Halloween Classics: Generations

It's Halloween, kids!  The day we've all been waiting for!  In culmination of this writing project (whew!), it's time to stop messing around with Dum-Dums and get into some Milky Ways -- 3 classics from 3 generations, each viewed in a different context.


Poltergeist - 1982
Written by Steven Spielberg  Michael Grais & Mark Victor
Directed by Tobe Hooper

I don't think I'd seen Poltergeist since I was a kid, but it's pretty ubiquitous when it comes to lists of best haunting & ghost stories, so I thought it was time to take a look at it again.

In brief; "typical" white American suburban family complete with 2.5 kids and dog is living the dream of the 80s in a homogenous Southern California housing development.  Actually, it's the same homogenous Southern California housing development used for Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (filmed concurrently), which I think makes an interesting statement about homogenous American suburbs in itself.  One suburb is all suburbs and all suburbs are the same.  It's even more telling that these are desirable places from which to escape difference.  Scary.

So much for "in brief," but as I was saying, white-bread family in indistinct house (the film even points this out, so I don't think I'm totally off-base here) starts to experience strange and unusual occurrences, largely centered around youngest daughter Carol Anne.  First she's talking to the TV (more on this later), then chairs are moving around the kitchen, then -- BAM! -- the creepy tree is devouring son Robbie, seemingly as a distraction for sucking Carol Anne into a closet vortex.  It really seemed to escalate rather quickly then settle into a much slower arc of investigation and exposition before unleashing even bigger spooky effects.

Now, even as a kid, I remember being a little skeptical about the effects.  There are a few big ones that just don't make sense to me from a haunting perspective, and don't hold up from a technical standpoint.  For example, I don't see the point of a big, giant zombie head popping out of the closet, and it just looks like a big ol' model to me.  There's a spectral door guardian late in the movie about which I feel much the same only more so, and it uses a film layering technique that I never found convincing.  that being said, there are still a lot of practical effects that hold up better than the optical effects, and there's even one particular optical effect that I still find particularly chilling.

While I may see the effects as uneven and outdated in places, I was really surprised by how well the story itself holds up, outside of certain pacing issues.  Like I said, it seems to escalate rather quickly, then drag in the middle before jamming on the gas again toward the end.  I think it would be much creepier building slowly, going as far as to suggest that the para-psychologist and crew might be brought in BEFORE Carol Anne's disappearance and shuffling a couple of the other spooky set-pieces.  There are times after her disappearance where the family seems to forget to be as upset as they should be.  Nevertheless, it's a very solid haunting tale that plays strongly on parental fears and concerns about the kinds of worries about home and hearth that drive people to the suburbs in the first place.

Indeed, subtext was what I found most fascinating as an adult viewer with little chance of being surprised by a familiar story.  Where director Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be seen as a metaphor for America's culture wars, Poltergeist very strongly depicts an environment in which the counter-culture has surrendered to raise them up a passel o' young'uns.  Mom still likes a toke before bed, but Dad can't be bothered to roll a joint anymore, he's so engrossed in TV and a Reagan biography.  This is the same Dad who discovers that he's been selling a community built on top of a field of graves.

Consumerism is a strong, but passively expressed theme.  The product is all.  The dead of the past and the children of the future are both subject to consumption.  Pave over the dead, and bury children in commercialism.  Son Robbie is surrounded by Star Wars merchandise and the commercial ephemera of other pop cultural media.  Carol Anne is consumed by the pre-fab house, her voice trapped inside the television.  The final image in the film is not merely funny, but telling, as Dad pushes the television out of the hotel room.  It's not merely ironic, but symbolic of the control from which he's freeing himself and his family.

Poltergeist didn't work for me in all the same ways that it did when I was a kid, but much to my surprise, it worked for me in some brand new ways.  I understand that they're remaking it next year (heedless consumption of the past again), and it's my default setting to be skeptical of such things, but there's definitely a core there that could certainly be relevant again, and depending on the creative choices made, potentially better executed.  With a little reining in and refocusing, it could be a crisp and haunting tale.

Rosemary's Baby - 1968
Written & Directed by Roman Polanski
from the Novel by Ira Levin

This was my first time watching what many consider one of the scariest movies ever.  I guess it makes a difference when you see it.  Yeah, this is one that's going to get me banned from the clubhouse.

