Just uploaded (finally) is my review essay on Steven Spielberg’s production of Poltergeist, the supernatural-ghost-story-horror-thriller released around June of 1982 to audiences probably wondering what kind of film lay beyond the arresting ad campaign that showed a little girl touching a big TV screen in a very dark living room.
The poster was in black & white, had very few words (“They’re here”), and didn’t feature the inflated head of whatever big name star heading the cast. The movie was actually marketed creatively, and somehow we’ve ruined the advances in graphic poster design and campaign art that began around the fifties when proponents and pioneers such as Saul Bass gave us a graphic representation of a film using a visual hook and/or tag line.
Had Alien (1979) been made today, Fox would never have used Ridley Scott’s brilliant trailer of a pulsing beat-cracking eggshell montage, nor the corresponding poster of an egg ready to sprout an evil green miasma, nor the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream.”
In 2010, the campaign for Poltergeist would probably show the star’s head looking afraid near a TV set, and ghosts swirling around the frightened little body of a child, whereas the home video campaign would just have the star’s big head – because apparently that’s all people care about. (‘Craig T. Nelson looks awfully stern around those ghosts. Looks like a must-see/can’t miss renter.’)
Director Tobe Hooper wanted unknowns because a star would’ve mucked up the plan to get audiences bonding with an Average American Family: two yuppie parents (one a confirmed pothead in Reagan “Say No to Drugs” era), their two daughters, a son, a dog, a dead bird named Tweety, and fish who would likely die soon from overfeeding.
The film made the news as the summer’s must-see shocker, and also started to raise questions about what exactly constitutes a PG film, since Poltergeist had at least one very gory sequence that somehow snuck past the MPAA censors. (Lore has it that the film’s shock sequences ran longer and gorier purposely to force the MPAA weasels to compromise on allowing some gore – a ploy Alfred Hitchcock successfully used by larding Psycho with provocative language guaranteed to force a compromise.)
I missed Poltergeist in theatres for reasons I just don’t know; I’ve no memory of the fuss that magnetically drew audiences into theatres, but my friend went, and by the time I started listening more attentively, it was too late. Luckily there was VHS, and when Poltergeist made it to home video, we watched on what else – the Poltergeist TV.
This is where I have to pause, because if you want to read the lengthy essay that tackles the film’s structure, characters, directorial authorship headache, home video versions, lack of new special features, transfer, and more importantly, its position as the best representation of Spielberg’s idyllic suburban lifestyle, you should read the piece which runs a bit more than the average review. Warner Home Video’s released a great Blu-ray edition in terms of transfer, sound, and presentation, but it still falls short of the extras fans have wanted for decades. (And yes, I address the lack of custom extras, since 2012 marks the film’s 30th anniversary, and there’s still time to assemble a great special edition before some people respire into the netherworld of upper suburbia. Ahem.)
Lastly, I’ve also added a review of the long-forgotten TV movie that followed in Poltergeist’s wake: Don’t Go to Sleep, which had child star Oliver Robins again playing a kid whose life is threatened by a malevolent spirit. If you remember some TV movie you saw as a kid in where a rolling pizza cutter is travelling towards Valerie Harper, this is the one.
Now let’s love on to an anecdotal tribute to the best TV ever made: that 27” Sony.
My affection for the film has actually wavered over the years for a few easy reasons: when the movie was new, it was great; after subsequently seeing several Spielberg films set in the suburbs, it seemed clichéd, and one got tired of seeing actors looking at bright blue lights in ridiculous maw-gaping wonderment.
Spielberg’s short-lived TV series Amazing Stories was awful, and that soured my interest in the producer/director’s wave of family-friendly Amblin’ productions. I was also a bit older than the key kiddie demographic, so it all seemed trite.
I watched the film on laserdisc, letterbox for the first time, and the reaction was more positive, but a bit ‘meh’ towards the movie as a whole: looks and sounds were awesome, but the story and sentimentality were creaky.
Then maybe 15 years passed and for some reason this thing looked good. Actually, really good. And it’s not necessarily due to nostalgia, because I wasn’t fond of the eighties during the eighties and still ain’t (sort of).
I doubt it’s exactly nostalgia, but more of a shock at how well the film represents a chunk of eighties childhoods, because that was what the ‘burbs were like, circa 1982.
It’s still an ideal (read the film essay), but that lifestyle is what many families were adopting as both working parents had enough income to move out of their starter homes and upgrading to bigger houses with larger lawns, double-car driveways and garages, and new jobs in recently expanded suburbs that were a year ago farmer’s markets or grassy nothing.
This certainly was the norm in North York around 1970-1971 when nothing farmland existed beside Finch Avenue, Victoria Park Avenue, and Woodbine Avenue (which was soon flipped farther east because old Woodbine became the 404 highway. I used to ride my bike on the bumpy side of the trough where the new highway was being erected a stone’s throw from the new Fairview Mall.)
