Vintage Cable Box: “Poltergeist, 1982”

“A terrible presence is in there with her. So much rage, so much betrayal, I’ve never sensed anything like it. I don’t know what hovers over this house, but it was strong enough to punch a hole into this world and take your daughter away from you.”

Poltergeist, 1982 (JoBeth Williams), MGM/UA

I had not intended to cover Poltergeist for a few months, but sometimes the unexpected passing of a filmmaker prompts a publication. Vintage Cable Box started at the end of August, 2015 with a write-up of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. Easy Money was intended to be the first article, but Wes Craven’s death changed the schedule. Garry Marshall passed away in July of last year, so I rushed Young Doctors in Love, as did Gene Wilder’s death preceding The Woman in Red. Haven’t we had enough untimely death? Our heroes are dropping like flies!

Before Poltergeist, director Tobe Hooper’s main claims to fame (or infamy, as the case may be) were The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 (I’ll never forget the death of Kirk) and an excellent television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot in 1979. A personal favorite of mine, The Funhouse, was released in 1981. Poltergeist, in 1982, appears in the eye of a visual effects super-storm, preceded by Raiders of the Lost Ark, and enveloped by Ghostbusters with striking, visceral animations created by Industrial Light & Magic and supervised by Richard Edlund. After Poltergeist, Hooper would direct Lifeforce (1985), a remake of Invaders from Mars (1986), and a criminally underrated sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Without the combined elements of Hooper, Steven Spielberg, ILM, and the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Poltergeist would be just another horror movie; a generic hodge-podge of ghost movie tropes, jump-scares, and repetitive horror conventions. The Freelings (JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson) are a good-looking, pot-smoking couple living in a planned community in Orange County; part of a new real estate development bulldozing over an ancient Indian cemetery (always a bad decision, especially in horror movies), and they begin to notice strange occurrences on the property (their property specifically). Chairs and other pieces of furniture seem to move of their own volition. Late one night, their youngest, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), starts talking to the static in the television. Well, that’s peculiar.

“But the mother and child reunion Is only a motion away…”

The next night, Carol Anne disappears and little Robbie (Oliver Robins) is attacked by a monstrous tree outside his bedroom. The Freelings call their friendly neighborhood ghost-busters (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella) who then sub-contract to the diminutive, iconic Zelda Rubinstein to “clean” their house of supernatural disturbances. As with most people, nobody likes to be evicted, and the spirit world collides with the material world with slimy veracity. In the film’s climax, the skeletons in the burial ground come alive and terrorize JoBeth and the children as Craig packs up their belongings so they can get the hell out of there. My only question is why does the spirit world have such a ridiculous hard-on for this family and nobody else?

No screaming in the pool!

The Poltergeist franchise suffers from unfortunate coincidences and controversies. Both Dominique Dunne (who played eldest Freeling daughter, Dana) and O’Rourke died tragic deaths at young ages. Two other actors associated with movies in the franchise also died of medical ailments. Speculation about the “Poltergeist Curse” has led people to believe this was due to the production using real human bones and skeletons during the film’s climax. It’s also rumored Spielberg directed most of the movie because, in an early press release, Spielberg stated Hooper wasn’t “…a take-charge sort of guy.” I don’t doubt Spielberg brought a considerable amount of input to the movie. He co-wrote the screenplay, which was based on his story. He produced the movie, but the shots and set-ups are Hooper’s. Poltergeist is Tobe Hooper’s film, from start to finish.

Tobe Hooper

1943-2017

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “The Big Chill”, 1983

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“Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.”

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The Big Chill , 1983 (Kevin Kline), Columbia Pictures

It’s bizarre and more than a little morose when I think about the fact that I am older than the central characters in Lawrence Kasdan’s classic coming-to-terms-with-things epic, The Big Chill. All in their mid-thirties, more than a few of them established and respected pillars of their respective communities (except rebel-boy Nick), they reunite for the weekend in South Carolina after the suicide of their friend, Alex (Kevin Costner, not appearing in this film). Kasdan made a name for himself, penning screenplays like The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. His first film as director was the brilliant film-noir spoof, Body Heat starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.

The Big Chill is a movie that resonates with a different age group – that of our parents, the “Baby-Boomers”, children of the war and the “Greatest Generation”; those who turned their backs on what they perceived was a mindless emphasis on patriotism, imperialism, and consumerism (lots of -isms). As they grew into adulthood, they chose an uncomplicated path to self-destruction through drugs and the concept of free-love because they saw those same failings in themselves. A good portion of The Big Chill fixates on this idea. This is where my conflict comes in. I’m the product of a lost generation: the children of the “boomers” who don’t relate to these internalized conflicts, because we’ve nurtured apathy and despair and saw the hypocrisy in our parents long before they did. I’m sorry, this is getting preachy.

