POLTERGEIST breakdown part 4
Poltergeist is a very effective horror movie. It is very scary. One of its most effective methods of expressing horror is setting up the environment in such a way that creates an extreme contrast between was is normal and abnormal, so that the horror aspect is felt more strongly. One of the biggest traps modern horror movies fall into is that they create no sense of constrast between normalcy and horror. Sometimes, the normalcy in modern horror movies is already so annoying or off putting, you don't care when the horror aspect kicks in, and it's not effective. Horror is about shattering innocence, about what can go wrong. But if things are already wrong (or not particularly innocent), it becomes harder to scare people. One of Poltergeist's most effective methods in expressing its visceral sense of horror is in its brilliant setup of the environment in which the horror will take place. Let's take a look...
The images in the opening credits is of an idyllic, suburban setting, where children, who are the most precious commodity of all and need the most protection, freely play and express themselves in the street with their bikes. The images are warm, comforting and almost ridiculous in their normalcy. This is reinforced by composer Jerry Goldsmith's sweet, innocent and beautiful music score.
All the houses look the same, painted in warm, comforting hues. This sameness makes everything seem very inviting.
Families are moving in
The movie does several things in its opening act to set up this world as a very normal, every-day, happy environment in which anyone in the audience would want to live. The neighbors are together watching a favorite American passtime; football.
The mother, Diane, makes her children's beds while she sings a comforting song
But foreshadowing is something movies, especially suspense thrillers, horror movies, etc, rely on to create a creeping sense of danger in the mind's of the audience, that they are going to experience something terrible, making them sit up and pay attention more...most of this is subtle and almost unnoticeable, but it's definitely present. The first thing that happens that hints that things are about to go wrong is Diane trips over her kids' rollerskates. A harmless mistake, but the accident breaks up her singing of the sweet, song, which is deliberate in order to create anxiety in the minds of the audience
Another thing that happens, in the same scene, is that Diane realizes the childrens' bird has dropped dead out of the blue.
This out of the blue, seemingly trivial death of a bird is actually very important in foreshadowing that things are not what they seem, and that this warm, comforting environment is actually becoming dangerous and unpredictable. A pet is a symbol of a parents' desire for their kids to have something to comfort them...the death of the bird signals that the children are going to be forced to grow up much faster and sooner than the parents would like.
Another sign that things are becoming more and more dangerous and unpredictable is the television set in the Freeling house acting up, being switched to different channels because of an electronic malfunction having to do with the neighbors' remote. It seems trivial, but these subtle trivialities create anxiety and tension in the minds of the audience. Things are not going the way they should be in this idyllic environment.
This next bit is very interesting. As Diane goes to flush the bird down the toilet (so her children wont be exposed to a dead body), you notice that most of the design of this normal, suburban looking bathroom is yellow, just like the bird. This intentional bit of production design is done in order for the audience to indentify the death of the bird with the house itself, since the room is the same color. This is completely subconscious and no one will think about it, but a seed has been planted in the mind of the audience that this house is about to go through something horrible...
Soon after, Robbie, the son, goes outside to check out the tree in the backyard...
This is another subtle bit of foreshadowing on the part of the filmmakers. The tree is designed to look almost alive, with limbs coming out of it...and almost looks like it has a face (the stump near the top) it is also completely devoid of plant growth, another deliberate design choice in order to give the tree more of an abnormal appearance.
Another effective choice by the filmmakers is the casting of CarolAnne...the sweet natured, innoncent looking cherubic child who is kidnapped. In this scene, she mourns the death of her bird with her mother. It is a sweet scene, again designed to draw the audience into this sweet, innocent, loving family to maximize the effectiveness of the horor later on.
CarolAnne paying respect to the dead bird by putting mementos in its casket and giving a ulogy is a subtle bit of foreshadowing that she is more connected to the dead spirits that kidnap her than her other siblings...Dana makes fun of her and Robbie disrespects the ceremony by talking about wanting to dig up the dead bones (foreshadowing for later when the bones of the dead bodies under the Freeling house spring up to terrorize them)
This shot is a continuation of Robbie's earlier encounter with the tree. The tree now looks even more sinister and "alive" than before, with the rain and lightning to give it texture. And the composition of the shot captures it in a more anthropomorphic, humanoid like pose...it looks more like a creature than a tree here. Trees are supposed to be a comforting, idyllic part of suburbia, so this contrast is very striking, and ramps up the anxiety in the audience. With the thunderstorm in the background, it is first real moment of creepiness in the film.
Diane goes to tuck the children in, establishing a warm, familial bond between the children and their mother (who will be key in saving them later), another part of the normalcy dynamic I've been going on about.
Another tool in creating a bond between the audience and the family to make us care about them is humor. Diane watches as Steven playfully mimics an olympic diver, while she smokes a joint.
And then Steven jumps down and does a "before/after" joke with his stomach as we hear Diane laughs in the background
making it bigger and smaller in front of the mirror, a humorous sight gag
It's important to note that one thing the family has is a great deal of chemistry. This is in the effective casting of the actors by the filmmakers. The chemistry between the actors is what generates more sympathy for them in the audience. They are the ideal American family that loves each other and gets along...who wouldn't want to be like that?
One of the things that the film does brilliantly is take everyday neighborhood and household objects and makes them sinister or threatening in some manner. Before it was the dead bird, then the malfunctioning TV, then the tree, and now we see the clown, being illuminated by the lightning, giving it a frightening look...
In normal room lighting, the clown doesn't look all the threatening...
But the lightning effect completely changes that.
This is an important moment in the film in terms of the theme of adults not being trustworthy and kids having more of a sense of what's really going on. Steven tries to comfort Robbie by telling him the tree is there is to protect them, that it is very old and wise...
But then it attacks Robbie later, making Steven seem completely ignorant and uninformed about his own house
The next morning, at breakfast, Robbie's glass of milk breaks, the bottom dropping out from under it for seemingly no reason. This again establish in a very subtle fashion that there is trouble in paradise, with normally reliable things malfunctioning (like the TV), and that the parents can't shield their children from what's going to happen. It creates subtle anxiety in the audience.
And in the same scene, Robbie notices his fork and spoon are bent, apparently for no reason...
Diane watches as the dog barks like crazy at a mark on the wall in their bedroom...the mark is from the previous night when the phantasmagorical spirits shot out of the TV and into the wall (which only CarolAnne saw). Dogs are a very reliable indicator of danger, being able to sense things humans can't. It's crazy barking at the mark is another sign that something is very wrong in this house and about to get worse...
And then there is this bit of business with the dining room chairs moving themselves, another normal household set of objects that are supposed to be reliable and predictable, acting up for seemingly no reason...
And then moments later when Diane looks away and then is shocked to see the chairs have stacked themselves...if you notice, this is the first time in the movie where the adults notice a measureable physical presence in the house. And the audience (after seeing the creepy spirits come out of the TV the night before), is really on edge at this point.
When Steven comes home, he finds Diane having been experimenting with the chairs, invesitgating their ability to move on their own. When it moves across the floor, Diane jumps up and down, elated at what's happening. This is actually a very clever way the filmmakers disarm the audience, by creating a sense of discovery and joy about these abnormal forces with Diane...
but with the audience already having seen the very malevolent forces that threatened CarolAnne the night before without Diane's knowledge...it's a trick to keep the audience off balance, and involved in trying figure out what the intention of these forces are.
All of this benign, comforting setup in the first act of Poltergeist is what creates such effective horror later on, because the progression is so extreme. We care about the Freeling family because they are such warm, funny people who get along and love each other...and their suburban environment is warm and inviting.