Sunday, June 3, 2012

Summer of 1982: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and POLTERGEIST (June 4, 1982)

1979's STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE made $82 million, but was the rare blockbuster that not many people liked.  People have warmed up to it in the ensuing decades but at the time, it was deemed too slow and too difficult to follow, with too abstract an antagonist in "V'ger," and not always in the spirit of the TV show.  Filled with innovative visual effects, it cost $46 million to make, an astronomical sum in 1979, and though it turned a sizable profit, Paramount was hesitant to go along with series creator Gene Roddenberry's idea for a sequel.  When Roddenberry was more or less ousted from the picture, producer Harve Bennett promised Paramount he'd keep costs low, and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN was shot for a mere $11 million.  It opened June 4, 1982, and made back its budget and change with a $16 million opening weekend on its way to $78 million overall (oddly, still less than the take of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) and was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1982. 

But more importantly for fans, it successfully recaptured the spirit of the 1966-1969 TV series in ways that the 1979 film didn't.  With Roddenberry given a respectful "Executive Consultant" credit after essentially being told his services were no longer needed, the film was developed by Bennett, sole credited screenwriter Jack B. Sowards, and director/uncredited co-writer Nicholas Meyer (THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION, TIME AFTER TIME).  Neither Bennett nor Meyer had seen the TV show before taking on this project, and in going over the series, it's conceivable that fresh eyes and new blood were instrumental in giving STAR TREK II some sense of purpose and direction that THE MOTION PICTURE lacked.  It was Bennett who decided to bring supervillain Khan into the film.  Khan (Ricardo Montalban) was first seen in the first-season episode "Space Seed," where he hijacks the Enterprise and tries to kill Captain Kirk (William Shatner), who banishes him to the abandoned planet Ceti Alpha V.  STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN serves as more of a sequel to "Space Seed" than to THE MOTION PICTURE.  Khan is back, vowing revenge on now-Admiral Kirk.  Kirk is forced back into action with his old crew, joined by Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) Vulcan protege Saavik ("introducing Kirstie Alley"), when Khan attacks the Enterprise and steals the Genesis Device--created by Kirk's ex, Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch)--which can create inhabitable worlds where life doesn't exist, and at the same time, destroy worlds where life has been sustained.

Ricardo Montalban as Khan

STAR TREK II humanizes these familiar characters in ways we hadn't previously seen. Of course, fans found the crew of the Enterprise akin to old friends at this point anyway, but the stakes are higher than they've ever been:  Khan's mad, destructive quest for revenge is personal.  Kirk has much to lose with Carol and their son David (Merritt Butrick) in jeopardy.  And when Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice ("the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one"), it's the most emotionally devastating moment in the entire STAR TREK canon.  And, it should go without saying, STAR TREK II gives us arguably Shatner's most "Shatner" moment:

It's hard to find a celebrity more eager to mock himself than Shatner.  Never taking himself too seriously and always in on the joke, Shatner is completely self-aware when it comes to his hammy tendencies.  He's such a willing punchline that it's easy to forget that he can be a terrific actor when he wants to be.  STAR TREK II features his best performance as Kirk and gives Shatner a wide range of emotions to play, and he brings his A-game.  There's none of ironic silliness that comes with putting Shatner in anything today.  At the end of the day, Shatner is Shatner and we love him for it (even if his STAR TREK co-stars haven't had many nice things to say about him over the years), but it's interesting to ponder how his career might've panned out if he'd taken himself and his abilities a little more seriously.  Very early in his career, he held his own with a large cast of Hollywood legends in 1961's JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG.  The guy's got the chops, and STAR TREK II gives him plenty of opportunities to prove it.  He's matched by Montalban, who turns in the performance of his career as Khan.  Montalban's scenes were shot last because he was busy working on the TV series FANTASY ISLAND.  The tense standoff scenes between Kirk and Khan, where they communicate via screen on each of their ships, demonstrate the power of good editing and good acting when you consider that Shatner and Montalban's portions of those scenes were shot four months apart.  Shatner and the Enterprise actors (except Walter Koenig's Chekov, who has scenes with Khan on Ceti Alpha V) were done with their work by the time Montalban arrived.  Shatner and Montalban never even saw each other during filming.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is considered by many to be the best of the films that feature the original crew, though STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) and STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991) are held in high regard as well.  STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984) is solid entertainment, and most have even come around to appreciating STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.  That leaves the Shatner-directed STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) as the odd man out, a misfire that pleased even less people than THE MOTION PICTURE.  Perhaps STAR TREK V's day will come, but don't count on it.