In brief (I promise this time), Rosemary & Guy, a young couple (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) move into a new apartment in New York.  The building has long been connected with brutal and scandalous rumors.  Shortly after moving in, they hear spooky chanting from the apartment next door.  The first neighbor they meet is a young woman recovering from drug addiction with the help of the elderly couple next door.  She's soon dead of an apparent suicide, but Rosemary's not so sure.  After that, Minnie & Roman (Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer) the friendly-to-the-point-of-overbearing neighbor couple begins to ingratiate and insinuate themselves into Rosemary & Guy's lives.  Guy, an actor, gets a plum role when the man cast suddenly goes blind.  Rosemary gets pregnant and Minnie takes over her life, sending her to her doctor friend and feeding her drinks with homegrown herbs.  The pregnancy progresses with difficulty, and Rosemary's fear and paranoia grows.  When her friend Hutch falls suddenly ill, eventually dying and leaving her a book about witchcraft, her fears find a name.

The thing that struck me most upon watching the film was seeing where so many other films had come from, like The Exorcist or The Bible.  Like those, its pace drags, it's poorly aged in the context of later works and you kind of have to ignore a lot to be all that scared by it.  Also like The Bible, its gender attitudes should offend the modern viewer.

It doesn't help that the characters are unbearable.  Most of them have an excuse for it what with the Satan worship and all, but even our protagonist, Rosemary, is weak and pathetic even when she's fighting for her life (or rather, her baby's life, and there's the rub).  Maybe it's just the helpless paranoia, maybe it's the era's ideas of women, or maybe it's just that Mia Farrow whines so consistently that intergalactically notorious cry-baby Luke Skywalker starts to look like Dirty Harry.  Nah, it's not just that.  The end felt like a tremendous letdown after all her previous efforts and while I absolutely wanted to go open the jugulars of every one of the Satanists, they were about as menacing as canasta night down at the senior center.

And that's my biggest issue here.  I just didn't find it that scary, or really that engaging.  There's the structure of a tense thriller, but the tedious pace allows the tension to dissolve before our very eyes.  Like I mentioned up front, I think it depends on when in one's life one first sees the movie.  By this stage in my life I've simply seen too many movies.  I've learned how they're built from film makers who learned from Polanski.  I've seen the ways that subsequent movies have developed and expanded upon its elements.  Maybe it's similar to the way that hard bop makes it hard for me to appreciate the more predictable structures of ragtime.

Whatever it is, the time for Rosemary's Baby has passed for me, in more ways than one.

The Descent - 2005
Written & Directed by Neil Marshall

British film, The Descent is hands-down one of the best horror movies of the modern era.  To a certain extent, it's almost two great horror movies.  The full measure of its greatness, however, is subject to which version of the film you see, and whether you prefer an earned outcome or an obligatory horror twist.  More about THAT at the end.

The Descent distinguishes itself among horror films in a number of ways.  First of all, the core cast is entirely women, and not any candy-ass prom queen women either.  These six women are adventure sports enthusiasts and know how how adrenaline feels.  The first scene shows several of them on a white water rafting expedition, with central figure Sarah's (Shauna McDonald) husband and daughter meeting them at the end.  These girls rule.

Moments later, Sarah and her family are in a terrible accident on the road with Sarah the only survivor.

A year later, she's still recovering from the loss, but determined to forge ahead so they get the band back together (with a new addition) and the six women head off for a bit of spelunking in the Appalachians. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, their self-involved limit-pushing friend Juno (the one who previously shared meaningful glances/averted gazes with Sarah's late husband) has led them not to the well-known intermediate cave to which they believed they were going, but to a completely uncharted cave.

The first half of the film is like its own movie.  Once the women descend into the cave, the only way out is through.  The exploration and natural dangers of their situation are remarkably tense, with the question of what will happen when the rest of the group realizes Juno's selfish folly weighing foremost in our minds.  Claustrophobia reigns as they crawl through narrow passages.  We feel the weight of the earth threatening to crush them.  Once the gain a fuller grasp of their situation, the tension ratchets higher.  A deep crevasse must be traversed.  Even as we feel their sinews stretched and muscles strained, we're captured by the mystery of "If this cave is undiscovered, where did that funky old piton come from?"  I could have totally watched an entire movie about them just struggling to survive this dangerous cave amid growing character tension.

Then it gets worse... so much worse.  They discover a chamber filled with ancient paintings a la Lascaux, depicting wild beasts and a mountain with two exits, so there's hope... until the creatures attack.

The second half of the movie turns the survival horror up to eleven.  Like many things in The Descent, it skips the exposition and allows us to figure out what's really going on, and evidently what is going on is that an evolutionary spur of subhumans have developed in this cavern; savage, sightless creatures.  Panic splinters the team and each individual or cluster is responsible for their own survival.

This part of the movie is deeply frightening and highly brutal.  There is gore, but not for gore's sake.  At all bloody junctures, my thought was "Well yeah, of course that's how it would be."  The sensation of fear is so electric that, when one of the most shocking deaths I've ever seen in a horror movie occurs, it makes perfect sense.  In fact, all of the deaths are completely reasonable in the context of the story, not merely a variety of ways that the creators thought up to devastate a human body for the amusement of blood-thirsty viewers.

