Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Great Scene: Poltergeist

Every once in awhile, a movie scene really stands out. Today I want to talk about such a scene. This is a truly brilliant speech from the film Poltergeist, where Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) the medium explains what has happened to Carol Anne. This speech is incredible. In fact, it makes THE film.

(I’ve reproduced the entire speech below, so you can read it.)

Up to this point, the film has set the viewer up perfectly for the climax to come. The film starts by introducing the family through a series of fun and insightful scenes. We are also told something supernatural is going on inside the house. At first, this involved comedic or mischievous moments, such as stacked chairs. But we also saw a more sinister side the family hadn’t, as a spectral arm reached out for Carol Anne one night. Then the force kidnapped Carol Anne.

At the time of this speech, we don't know yet what this force is or how malevolent it really is. We have hints. For example, kidnapping Carol Anne is not a good thing -- though it could just be she walked into another dimension and is lost as happened in a Twilight Zone. But we also saw the force put horrific images into the mind of one researcher. Yet, at the same time, the lead researcher explained to us that death is a beautiful experience and she gives a vision of tranquility, happiness and continuing life beyond. So is it evil? We don’t know yet, but we're about to find out.

As the speech begins, Tangina has just examined the house, telling us it has “many hearts,” meaning many centers of psychic activity. Now she gathers the family together.

She begins by telling us authoritatively the film’s philosophy of death. “There is no death, it is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness.” This opening line is so layered and full of things to consider that it could actually form the basis of an entire movie. It also brilliantly puts the audience at ease and opens the part of our brains which do deep, philosophical thoughts. In other words, this line makes you receptive to profound thoughts, which will cause the horror to come from much deeper within your psyche than if she started with “there’s a monster,” which makes your brain defensive. It is also calming, which creates a greater contrast (i.e. more emotion) as we transition to horror.

She then explains how Carol Anne is alive and how she doesn’t belong where she is. In fact, she’s a bit of a road hazard because she’s distracting dead souls from a guiding light where happiness awaits. Tangina also subtly shifts the afterlife from happy to sad by telling us these souls “desperately desire but can’t have anymore” things like “love and home and earthly pleasures.” The writer has now triggered happiness, peace, reflectiveness and sadness within the audience. In effect, the writer is forcing the audience to become highly emotional. This shuts down the logic center of your brain and turns on the emotional part, which primes you to feel fear.

Then we get our first hint of horror, as Tangina tells us this state of death is actually “a nightmare from which [these souls] cannot awake.”

Now comes the key line: “Now hold onto yourselves.” This line changes the entire feel of the movie. Up to now, everything has been vague. It’s been more about curiosity than it has fear and it’s only offered suggestions of apprehension. This line screams: get tense! I honestly cannot think of a more effective line to cause the audience to stop breathing and brace themselves for the reveal.

With the audience set up, the reveal better be huge. It is. But it’s huge because the writer doesn’t actually do the reveal right away. He could have said, “It’s the beast!” And you would think that was cool, but you'd be disappointed. Instead, he teases the audience and builds the reveal up bit by bit. It is “a terrible presence,”, telling us to fear it. It is “so much rage, so much betrayal.” At this point, you still have no idea what it is, but you can already imagine it's horrible and evil. There is no doubt this is a scary thing.

Then Tangina tells us how strong it is by saying both that “I’ve never sensed anything like it,” meaning this is truly unique, and “it was strong enough to punch a hole into this world and take your daughter.” How strong must something be to “punch a hole” into our world? This is a freak out moment and you still don't know what it is. And she’s not done. She tells us we’re helpless against it by telling us “it hovers over the house,” i.e. it’s been here the whole time watching you and you can’t see it or stop it. Scary!

So it’s finally time for the reveal, right? Not quite. The writer now strikes even deeper. First, he tells us “it keeps Carol Anne very close to it,” which gives us images of some vile dead thing wrapping itself around this child. And then the writer plays on the fear of all parents, that someone will exploit their child’s greatest weakness -- their inability to reason like adults: “it lies to her. It says things only a child can understand.” This is a brilliant line because the writer never has to come up with any specific lies, which would inevitably disappoint. It also adds to the creature’s menace because how do you fight something that knows your child better than you?

Then Tangina ups the stakes by telling us that it is using Carol Anne to “restrain the others.” Think about this for a second. It has punched a hole into our reality and taken Carol Anne for the purpose of using her to keep souls from finding their way to God. That is an incredibly dark motive!

Then we get the reveal: “To her it simply is another child. To us it is the beast.” Wow! Now we know we're up against a chilling, unbeatable foe. But interestingly, we still don't really know what it is. This is fantastic writing because the biggest disappointment in horror films is the reveal of the nature of the horror. Here, the horror is never really revealed. We know its traits and what it wants, but we never really get told what it is -- all we get are suggestions of a monster and we are left to fill in all the details. This is brilliant.

