Poltergeist

In the midst of this pandemic, we are all at home being swallowed up by our screens, so the little girl in Poltergeist is no different in a way.

There’s no getting around it: this one’s iconic and influential, a warm nostalgia bath of 80s goodwill, some amazing performances and cheap ‘n’ cheerful special effects.

Tobe Hooper may have helmed Poltergeist, but there’s no mistaking the Steven Spielberg influence, making this much more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in tone and execution, for better or for worse. And horrorphile preference will color perceptions here, though that’s not to say the Spielberg influence means the gore will be tempered. There is one scene in particular that’s almost Fulci-esque.

The Freelings live a run-of-the-mill suburban existence in a planned Orange County community, meant to mirror the experiences Spielberg had growing up in Arizona sprawl, and a kid of Reagan wet-dream.

Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a developer while wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) takes care of the kids, including Carol Anne, all wide-eyed and bangs. The young girl awakens and begins chatting with a static TV screen, then promptly disappears but not before declaring “they’re here.”

Who are “They?” That’s what Poltergeist gets to the bottom of, as weird goings-on transpire, such as a gnarled stump of a tree that transmogrifies, and a dining room set that does the same, kinda.

A team of para-psychologists join in into investigate, sagging the proceedings with a Ghostbusters-lite feel, before the the film dials it up another for a rip-roaring finale.

The real star here though, is pint-sized medium Tangina, played by Zelda Rubinstein, about whom the late great critic Pauline Kael said [she] “gives the movie new life and makes a large chunk of it work.

***1/4 (out of 5)

[Check out our discussion of Poltergeist on the Really Awful Movies Podcast!]

The Perfection

Call it the worst thing to happen to the cello since Yo-Yo Ma copped to playing over a recorded track at the Obama inauguration…

The Perfection yo-yos from one genre to another, psychological thriller, body horror, rape-and-revenge. Yet it succeeds in committing to none convincingly enough to merit more than a passing commendation due to its dialogue howlers and exposition vomited out two-thirds in (OK, maybe the emptying of stomach contents, metaphorically at least, means The Perfection actually sits squarely in the body horror camp, “camp” being the operative term).

Two music conservatory grads — cello virtuoso products of fictional Bachoff Music College, Massachusetts — meet in Shanghai at a star-studded student school audition…one of ’em’s career has been sidetracked (Charlotte, played by Allison Williams) thanks to being a PSW for her ailing mom, the other is a global touring superstar, Lizzie (Logan Browning). The two play a cello duet for the assembled, then fan-girl each other into a night on the town then into the sack.

The next day, Lizzie starts to develop stomach upset and headaches. Instead of convalescing in the hotel like a normal human, she urges Allison to go on a long-haul bus trip into rural China as “she only has two weeks off” before going back on tour. At the best of times, nobody would go on a long-haul bus trip, let alone when the Chinese equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge is coming to clear out the pipes…

Lizzie soon vomits maggots all over the bus window, then when allowed to disembark, shits all over the side of the road in full view of the commuters, this as Allison yells indiscriminately at everyone in English, instead of the one Chinese guy actually conversant in the language, “my friend needs a doctor!”

As the plot unspools, the director hits the reset button, and there’s a goofy video rewind showing what actually happened to Lizzie, which in the hands of a competent filmmaker, would’ve been realized in the form of subtle foreshadowing…but which here takes the form of an exposition dump, speaking of dumps.

The Perfection, despite some game performances, awesome set pieces, and fun globe-trotting, can’t come together. The disciplinarians of the fancy-pants school screams Suspiria, and given that Allison Williams plays essentially a variation on her Get Out role, you don’t have to be the Long Island Medium to see where this thing is going. Plus, what kind of music school would, at its own expense, host an elaborate and very costly global talent search that might as well have had Simon Cowell and Howard Stern judging it?

When an antagonist wails, “You cut off her hand for nothing,” it’s a master class in melodrama, which precedes a revenge denouement too cartoonish and laughable to match the serious allegations against the school.

The “famous” “Cello duet #3” was composed especially for the movie, and it’s a tonal misfire as well.

** (out of 5)