Throughout this, Sarah demonstrates a thoughtful and powerful commitment to survival.  I mention this because it's highly relevant to the meaning of the alternate endings.

The Descent is original, well acted, cleverly written and freakin' beautifully shot.  Marshall has packed it with iconic frames, which, as others have pointed out, are cribbed from other imagery in such way as to indicate that he has learned his lesson and knows what he's doing.  The element of fear here is virtually unparalleled.  It's like a "Best of" compilation of different sense of primal fear, all assembled into one magnificent package.  It's tense, mistrustful, creepy, startling, shocking, horrific, gruesome, thrilling, terrifying and more.  It's damn near perfect.

...unless you see the wrong ending.

There are two versions of The Descent, and as far as I'm aware the only difference is the end.  One is the American Theatrical Release (AKA the R-rated version) and the other is alternately referenced as the British, Director's Cut or Unrated version.  I personally believe that the Theatrical version is "correct" and rescued the film from a foolish impulse on Marshall's part which completely undermines the story and betrays its entire meaning.  I will discuss this in greater detail below, but I don't recommend that discussion for people who haven't seen the movie.  I already feel badly enough for how much I've already said.  In his (rave) review of The Descent, Roger Ebert implored viewers not to let anyone talk to them about the movie until they'd seen it for themselves.  Bear in mind, it was the Theatrical release he was reviewing.


Seriously, don't read this unless you've seen the movie.  No, not even if you can't help your compulsive little self.  Just walk away.  You have been warned.  You're only ruining it for yourself.

Last warning.  Do not enter.


In the American Theatrical Release, Sarah escapes from the cave, makes her way to the trucks and races away from there like a bat out of a fairly literal Hell.  Fade to black.  Credits.

In the British Release, she races away from there like a bat out of a fairly literal Hell, then pulls over to cry, gets startled by a passing semi truck, vomits... and suddenly sees Juno next to her in the truck.  Screaming, she awakens back in the cave and imagines her daughter there with a birthday cake as the creatures close in on her from all sides.  This is some bullshit.

First of all, the American version is very clearly edited in a slap-dash way and loses some nice moments.  Where she pulls over to cry and vomit; those are earned moments.  The first time I saw The Descent, I saw the Unrated or Director's Cut, and I was bawling.  When she vomited, I spoke back to the television in sympathy.  But once Juno appears and she wakes up in the cave -- again, some bullshit.

And here's why.

Sarah EARNED that escape.  We see how hard she fights every step of the way.  There is NO indication that she has any "lay down and die" in her.  Yes, once or twice she does imagine her daughter prior to the bullshit ending, but those visions occur at times when she needs to be spurred on, when she needs that little extra help to bring her focus back to moving forward and surviving.  It's COMPLETELY contradictory for her to fight as hard as she did only to up and decide to be a crazy quitter in the end.  Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, if her true desire was to lay down and die to rejoin her daughter, I don't believe that it's literarily or psychologically realistic that she would dream/hallucinate such a thorough escape.  She survived the loss, she survived the cave, she was reborn from the earth as a force unto herself.

The other ending simply doesn't add up.  It has the stink of obligatory "gotcha" all over it.  There's a common attitude among horror fans and evidently among directors that "happy" endings are inherently invalid, that they somehow diminish the film's commitment to horror if you don't walk away from it feeling completely hopeless.  Now, I'm certainly someone who likes a happy ending, but what I like most is an earned and appropriate ending that faithfully concludes the narrative arc with a sense of closure that is consistent with story and character.  The daughter-with-a-birthday-cake ending doesn't do that.  The Cake is a Lie.

It's been suggested by some individuals (clearly desperate to validate this cheap, bullshit ending) that Sarah was hallucinating a lot sooner, and that she may have even been the one who killed her friends and imagined the creatures.  Yeah; no.  The film just doesn't make the case for that, even if the director is willing to allow for it.  You don't just get to pull "It was all in her head" out of your ass without supporting it.  By that logic, you could slap 30 seconds onto the end of ANY movie to change its meaning.  SHRIEK!  And then Leia wakes up and she's still in that cell on the Death Star and she's really just a prostitute.  SHRIEK!  And then Rose has a flash of consciousness as she sinks beneath the waves and realizes that she steered the ship into the iceberg and Jack was just a passenger who pushed her into the water in the name of justice.  SHRIEK!  And then Anne Frank wakes up at home in Canton, Ohio and realizes there wasn't a war, she's not even Jewish, and Hitler is just the name of the neighbor's mean old Rottweiler.

Sarah lives.  The End.

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