Then the speech finishes with a fascinating fake-out. Tangina says: “Now let's go get your daughter.” This is a fake out because it implies the climax to the film has come. They will fight the beast, defeat it and all will end happily. . . as it appears to do. But the credits don’t start rolling. Instead, much worse is suddenly unleashed into our world and the end of the film provides a completely unexpected second climax. And the only reason it’s unexpected is because Tangina just built up the first fight into a climax with that one line.

This is incredible writing. This is the kind of scene writers should examine to see how to build suspense and change the tone of a film. The writer here does everything right and then some. Bravo!

There is no death. It is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness.

Carol Anne is not like those she's with. She is a living presence in their spiritual, earthbound plane. They're attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves: her life force.

It is very strong. It gives off its own illumination. It is a light that implies life and memory of love and home and earthly pleasures something they desperately desire but can't have anymore.

Right now, she's the closest thing to that and that is a terrible distraction from the real light that has finally come for them. Do you understand me? These souls, who, for whatever reason are not at rest are also not aware that they have passed on. They're not part of consciousness as we know it. They linger in a perpetual dream state a nightmare from which they cannot awake.

Inside this spectral light is salvation. A window to the next plane. They must pass through this membrane where friends are waiting to guide them to new destinies. Carol Anne must help them cross over. And she will only hear her mother's voice.

Now hold onto yourselves.

There's one more thing. A terrible presence is in there with her. So much rage, so much betrayal. I've never sensed anything like it. I don't know what hovers over this house but it was strong enough to punch a hole into this world and take your daughter away from you.

It keeps Carol Anne very close to it and away from the spectral light. It lies to her. It says things only a child can understand. It has been using her to restrain the others.

To her it simply is another child. To us it is the beast.
Now let's go get your daughter.


Ed said...

Excellent breakdown Andrew! I knew it was a speech that got my attention, but I never thought about all that it included. Cool! Are you going to do other scenes from other films?

rlaWTX said...

Her quavery, grandma voice helps with the intensity too.

That movie scared the pea-wadden out of me! For "They're here", to the closet, to the medium...

And good points about not giving too much away and really working with the build up! We're ready for big and bad, and we get it, but we never see too much so we aren't disappointed.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think I will. If you have any great scenes you want discussed, let me know. :)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I agree, she was the perfect actress to play this role because she was both very grandmotherly, seemingly harmless, and yet also kind of creepy -- it was very disconcerting. Beautifully done.

I think the great part of this scene is how they build it up step by step. I think this is one of those scenes perspective writers (in any genre) should look at closely to see how they generate tension and emotion. The movie could have been killed if she'd just walked in the door and said, "you have a poltergeist, let's go fight it." But instead they built it beautifully and then used misdirection to make you think you knew more than you did.

Tennessee Jed said...

interestingly to me, the movie was recently on, and I caught the end of the film from right before when this speech begins. One of the better movies of it's genre. And yes, the actress does one hell of a fine job of delivering the speech. In that sense, the speech makes the film, and the actress sells the speech.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think this speech is pivotal. It changes the whole feel of the film from creepy and interesting to suddenly turning it into horror, and this speech really is all that sells that. In other words, there isn't anything else that builds up the audience for horror and what comes later isn't all that terrifying -- it's mainly them yanking her back and then suddenly a special effects final. This is the speech that really gives the movie ALL of its depth. And it's a beautifully written piece.

I agree too that the actress sells it. She is the perfect actress and uses the perfect mix of friendly and scary to deliver the speech.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie and horror really isn't my genre either. I watch this film and I'm reminded just how on top of the world Spielberg was at the time (along with his collaborators and the cool developments coming from ILM)...

...not to mention the fact that a film like this would never come out today with such a deliberate, casual pace to it and so many "talky" scenes. And speaking of pace, you hit the nail on the head. What you think is the climax of the film is really just the mid-point (maybe 2/3) and the real climax is yet to come.

I know we've talked about Spielberg the director but as a producer, I feel his best films were out of this era: this film, Young Sherlock Holmes, Gremlins, Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Innerspace. I know I hate to sound like "that guy" but they don't make 'em like this anymore!

Incidentally, I watched the E! True Hollywood Story on the making of the trilogy several years ago... spooky stuff! I know it's a series of random events and people like to have fun with this stuff but it's still interesting.

And of course, I can't talk about this film without mentioning the maestro's contribution. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The music has to be mentioned when you talk about this film because it's the first time I can think of that anyone scored a horror story with not-creepy kids music... which made it truly creepy. That's since become a cliche, but this is where it started.

I agree about Spielberg -- this was his best period. I think he was willing to do things that made for great stories back then, even if they didn't fit the formula. These days everything he does is too formulaic.

You're right too that they wouldn't make this film today because it violates all the modern rules of filmmaking regarding talky scenes and lack of action and the irrelevance of the talky scenes. But as you can see, it works.

On the film itself, I think it's genius on so many levels. The effects at the ending aren't in truth very good nor are they all that horrifying, except that the rest of the film sets this up so perfectly. In particular, you spend so long getting to know the family that you can't help but care about them. And then this speech gives pulls you in and a truly presents you with a horrible monster -- something so compelling that it just totally boosts everything else in the film.

