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!]

Gerald’s Game

The characters jokingly refer to it as “death by misadventure,” and what happens (or maybe, as it turns out, doesn’t even happen at all) to two cottage-goers on a romantic weekend getaway forms the basis of Gerald’s Game, a scary, ambitious and at times confusing effort from Mike Flanagan (Hush/Oculus).

Bruce Greenwood stars as titular Gerald (a square-jaw spitting image of one of those out-of-home Viagra commercials), a husband in a stale, on-the-rocks marriage who wants to introduce some light bondage to wife, Jessie (the omnipresent, IMDb credit-filler, Carla Gugino, incredibly effective here).

The setup is designed to be something very predictable…so viewers unfamiliar with the 1992 Stephen King suspense novel on which this was based, will find Gerald’s Game especially satisfying as it takes a turn so sharp, it might as well be a hot pursuit in a Live PD episode.

The setting is a lush weekend getaway in Alabama, with a sprawling seaside vacation home complete with a surly dog (yes, Cujo is referenced).

After some handcuff-assisted foreplay with Jessie, Gerald stiffens (not like that) and keels over from a heart attack leaving the missus chained to the bed like a half-Procrustes. What’s a gal to do, especially with a phone too far out of reach?

The rest of Gerald’s Game is all about that very scenario, a terrifying survivalist exercise replete with flashbacks, hallucinations and PTSD that is endlessly fascinating, and much more than the flimsily sketched out premise on Netflix would indicate. There’s even a phantasmagorical bogeyman (or is he very grounded in reality?)

With the ending, however, it sucks that Mike Flanagan seemed to wrap too literal a bow around what was a metaphorical gift of a film, leading to a wholly unsatisfying “this is how the pieces fit together, see!” climax.

Still, while not the best King adaptation, Gerald’s Game is up there (let’s say, Top 10ish). And even the difficult-to-please author had nice things to say. And he’s correct.

***3/4 (out of 5)