activity! The kids' room is now a violent whirlwind of floating objects that no one can enter. The movie sets this up by having one of the researchers say beforehand, in a hushed, awed whisper, that he one saw a toy car move a few feet over the course of several hours. Then Steve opens the door on the whirlwind. The movie continues with the humor by having Straight say "We can't be sure the House is haunted..." followed immediately by the coffee pot sliding across the table.
Shocks start coming every few seconds, to the point that its kind of amazing this thing still works. During this period of the film, you never go three full minutes without something paranormal happening. But the shocks are so consistent, and so generally PG-13 (even a man ripping off his own face seems somehow all in fun), that the whole thing maintains a funhouse, thrill-ride tone. This is largely because the focus remains on showing YOU, the audience, a good time. Contrast this with something like JJ Abrams' tribute to Spielberg of this era, Super 8, where the focus is largely on JJ Abrams and everything points back to how awesome JJ Abrams is. The other thing that makes it all go down smoothly is that the film has established a clear and effective emotional story that we all relate to: these parent's desperation to get their daughter back. The Wiki page for this film emphasizes that numerous fairy tales revolve around parents and children being separated and having to endure terrors as they fight their way back together. This sort of thing is easy to screw up--witness the recent The Possession--but establishing a very relatable emotional connection is what Spielberg does best. Then the film keeps it all humming by constantly undercutting the seriousness, whether horrifying or emotional, with humor.
Soon Steve's boss comes by, concerned that Steve hasn't been at work. After lots of humor, they go for a walk. This is where we discover that Steve sold 42% of the houses in his development. We also learn that they dug up and relocated graveyards in order for the development to proceed. This also forms a point in this film's timely subtext, in that Steve is in large part responsible, though unknowingly, for the situation he finds himself in. It makes the film seem prescient to contemporary situations in which one finds oneself an integral part of the larger situation, like all of our reliance on the petroleum products that we know are ruining the environment, or reliance on a job, or products from, a company one knows is engaging in destructive practices or awful labor conditions.
The film ingeniously finds ways to keep relatable emotions front and center, most notably in the premise of going into or away from "the light." The whole thing about "the light," that is, the final gateway out of the purgatory where the spirits are into the final rest of heaven, is explained once, then treated as absolute truth for the rest of the movie, and the film wrings emotion from forcing Diane to say, against her judgement, that Carol Anne should go in to the light, telling her spiritual advisors that she "hates them for this." There are also moments where Steve is forced to speak threateningly to Carol Anne, despite this going against his beliefs as a parent. So even in the midst of all this spookiness, the movie ingeniously keeps the focus on emotion, and plays on a parent's desperation over their missing child.
Over an hour in, the film introduces Tangina, a little person who we believe instantly is highly spiritual because, well, she's a little person. And she speaks with a Southern accent. She's also a delightfully flamboyant character, and her eccentricity is played against the normality of the family. She figures that the closet is the way in to the spirit world, and the ceiling downstairs is the way out, so they send Diane through, with a rope, to grab Carol Anne and bring her out. This is cause for a lot of drama, and is such a huge deal that, upon review, it's surprising how short and straightforward the actual scene is. Mom goes in, and a few seconds later, emerges through the ceiling downstairs, Carol Anne in hand. Tangina famously declares "this house is clean," and we have the big false resolution, which was something not yet totally cliche at the time.
Two things in here. One is that by now one has noticed that a lot of things happening here are pretty much straight out of Kmart's Halloween section--ummm, big skulls with flaming eyes? Really?--and that there is a ton of them. And amazingly, they kind of work. In fact, their very silliness keeps the mood lighthearted, and the fact that there's something happening every five minutes keeps one from reflecting too long. As far as I'm concerned, any film that can have so many cheesy elements like big flaming skulls and skeletons in coffins and wafting skeleton hands and STILL routinely make lists of the all-time scariest horror films is okay in my book. Secondly, the special effect of things emerging from the spirit world through the ceiling, clearly accomplished by strobing different shots of a light in smoke, is defiantly analog, yet still one of the coolest special effects ever. Which is another thread going on here, that this movie is throwing a variety of delightfully simple effects at one, really using every trick in the book, and yet the effect is ingenious and fun, not at all silly.