That corner pocket of what became Finch/Victoria Park was Poltergeist’s enclave of Cuesta Verde. It was (still is) a hilly suburban subdivision developed on what used to be a farm, and was rumored to be an old Indian burial ground. No idea where that last tidbit came from, but that’s what I remember hearing at an early age.
When we moved into the neighbourhood, the driveways hadn’t been paved, there was no park across the street, and the backyard was a great big dirt mound that would eventually get dredged to erect the next street. Beyond that street was the field that sloped towards what became the 404, and the field had a lone path cut by people heading out to the new North York Seneca College campus.
I once rode down the path excitedly until I realized I was flanked by tall dry grass beholding bugs that could sting. I had to peddle backwards because there was no room for a U-turn without irritating the insectoids and being killed before dinner.
About maybe 10 years later my best friend moved out and into the latest Cuesta Verde in Thornlea, and like the movie version, could only be accessed by car. Her father was the first person I knew who owned something called a Video Cassette Recorder, and this thing could record movies off TV for free, and you could keep them and watch them ad nausea. His device was a top-loader Betamax, and I think he got it around 1978 or 1979, and had the Jerrold cable box whose rows of push buttons generated TV stations beyond the 12 we got on my parents’ 1968 black & white Admiral set.
When her family moved to Thornlea, the new house clearly needed new gear, and my first visit was magical because there were these two great big beautiful Sony TVs. The main floor living room where my friend’s mom played Mahjong (my friend pronounced it with an extended “Maaaaaaa-jong” delay) had maybe a 14” of tubage, but the basement was the media room, and there sat a 27” Sony. It was big and beautiful, paneled in wood, and in typical suburban behaviour, even as an ex-neighbour, I wanted one, even though I was maybe 12.
Back on my old street, I had two neighbours who shared the same sloping driveway for their semi-detached homes. Both had Volkswagens. When one bought an Audi, the other eventually did the same and bought an Audi. When the next upgrade was a Mercedes 380 sedan, the other stopped, because that exceeded his economic status. End of the Do-Like-the-Jones Olympics.
When the neighbour in the house to the other side got a new TV, it was that big Sony, and when my dad heard that Ira has one, and Albert now had grabbed one on sale, my dad had to have one – even though we had just upgraded maybe a year earlier to a 14” RCA colour tube set + RCA top-loading VCR (which died a year into its extended warrantee, and was promptly replaced by a JVC front-loader – which still lives).
We hopped down to Mann’s (the stereo & TV emporium owned & operated by Ron Mann’s dad) and had to make a serious choice: that same Sony, knocked down from $2,000 to $1,500; or the model up, knocked down from $2,500 to $2,000.
$500 in, what, 1985 was a lot of money, so we (sorry, my dad) went for the first model, since the tubes were the same size, and had shared features.
Now, you can imagine the goofiness of socially moving between three households and seeing the same TV set. At Xmas and Easter dinners at Albert’s, there was the Sony. At movie weekends at Ira’s, there was the Sony, and at home in our own crude but wood-paneled leisure room, there was the Sony. This was part of the suburban ideal: you and your neighbours shared roughly the same toys, and it was a sign of progress, not greed, jealousy, or materialistic insanity.
(Oh stop it. Let me go on.)
The Sony represented a key ingredient that was rampant in Poltergeist and the Spielbergian suburban ideal: people had the income to be current with the latest leisure gear and appliances that made life comfortable. Two cars, a leisure room that itself was a nascent form of the home theatre, a washer + dryer, dishwasher, and big rooms where each child could play in privacy until mom’s last call for dinner was genuine.
Through objects, jokes, and set décor, the neighbourhood dramatized in Poltergeist’s Cuesta Verde existed in California, Toronto, and everywhere else, and that’s one of the reasons burbanites probably have some affection for Spielberg’s films: they were a snapshot of the good life you could enjoy if you had working parents, a parent with a well-paying gig, or a mortgage (or vivid imagination spawned by childish envy).
It’s an ideal rooted in materialism, and most people are materialistic to some degree; it’s one’s economic situation and how it impacts one’s psychology, ego, latent mania for toys that determine whether one cherishes stuff, or stays sensible and saves hard-earned money instead of spending like a goofball- er, good consumer.
The Freeling family’s life in a neighbourhood still in transition is no different than any family who snagged their first home, moved in, and had to contend with roaring bulldozers, paving machines, and pounding sounds in the daytime as the next street down was erected.
This isn’t the same as moving into a new condo; the suburban home experience – semi-detached or fully – is unique, and in all honesty, I cherish my memories living in a car-centric development because my life in the ‘burbs wasn’t the Durham County experience. There were hydro towers nearby – but a good 10 mins. by car, so we were safe from Fried Brain Syndrome.
There were Tupperware parties on my street, craft sales in basements (I still have a rice-filled frog named Mary), my mother did batik and our plants were in hand-made clay pots that were often suspended in macramé holders created by Albert’s wife, BBQs between neighbours, and the odd invite to a cottage (the Audi-Mercedes neighbours had cottages).
