There is no doubt poring over Poltergeist's images should provide ample extemporary beneficiary results, independent of "the side you're on" and the curious project of looking bit-by-bit at a text that has been much source of fired-up argument. The most subtle of visual decisions illuminate hidden designs with each viewing (a trademark of Hooper, it must be said), but we will surely reap the benefit of the fact of the almighty collaboration, between minds, production outfits (in a nutshell, Hooper, Spielberg, and ILM), and all levels of competence, from the grounded performances to the pure cosmetics of the film's commercial fore (spanning the expertise of designers to the superficial attractiveness of its cast and generic, likable characters). This film is a rare product where Hooper's artistry melds with something popular and salient to total audience gratification. I should feel lucky to have it: Poltergeist is my most precious pop culture object. It is my horror Close Encounters (pop-SF Ur text), my two-hour Lord of the Rings trilogy. Imagine if Star Wars benefited from a minute-to-minute appreciation of its aesthetic minutiae (ha). Imagine if Spielberg was known for his artistic restraint (on occasion). Dissecting Poltergeist is a rare gift offering both entertainment and a glimpse at elegance - even I must thank Spielberg for having the pleasure.
Excerpts from Steven Spielberg's first draft of the screenplay will be presented in supplement, and the discrepancies between script and screen might serve to illuminate the possible thought processes that might have occurred behind the scenes of Poltergeist's filming. Of course, this is the most meaningless of evidence, as a film always alters and elaborates (visually) in inspired ways from the mere blueprint of the script - and who is doing the alteration is still up in the air. For this is a one-hundred percent fact for every filmmaker or scriptwriter-filmmaker, from the talented to the most mediocre. But, for the sake of the curiosity in reproducing the script in tandem with the image, let's say it's something to go on.
Poltergeist begins with the most austere of openings. Of course we can thank Spielberg for such a dynamic opening, a viable pre-credit stinger of mood and mystery-creating, fashioned to pull the "visually-desiring" audience in right away with potent evocations. It is the guaranteed pop image as aperitif to the deluxe entertainment package that awaits us: Jaws's two-punch editorial trick of slick underwater photography meshed with its own shock prologue created the sleek dramatic promise of that film, while Close Encounters of the Third Kind builds similar mystery to Poltergeist with alien strings and human men yelling tropes over a windswept Arizonan desert landscape. Poltergeist gets straightaway to the theme of electronic transmission as foreign infiltrator of domestic space and realm we may not completely understand (perhaps similar to how Jaws first presents us with the image of the underwater depths). As Hooper himself admitted when trying to defend his right to ownership of the film, paraphrased (his subtext, with liberty, translated), "Spielberg did write the thing," and Poltergeist's austere evocation of faceless nationalism is the oddest and most unnerving of introductory images, in line with Spielberg's ability to find menace and to dramatically pervert normally American-as-apple-pie imagery. The congealed bodies of the soldiers as appeared in silhouette on camera suggests the intermingling souls invading the house and that often manifest as one unified specter (most prominently, the floating lady). Taking the US's prided War Memorial statue and transfiguring its figures into spectres of faceless ghoulishness swiftly drags this mainstream film down to the high ranks of Bob Clark, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, and their school of genre trash-art and passive-aggressive political subterfuge. In this opening moment, Poltergeist exhibits a tastelessness that immediately marks it out to be something clever and special, just slightly more acerbic than Jaws's merciless instilling of God-fearing into a vapid and insouciant hippie girl.
The camera musically pulls out. Passing by the sleeping figure of Steven (the dad), his arm jerkily drops in the frame, in choreography with the camera (not beyond Spielberg, not beyond Hooper, to insist on such choreographed whimsy). The dog comes in, perfectly timed. Both filmmakers, who are not so stylistically unalike, in truth, are capable of choreography, but I feel Hooper has the foot up in perfect timing.
Perfect compositional segues occur throughout this opening scene in the following of the spatial trajectories of the dog through a created pattern of pans. In this first instance, the camera whips along with the dog and eventually faces towards the stairs, panning up and, in some variation of the perfect angle, capturing the dog perfectly caught in the undulations of the film's centerpiece staircase.
The dog first brings us to the image of Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams), allowed from the first frame to be sexy. Not beyond Spielberg, as one of my favorite things about Close Encounters of the Third Kind is Melinda Dillon serving as an earthy, Goddess-like figure of temptation for the childlike Roy.
Dana Freeling provides us with our first gag. I will have a lot to say about Dana Freeling, played by the tragic figure of Dominique Dunne. The character of Dana adds a lot of color to the film yet falls widely short of purpose, which is what makes her presence so great. Lacking purpose, she is repurposed as an agent of almost-invisible texture, being primarily used to exhibit the more mundane emotions that the rest of our more heroic characters (the more clearly narrative devices) cannot.
Not so much here, of course. The "potato chip" gag is - we laugh, the filmmaker(s) laughs - just a(n overly-edited) gag.
With dear Carol Anne, we come to the film's first breakthrough moment: a creeping dolly-in towards the sleeping figure of the little girl as the dog exits and we exit the animal's point-of-view. It is the melodic passing off of narrative priority from the one (the dog) to the next, done through the explicit imbuing of thought and agency to the camera, a subtle transition from the mechanical - the whip-panning - to the thinking and harmonious (within the same shot!). One can pinpoint such melodies from Spielberg, but you can also pinpoint them in Hooper. The passing-off of the camera style from the mechanical to the conscious hints at something more precisely rhetorical than usual, though, a hint of the unmotivated premonitions of Hooper's camera over Spielberg's more traditional camera of dramatic reaction.
Just like the dog, Carol Anne is framed as perfectly "caught" in the "jaws" - or "maw" - of the Mouth of Heaven/Hell that is the house's almost Occult-fashion corkscrew stairs. Poltergeist's images stand unmatched (except, perhaps, by other Hooper films) as precise images.
My second favorite shot in this scene: the moving camera finally pauses to take in an over-the-shoulder of Carol Anne peering at the TV. Steven is included evenly in the frame, reminder of the very first thing we were introduced to in the scene (apart from the television itself). An image of painterly dimensions, not only for the stately still image itself, but to that previous fact of it suggesting further things within its stillness: a still-faceless adult male, a little girl only presumably his daughter, the obliviousness of both to the other, for the blaring presence of the TV drowns all else. Suddenly she moves, and the camera is set into motion, gliding forward in her tread.
Clearly Hooper: the extreme shallow-focus close-up, frozen and emphasized, consisting of crisply-focused face and mere crystal blurs creating the background (see: The Funhouse. Please.)
The persistence of the staircase in these remaining shots: it is always a background element, soon to be effected, of course, once the mother and remaining children arrive, descending them.
The staircase remains a pivotal element in every shot.
My favorite shot: the family descends the stairs, a slight dolly-in occurring, but most the reverie coming from the astonished forward movement of the three family members in an almost ceremonial, hierarchical line-up.
The mother and family, of course, now stand in the background of these previously-established shots. Exhibited is artistic attention to elements of landscape and the evolving of both aesthetics-of-the-frame and aesthetics-of-reality.