Amityville Poltergeist, The - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, December 02, 2007

We're writing a haunted house movie, so we watched the AMITYVILLE HORROR and POLTERGEIST. I'd never seen the first, but I remember the second one being molto scary when I saw it in my 20's.

Lordy, how lame they seem now?

Is it the cheesy special effects? The late 70's styles, which seem so off now?

Or is it the really terrible acting and dialog?

For me, what's at the heart of the problem is that nothing is going on except haunting. You take a perfectly nice happy family with no problems -- something that doesn't exist -- and throw it into a perfectly nice happy place, and then we're all waiting for something to happen.

Here's my recipe for a haunted house movie: they're already having problems. They're arguing and not talking to each other enough. So you're interested in them, and something interesting is going on during the spaces between the supernatural incidents. And of course, they don't give up their point of view -- they don't stop arguing about whatever it was. Because people don't. Soldiers will keep arguing about who stole whose dessert while they're waiting for the next barrage -- even if only to keep their minds off being under fire.

Ideally, the resolution of the haunting has some relation to the problem that they were having interpersonally. As if the haunting was the universe's way of helping them solve their problem.

None of that in POLTERGEIST.

And I have to keep asking myself "why don't they get the hell out of the house?" Especially when they have retrieved their daughter from the maw of Hell. I mean, that's what movers are for.

But both these movies were huge hits. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR grossed $86 mil in box office, on a Samuel Z. Arkoff budget.

What made them work at the time?

Was there some collective unconscious thing going at the time?

I bet you THE SHINING is still alarming. I still have to turn the sound down on ALIEN, and I know John Hurt isn't going to finish his porridge.

Why did they work then? Why do they seem so lame now?

Or am I just, y'know ... old?

Labels:

10 Comments:

Amityville was a huge book before it was a movie, and was part of the zeitgeist of the period (as was THE EXCORCIST, ROSEMARY'S BABY, and Erich Von Danieken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS).

It was a period when horror moved from the dark castle on the hill and right into our homes. People bought into it, because they had seen the aftermath of Vietnam and were disillusioned with "government and authority" after Nixon resigned. "What else was the government keeping from us?" was a huge theme of the time, and this led many people to present "factual" accounts of real hauntings, ufos, etc...

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 12:16 PM  

What Mr. Cunningham said may explain Amityville and Exorcist, but I think Poltergeist was too much later to fit. It's just a Speilberg creepy special-effects bonanza.

I love Poltergeist as much now as I did when I first saw it as a child. My family and I watch it a couple times a year. It's scary and funny and exciting and wonderous and it's got JoBeth Williams.

We can agree to disagree, but your recipe sounds like exactly what makes me not like so many horror/thriller/action/anything movies. Families that spend the entire time fighting each other instead of dealing with the threat. I think families and soldiers do stop arguing in the middle of a ghost attack or artillery barrage. Tense situations don't need to solve all problems, but they at least delay the fighting over them. Bring up the relationship stuff when the main threat isn't foremost in their minds (and in the audience's), but only at those points where no one can yet know what they're up against. Or when they think they're safe.

What happens with what you're planning (in nearly every other movie) is that the warring parties have a heart to heart at an extremely inappropriate moment, then they defeat whatever foe they are facing and the experience brings everyone together. Then they live happily ever after. It's like an old-fashioned sitcom, but no one is laughing.

Don't play up the family squabbles too much. People who sit around fighting while I'm watching the evil monster hunt them down leave me wanting to see them sucked into the closet by the creepy clown doll ("just shut up and fight the bad guy already!").
The family in Poltergeist may not have had any fascinating problems (kid afraid of storms, daughter who talks on the phone late at night) but they didn't have any annoying ones either. They had the same problems my family had. At least, the ones we want to watch a movie about.

By Blogger Tom, at 12:29 PM  

I agree with Tom,

mini-rant here.

I love the first Poltergeist, I think it really works - and the shit is scary, still is, when the clown comes to life, when the guy rips his face off, and when the girl looks at the television and says, "they're here," I mean, come on, Alex, that's cool, admit it, heh-heh.

The nice thing is we see a nice, suburban family and what their life is like before it gets all torn apart because they're digging a hole for a swimming pool that happens to be where a bunch of bodies are buried . . .

Scariness ensues . . .

And why do they have to have problems? Hasn't that been done to death?

These days whenever someone has an issue with someone else in a movie, I know they're gonna resolve that inner conflict before the outer one is . . . and it bores me . . . and it ain't just me, my brother in Iowa (who's a carpenter) notices the same things these days . . .

You see a world and then see a world overthrown on it's head becuz a little girl got sucked into the television . . . me likey a lot.

By Blogger Joshua, at 12:54 PM  

By making the hauntees a happy, problemless family besides the fact that Hell is dragging them away one by one, you would make the story jarring. By connecting the external threat (the supernatural events) with the internal, familial threat (family issues), you make the story make sense. Instead of the threat in the story being external to the existing utopia, it can reflect the internal problems being experienced by the victims, making it more personal and making the characters richer. My opinion.

By Blogger Mowery, at 4:29 PM  

More thoughts. I just saw "The Mist" today and it has all the problems I'm talking about. While this creepy mist has surrounded the building and it becomes clear that it or something inside it is deadly to humans, the people in the store continue to haggle with each other over petty issues that have no effect on whether or not they live to the next day. So the local guy resents the out-of-towner for being a fancy lawyer from New York City. Meanwhile, monsters are eating people alive. And they choose this moment to snipe at each other. (The bad dialogue didn't help).

Compare that to Spielberg's "War of the Worlds". That family has plenty of problems. And even if I didn't particularly like the son or the father, they didn't make me hate them by arguing when they should be running. They only opened up on each other when they were able to rest for a while.

I think that's the key. Take characters that weren't getting along and force them to work together to survive. But the bickering just can't be done at the expense of survival. Then it just seems stupid.

By Blogger Tom, at 10:50 PM  

If you're curious about what a meeting with studio executives is like, just read the above comments and imagine that they are coming at you across a boardroom table -- and they are not suggestions, but directives.

Oh, my head hurts.

By Blogger Wil Z, at 12:47 AM  

Now imagine working in TV, and you have two networks -- and one is saying "they should have a mundane issue they're arguing about!" and the other is saying "we love that they don't have some stupid mundane issue they're arguing about!"

Heh.

One one show we had one network saying "more action" and the other saying "less violence!" And the set was only big enough to run 20'.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:40 AM  

I dunno. I watched Blair Witch Project with my son yesterday, and it was super scary. The characters bickered constantly, and that made it seem real. Simply running from peril is kinda boring to watch.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 10:42 AM  

""One one show we had one network saying "more action" and the other saying "less violence!" And the set was only big enough to run 20'."

I find it uproariously funny that somehow your one network equated "action" with "violence".

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 11:39 AM  

"I dunno. I watched Blair Witch Project with my son yesterday, and it was super scary. The characters bickered constantly, and that made it seem real. Simply running from peril is kinda boring to watch."

Well that's one of the things I didn't like about that movie didn't. Personal taste and all that.
But at least in Blair Witch, the characters didn't stop addressing the problem of being lost/stalked in order to fight each other. They may have bickered, but they kept walking.
I've lost my original point, but that's what's bugging me now (having seen "The Mist"). Personality conflict can't conflict with survival.

By Blogger Tom, at 5:29 PM  

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