The was the odd break-in, but there were no dead bodies under the foundation because at least in Toronto, homes in the seventies & onwards were built with basements, so they’d have found dead people and done something about it before continuing with the sewers and secret government stuff.
We didn’t have an evil Teague who developed the rolling streets of semi-detached homes; instead we had incompetent wiring by a major company that we smacked with a lawsuit (you do NOT connect aluminum wires to copper-rated sockets), baseboard heating that dried out your throat and overheated to dangerous levels. rotten windows the cheap builders installed that were breezy in winter and warped in summer, and a driveway built on clay that warped from the weight of parked cars.
Paradise. You know.
I saw Poltergeist on the Poltergeist TV, and I didn’t get the irony until years later when it hit me (why then?) that I had the Poltergeist TV. And my parents’ house may have resided on hallowed land. And the house had weird electrical oddities. And people’s voices sometimes fuzzed though the stereo and TV speakers when the power was off. And I almost got brained by my mother’s torpedo-tipped clay pot holder that for 10+ years was otherwise safely suspended from the ceiling until one day it decided it wanted freedom, seconds after I passed under it.
When I moved out of the house, the TV (which I affectionately dubbed Carol Anne) came with me, and she remained the main set until I upgraded to a freakin’ huge 36” JVC tube in 1999 for $1,600. Then Carol went into the bedroom.
I rented a disintegrating house for about 8 years that resembled the Fight Club House on rainy days (the ceiling actually collapsed once) and had Buffalo Bill’s basement from Silence of the Lambs (all unfinished, half-assed carpentry, and ducts lined with spiders I nicknamed Bruce because of their size and ability to procreate like rabbits).
In the dying house, Carol Anne was the TV that sat in the bedroom, and there was one night where I had a dream-within-a-dream: every time I closed my eyes I’d hear this incredible pounding, like a giant fist smacking the house from maybe the upper bedroom corner. (The force sounded so profound that the hits resonated from several places.)
Carol Anne was also integral to the finale of an unfinished short film of mine because the tube was so big and easy to photograph. That Sony model was indestructible, and every time it seemed to be on the verge of death, it snapped out of it.
Old neighbour Albert eventually replaced his tube because it died, and it cost $800+ about 20-25 years ago, but the Sony set lived on.
Mine started to get a bit greenish until I moved out of a condo (magnetics from a steel support beam?), then it developed diagonal lines on the upper part of the tube display (which sort of stopped), and once in a while the contrast would blow out, emphasizing whites and greens on separate occasions. The oscillator would also squeal if the TV needed a nap.
Most of the time Carol Anne was fine, and there’s something to be said of a CRT tube made around 1984 that was rock solid for its first 20 years. Someone posted this message in a forum, titled “Why won’t my 20 year old tube TV die?”
“We have a 20 year old Sony Trinitron 27” Tube TV in our living room and till this day, it just won’t die.”
It won’t die because they made them that good. The JVC that replaced the Sony is circa 1999, but the model is a good 6 years older than that, and it rated high on a consumers report because of its low maintenance issues.
Manufacturers don’t make singular TV models for 5-10 years; they get replaced by newer machines months later, and people upgrade a lot more often than in the past because there’s poor coordination between the various hardware manufacturers, the software makers, and the computer industry that’s now indistinguishable from the TV industry.
If I could, I’d actually tell you Carol Anne’s model number, but the manual and TV are in deep storage.
It’s so old, it’s off the Google radar.
Vintage Trinitron searches yield XBR and WEGA models. Type “Sony Poltergeist TV” and you get pictures of the poster and CD covers, but no model specs. The closest relative kinda looks like Carol Anne, but it’s not her, and not as old.
Right now the TV’s got boxes of my mother’s (prolific production of) homemade pottery, surrounded by boxes of videotapes, IKEA shelves, and records, but I know that if Carol Anne was rolled out, and her solid wood cabinet was dusted off, her tube Windexed clean, and the remote was refitted with batteries, she would make that familiar “Boomph!’ sound, and as the static snaked through the electrical architecture, a picture would appear from the blankness. The colours would be nice, the detail solid, and the sound in Sony’s faux simulated stereo clean and clear.
I have no intention of turning her into an aquarium. When she’s freed from storage, she’ll be a museum piece in the home, more better than a Poltergeist poster or cast picture signed by every actor.
Sony designed her with care, to the point that if you went on vacation, there was a master power switch under the contrast and colour adjustment knobs that disconnected the set from the AC feed for safety.
Who does that?
Naturally, like all antiques, Carol Anne would have to be plugged in for a day to warm up the circuit boards so she wouldn’t blow up, but think about it: a 31 year old TV model that probably still lives in spite of being stored in an inert locker. I’m pretty sure that if you turn the TV to channel 12 and let the white noise play for a while, you might hear TV People.
I just don’t want to think about the robust egg sacks of little baby Bruces under her cabinet, but if she’s a real Poltergeist TV, the Bruces are what’s been protecting her from vermin.
But that’s my Poltergeist story.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor