By Charlie Brigden
It’s hard to believe that the rumour that it was really Steven Spielberg who directed Poltergeist instead of Tobe Hooper is still around to this day. What I mean is, the rumour part – with all respect to Hooper it’s undoubtedly Spielberg’s film. It’s still an amazing chiller that absolutely proves that PG can be scary, and showcases a director-composer relationship that could have had the potential to equal his partnership with John Williams – or even eclipse it.
After all, Jerry Goldsmith is a surprisingly natural fit for Spielberg’s movies. While the director is notorious amongst critics for his sentimentality – very much due to people who can’t seem to discern actual emotion from hollow sentiment and see any emotional manipulation as an enemy – there is a darker side to him that he’s sometimes unable to keep from spilling out, which results in movies that either he relinquishes credit on like Poltergeist, or farms out in the case of Gremlins, or makes and then apologises for like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
But let’s get into it. Poltergeist is a great ride and works so well for a number of reasons, one of the main reasons of which is Goldsmith’s music. Goldsmith was a genius at immediately invoking the atmosphere of a film and was often more on the cerebral side, taking different approaches with thematic introductions dependent on the material. In Poltergeist‘s case, the score starts with an immediate cultural reference: The Star Spangled Banner. Not only famous as the American national anthem, it’s also the piece of music played at the end of the night when a TV station closes.
With its use, Goldsmith and Spielberg introduce us to their suburban equilibrium. TV dinners, Star Wars toys, and houses that look exactly the same for miles around. It’s no accident that these elements are shared with Spielberg’s other 1982 fantasy blockbuster, and Carol-Anne and Elliott could easily live on the same street. But what they’re saying is: this is us, this is you. And by saying this, they are able to go further into establishing a sense of belief by essentially saying: this could also happen to you.
The same thing is achieved through Carol-Anne’s Theme. A delightfully gentle and innocent theme, it introduces her character to us as this little sweet thing but also grips onto the underlying nature of our children and the myth of safety in suburbia, underlined by the effortless way Goldsmith can produce pure Americana. The film uses the character and the theme to create the ultimate surrogacy, they want you to believe this not only can be but is your daughter, so when she’s abducted by “the TV people”, not only is it a horrifying and devastating event, it also makes you an active participant in the fight to rescue her.
Speaking about the film, Goldsmith said he never saw it as a horror film, but more a love story, not just between the parents but their love for Carol-Anne. Regarding this, he introduces a theme for “the light”, a magnificent quasi-religious theme that recalls Goldsmith’s incredible work on the closing V’ger scenes of 1979’s Star Trek – The Motion Picture. Ascending then descending, it’s an inversion of the up/down motif for “the beast”.
Goldsmith really lays the scary stuff here on well, using the beast motif as well as a creepy, ethereal motif to score the netherworld where Carol-Anne is trapped. The film is notorious for scenes involving a gnarly tree and a creepy clown doll, both of which have given kids nightmares for years on end. The cue for the latter – ‘The Clown’ – has Goldsmith delighting in scaring the shit out of you, with a ornate plinking melody coupled with tense thick strings and the otherwordly vibraphone. The clown returns in the awesome ‘Night of the Beast’ which begins with foreboding low strings and explodes into furious brass and an amazing statement of the underworld motif.
This continues with the climactic ‘Escape From Suburbia’ which is almost like a greatest hits of some of the creepier methods used before we end with Carol-Anne’s theme, this time sung by a wordless choir that is reminiscent of Gizmo’s theme in Gremlins. The family is safe, the evil has been expunged, and suburbia is safe once again.
Or is it?
The standout cue is the incredible ‘Rebirth’, which scores the rescue of Carol-Anne and subsequent appearance of “the beast”. This sequence is exceptional, running at just over eight minutes, and features what to me is the iconic image of the film: the parents kissing in front of the corridor of light as the theme for “the light” blasts out in what almost seems like a farewell. It’s interesting also listening to the cue, as it’s operatically religious overtones make it sound like a companion for another Goldsmith horror masterpiece (which coincidentally appeared the previous year), The Final Conflict.
The score was originally released by MGM Records in 1982 with a thirty-eight minute LP program that ended with ‘Rebirth’. The complete score along with unused cues was then released by Rhino Records in 1997 before Film Score Monthly reissued a new master of the full score, along with the original LP program and music from another Goldsmith score, The Prize. Mondo’s track list matches the Rhino release, presenting the music across two LPs.
Pressed on black and variant 180g wax, Poltergeist sounds beautiful. Just throw on the first side with the ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and hear the wonderful depth, with the thrilling brass highs. The clarity present on the record is excellent, and both Goldsmith’s odd sound effects and warm Americana come through superbly. But the record really comes into its own when you get to the really big material and the likes of ‘Rebirth’ and ‘Night of the Beast’, and it just soars. I’ve been critical of Mondo’s pressings sometimes but this really is a great one.
Poltergeist is one of the great horror scores, and Mondo’s release reflects that. The sound quality is excellent, the artwork by We Buy Your Kids superb, and overall it’s one of their best records, despite the lack of hype over some of their other vinyl. Step into the light, folks.
Poltergeist is out now from Mondo