The cast of this movie is exceptional. Kevin Kline is Harold, a successful businessman. Glenn Close is his long-suffering wife, Sarah (who once had an affair with Alex). Handsome Tom Berenger is Sam, a television star. JoBeth Williams is bored housewife, Karen. William Hurt is the aforementioned rebel-boy, Nick. Jeff Goldblum is Michael, a writer for People magazine (who once published a hatchet-job on Sam), obviously a stand-in for Kasdan. Mary Kay Place is a successful attorney, unlucky in love. Meg Tilly is Alex’s much-younger girlfriend, Chloe. Shot in a real house in Beaufort, the cast lived together for several weeks before shooting commenced, which explains their unbelievably easy chemistry and mutual affection.

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Kline and Hurt’s characters are disillusioned in their adulthood. Berenger is clingy after his recent divorce. Goldblum is looking to scam his friends out of money so he can open a nightclub. Mary Kay Place wants to have a baby. JoBeth secretly loves Berenger and wants out of her dead-end marriage to boring, dependable Richard. Glenn Close is the emotional center of the group, weeping for Alex. Meg Tilly’s Chloe is the innocent; blissfully ignorant of the group’s woe.

Because these characters tend to run together with their fears and motivations, Chloe is the one truly unique person under this roof. She is sensitive and idealistic, but also lazy and giggly. Chloe is a part of her own lost generation, not quite old enough and not quite young enough. It’s only logical she connects the most with Hurt’s disaffected Nick, because he seems to be closest analog to the mysterious Alex. Alex is another matter entirely. Completely missing (even in spirit) from the film, he appears to be the glue that held this little community together, and without his gentle sway, everything falls apart.

It’s interesting in that I was eleven years old watching this movie (this is a movie explicitly not made for me) for the first time with my mother, who laughed at every joke, and cried at every somber moment, instantly identifying with these characters. The reason I enjoyed the movie had more to do with the very witty dialogue and what’s more, I appreciated the friendships, the connections, and the warmth of the performances. When I watch the movie now, I still think I’m a kid and couldn’t possibly understand the dilemmas of The Big Chill even though I’m much older than I’m younger than that now.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Endangered Species, 1982”

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“A little paranoia never hurt anybody.”

Endangered Species, 1982 (Robert Urich), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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Too often, we forget the joys of R-rated films. Staying up late on a weekend to watch horror and science fiction movies from the late 70s to the early 80s on cable television was more fun than any 11-year-old deserved. HBO has a long-standing policy to prohibit viewing of R-rated films before 8:00 pm, Eastern time. The Movie Channel showed R-rated movies all day; they didn’t care. They figured if you were paying for the service, you should get to see movies for adults. Back in those days, there was no PG-13 rating (the uncomfortable middle ground of excessive violence in films made for kids). Which leads us to this week’s movie, Endangered Species, which, if it were released these days, would most definitely have received a PG-13 rating.

Robert Urich is a chain-smoking, alcoholic New York cop, tough-as-nails. He’s a Mets fan in 1982, so he has to be disillusioned as well. He takes his reform school, tom-boy daughter off on a vacation to beautiful Wyoming, but they get sidetracked along the way. JoBeth Williams is a hot small-town sheriff named Harry (short for Harriet) investigating a series of grisly cattle mutilations. Organs seem to be removed surgically. Soon, suspicion points to satanic cults, devil worship, and little green men and unidentified flying objects. The script takes great pains to show that JoBeth is hard-as-nails, though the locals do tend to marginalize her for being a woman, otherwise this a strong female character. It doesn’t take long for Urich and Williams to lock eyes.

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Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph seems an odd choice to direct a science fiction potboiler like this, if you don’t consider his first films were the trippy cult genre pieces, Premonition and Nightmare Circus. If you removed the cattle mutilation plot and conspiratorial tones involving germ warfare, there are some very quirky, very charming character beats, which is probably what appealed to Rudolph in fleshing out the story by Judson Klinger and Richard Clayton Woods. There is a nice visual analogy at the beginning of the film comparing cattle out in a field to New Yorkers bustling about in the streets.

Endangered Species follows a typical B-movie trajectory, where you have the insurmountable problem or epidemic, the no-nonsense law enforcement, the concerned scientist, the nosy journalist (played by Paul Dooley), and the corrupt politician (Hoyt “Joy To The World” Axton!), which makes for economical storytelling. This is an ambitious movie made on a small scale, with an interesting message about politics in Urich’s desperate harangue: “If what’s going on around here is organized, you don’t wanna go up against it! The government. The right wing. The left wing. Mercenaries. The mob. It doesn’t make much difference if you get in their way!”

Alan Rudolph went on to direct several high-profile movies, but basically served to propel conversations between cineastes who liked to throw his name into the mix to show they understand modern cinema. Films like Mortal Thoughts and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, while interesting, are not terribly entertaining. JoBeth Williams is rightly considered the mother and wife of the burgeoning horror movement of the eighties due to her presence in movies like Poltergeist. Robert Urich, appeared in Soap, Vega$, and Spenser: For Hire. He died, tragically, at 55, from synovial cell sarcoma.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.