So the family is moving away, and everyone is left in the house one last night. Of course it's ludicrous to think that they have packed up and arranged movers the very next day (or else, what has been happening in between?), but one doesn't notice that. This time the kids' closet becomes a giant sucking throat (or perhaps it may remind some of another body part) that has tentacles that reach out to grab its prey. The film goes haywire with its "every trick in the book" ethos here, using the pull-back, zoom-in effect to make the hallway to the kids' room seem to elongate (requiring a total shift in the house's layout that you don't even notice: there was no hallway before), then capping it with the unexpected effect of Diane flying out sideways as soon as she opens the door. When you realize that they have simply turned the set on its side, the effect is to admire the filmmaker's cleverness all the more. Mom ends up in the unfinished swimming pool that offers up dead bodies (real human skeletons were used here, which some believe is the cause of the "poltergeist curse"), and when dad comes home, he sees the coffins popping up out of the yard, and realizes that they moved the cemetery's headstones, but didn't move the bodies. Then WHO should just HAPPEN to show up at that very moment, for NO reason, but Steve's boss! To provide the satisfying moment of Steve being able to confront his boss directly for the cost-cutting measure that resulted in all his problems. It's ludicrous that his boss should show up just then, if you think about it, but the thing is--you don't think about it. It's another case of the principle Spielberg stated when asked whether audiences will accept the shark-explosion that ended Jaws. "If they've swallowed it all up til now, they'll swallow anything in the last five minutes."
The family drives off, and the boss is left there to witness the destruction of the house. This was another unexpected move at the time, no one had ever seen a house implode on itself, and it makes a kind of weirdly resonant story sense. The family ends up at a motel, puts the TV outside for a final guffaw, and that's it!
< < < SPOILERS END
Dang if the whole thing doesn't hold up. I may be a little amazed that it holds up as well as it does--skulls with flaming eyes, and all--but it definitely does. It works by determinedly keeping an emotional core to all the proceedings, keeping the focus on the parents and their anguish over losing their child, and finding all sorts of intriguing twists, such as all the nonsense about "the light," to keep returning to a different aspect of parent-child relations. If you watch it again, you might be surprised how nearly every mention of going to or running from the light is cause for an outgush of parental emotion. And through all of the ghostly phenomena, and there is quite a bit, the weight is always on the emotional stakes and the bond with the parent. Even the dominant ghost is a (single) parent figure that wants to retain control over the less powerful ghosts through intimidation, and wants to keep Carol Anne as a way of maintaining control. Too many recent movies seems to have lost the ability to seamlessly integrate the emotional stakes into every aspect of the story here, so it all comes off as a unified whole.
Second is that it has a social-political subtext, beginning with images of Americana and hearing the Star-Spangled Banner, then making a statement about American ease and comfort--those nice subdivisions that are sprawling acres of identical houses, where people enjoy ease with their video games, swimming pools and TVs--then posits the TV itself as the conduit in which evil finds its way into one's home. At the beginning of the film the family is divided--Dad and Mom aren't sleeping together, he's fallen asleep downstairs with the TV on--and everyone is in separate rooms. Over the course of the movie they draw together and the final shot is of them rejecting the television. Along the way we also find out that the comfortable home they live in is the result of a moral shortfalling to save money and deliver comfort and ease while clipping costs and that, while Dad isn't directly responsible, he is the unknowing agent in the field that made it all possible, and the food they put on their table comes from the very moral cost-cutting that will cause so much suffering.
So is the point of all this to make a STATEMENT? A big, Lefty, HuffPost-ready STATEMENT? No, but it fills out and enriches the movie, giving it resonance and making it more than just a silly ghost film.
So there you go, a classic that still holds up, and puts most ghost movies of the present day to shame. This one shamelessly throws every trick in the book at us, not letting a solid five minutes go by without lobbing some spooky ghostly phenomena our way, but the effect is one of a Halloween haunted house, rather than the exhausting, special-effect-a-minute result of, say, the Harry Potter movies. The movie remains compelling by keeping its emotional content to the front, filling matters out with a lot of humor, and enriching proceedings with a resonant subtext. It's a winner, and while it's not Lawrence of Arabia, dang if it just about stands up to anything.
You've already seen it, and if not, you know what you must do.