I really do think this scene (and this film) are worth studying.

T-Rav said...

Would this be an early Halloween special, Andrew? ;-)

"Poltergeist" scared the pants off nearly everyone I know; although not as much as "It" later did. Further proof that as in every other genre, they don't make horror movies like they did in the '80s or '90s ("Paranormal Activity" and maybe one or two others being possible exceptions).

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Horror is in a bad period right now with slasher flicks dominating the genre.

Halloween special? Why whatever do you mean?

Actually, I haven't got anything planned for Halloween this year. Last year I did horror month for the Film Friday articles in October, this month I haven't... probably should have.

Hmm. Let me think of something for Friday?

CrispyRice said...

We just re-watched this this month! How timely!

And great analysis, Andrew. This really shows how important one scene can be and how important the writing is to that.

Unknown said...

Andrew: That's a lot to pack into one speech, and I know I missed the subtleties when I saw it way back when. Now I'll have to watch it again after many years with a whole different set of presuppositions.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Excellent viewing choice! :)

Yep, I think this shows how important writing really is. These days you hear so much about "showing not telling," but that ignores the reality that quality is quality. In other words, there are times to show, there are times to tell, and there are ways to do both that are effective and ways that are not effective. This speech is one of those effective moments that just literally could not be done better in any other way. And the key to it all is what the writer doesn't say, i.e. what they leave to the imagination.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It's a fascinating speech because when you hear it, it's so gripping that you never notice the subtle manipulation which the writer has achieved. This speech literally is the substance of this film and yet you never realize that because it's so well written that you sit and stare as she tells you what you need to know. It's very impressive writing.

CrispyRice said...

Just a quick "hear hear" to T-Rav's mention of Paranormal Activity. The 1st one scared the living daylights out of me! I just saw the 2nd one, and the effect is already a bit worn for me. I'm sure I'll see the new one eventually, but nothing beats that 1st one the 1st time.

have you seen those, Andrew?

ScyFyterry said...

This is my favorite horror film. Nice breakdown of her speech too. This film holds up too against more modern films.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I saw the first one, but not the rest. I thought it was ok, but I honestly don't remember much about it.

AndrewPrice said...

ScyFyTerry, It is one of the best horror movies out there and I agree it holds up very well, even though some portions of it feel dated.

T-Rav said...

Crispy, I wondered if that would get any notice! I've actually only seen a few minutes of the first movie--very near the end--and even though I was watching it on TV in a well-lit room, I couldn't take it and changed the channel. I didn't see anything happen; which is maybe the point. Just watching them lie in bed, perfectly still like that, waiting for something to happen or come out of the's pretty nerve-wracking.

I hear the new one is fairly good, though the reviews vary a bit. Regardless, given that it cost only a million or so to make and has already made north of $50 million, you know they'll be making at least one more.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav and Crispy, I should check this out again. I'm wondering if I saw the SciFi knock off and never actually saw the original? Hmm.

CrispyRice said...

Paranormal really a very... unimposing kind of movie. A lot of the tension (to the point of "OMG, I can't take it!!!") is in the waiting and careful watching. It excels at what to me is the essence of horror - my mind can make up things 1,000 times worse than anything they can actually show me. Seeing snippets and using my imagination is so much worse. I think Paranormal capitalizes on that.

T-Rav, you should totally watch the entire first one. And the second one is worth seeing, too. Though, I'll also add that (if memory serves) you never get much of an explanation of what is happening in the 1st one, and they do some explaining in the second. This takes away from the "what's going on in my mind" thing. I'm sure we'll see the 3rd one once it hits DVD or streaming.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I'll check out the film. I'm thinking now that I saw the wrong one. :(

T-Rav said...

See, that's why I couldn't take it anymore. I knew something was coming, because it was right at the end, and I couldn't stand watching silently like that because my mind was already messing with me. I'm not good with that sort of thing.

However, if I get the opportunity again, I promise I'll try to watch the whole thing.

NotoriousFluffyG said...

I know I'm three years behind in this conversation, but I wanted to weigh in. As someone who adores Poltergeist (saw it night...back in '82) and can still be terrified by it, I was pleasantly surprised to find this scene in a book of monologues for actors once a long time ago, which I'd just picked up on a whim (I'm a writer, not an actor). Over the years, understanding why the scene was in that book had a profound impact; it's made me see that monologue in terms of the writing, not just as a great piece of acting. Kudos for seeing it that way, too, and for the excellent deconstruction!

AndrewPrice said...

NotoriousFluffyG, Thanks! And no problem on the three years. I'm always happy to hear from people! :D

I'm glad you see the scene the same way I do. I think this is one of the brilliant pieces of writing on film. It does so much and it does it so perfectly. I can definitely see why it would make it into a book of excellent monologues! And this is absolutely worth studying as a writer to see how the scene works its magic.

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