Opening the same weekend was the Steven Spielberg production POLTERGEIST, directed by Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SALEM'S LOT).  Budgeted at just under $11 million, it made $76 million to become the eighth highest-grossing film of 1982.  Spielberg co-wrote the script with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, and depending on who's telling the story, was either a "supervisory" figure on the set or was the de-facto director.  Spielberg himself has described the working relationship with Hooper as "collaborative," while some cast members say Spielberg was present nearly every day of the shoot and was calling the shots even when Hooper was on the set.  Just as many say Hooper was the director. The controversy was enough for the Director's Guild of America to launch a largely inconclusive investigation, and to this day (and for other, more tragic reasons as well), many of the people associated with POLTERGEIST have elected to not discuss the film at all, which is uncommon for something held in such high esteem.

Regardless of who directed it, POLTERGEIST became a much-referenced and much-parodied horror classic that introduced "They're heeeeere!" into the annals of popular culture. The story of five-year-old Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O'Rourke) abducted by vengeful spirits communicating through the TV hooked audiences and forever warned real estate developers to avoid cutting corners in the construction of any subdivision development.  Carol Anne's dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson) helped design the planned community Cuesta Verde.  The mayhem is taking place because not only did Steve's boss (James Karen) have the community built over a cemetery, but he never had the graves properly and respectfully moved; he only paid to have the tombstones moved.  And the spirits of the dead are pissed off.

Zelda Rubinstein as "cleaner" Tangina Barrons
Stylistically and structurally, POLTERGEIST has Spielberg's fingerprints all over it.  Not just with the thrills and chills and the liberal doses of humor, but with the centerpiece being a close family disrupted by outside forces.  The Freeling family is one of the most likably appealing he's ever presented.  And they're handled unpredictably:  was it common in the era of "Just Say No" to depict loving, stable parents like Steve and Diane (Jobeth Williams) as recreational pot smokers?  And Steve and Diane are untraditionally young to have a 16-year-old daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), who's significantly older than the other two children, Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne.  It's mentioned in passing that Steve and Diane had Dana when they were 16, and it's never brought up again, because it's not an issue in this family. That made the Freelings seem like a lot of families that many of us knew.  Not the "perfect" family, but normal and real.  Even the supporting characters exhibit their own flaws:  parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) is a respected expert in her field, but also a functioning alcoholic. Spielberg often focuses on flawed protagonists who might seem like "bad" people in today's more socially conservative world (could CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND be made today with the same ending, with Richard Dreyfuss simply abandoning his family and his responsibilities to leave with the aliens?).  To Spielberg, they're just regular people and he had an unusually strong ability to connect with that and convey it in his films.  One reason his films connected with audiences was his way of understanding average, everyday people and using that in the creation of his characters.

During this same period, Spielberg was known for pushing the PG rating about as far as it can go, and in a couple of years, films like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and the Spielberg-produced GREMLINS were PG-rated releases that were instrumental in the MPAA's creation of the PG-13 rating in 1984.  The PG-rated POLTERGEIST is probably still worthy of a PG-13 today, with some truly intense sequences throughout and one scene of a guy peeling off chunks of his own face that has to rank as one of the most horrifying visuals ever seen in a PG-rated film.

Heather O'Rourke (1975-1988)
POLTERGEIST spawned two inferior sequels, 1986's POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE and 1988's especially ill-fated POLTERGEIST III, and a 1996-1999 Canadian-made TV series POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY, that had no relation to the films other than using the title. Tragedy also followed the franchise with the deaths of two of the Freeling children.  22-year-old Dominique Dunne (daughter of writer/journalist Dominick Dunne) was strangled to death by an angry ex-boyfriend just five months after the film's release.  Heather O'Rourke died in early 1988 of septic shock during surgery to repair a bowel obstruction.  She was only 12 years old and had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease a year earlier.  Steroidal medication was the cause of her distractingly puffy, bloated appearance in POLTERGEIST III, which was ultimately released--against the wishes of stars Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen, and director Gary Sherman, who asked MGM to shelve it--in the summer of 1988, several months after O'Rourke's death. 

With STAR TREK II and POLTERGEIST opening, the comedy HANKY PANKY was the red-headed stepchild of the June 4 weekend.  Originally intended as a STIR CRAZY follow-up for Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and director Sidney Poitier, the script was retooled for ex-SNL star Gilda Radner when Pryor backed out.  The film grossed $9 million and was a dud for the popular Wilder, but he would come back in 1984 with the sleeper hit THE WOMAN IN RED.  The only significant thing to come out of HANKY PANKY was its serendipitous pairing of Wilder and Radner, who became close friends during filming and a couple shortly after.  They were married in 1984 until Radner's death from ovarian cancer in 1989 at age 42.

The summer of 1982 was huge for Spielberg with the success of POLTERGEIST and the planned July re-release of 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  But the next week would unveil Spielberg's crowning achievement to that point, and what would become not just a surprise smash, but for a decade and a half, the highest-grossing film of all time.

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