Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery or just the fastest way to crank out a script? You decide after you watch the same plot twice. Today’s victims: Dark Skies (2013) and Poltergeist (1982).
As the opening to the great Get Out (2017) reminds us, the suburbs can be a frightening place, and for different reasons in different times.
In the 1980s, for example, the hippies were having a come-to-ISKCON moment after abandoning their Summer of Love ideals for the sunny, self-centered consumerism that characterized the Reagan era. This Faustian bargain included a house—a nice, respectable house in the suburbs stuffed with every contrivance that they sell at the mall.
The unresolved anxieties associated with this phenomenon eventually coalesced in the form of Poltergeist (1982), one of the greatest haunted house movies ever made, and as pointedly subversive as Romero’s zombies, but with a more playful approach to its politics.
The level of paranormal activity in the house is tongue-in-cheek ridiculous, which suits the level of satire in the script. But it’s also white-knuckle terrifying, as any child of the 1980s can tell you. By the climax of the movie, every last one of the versatile solutions for modern living to be had in the suburbs is actively trying to murder the Freelings, a family who we have come to love. Tobe Hooper directs, but Steven Spielberg produces based a story that he conceived and co-wrote, and the finished film looks more like the cousin of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) than any living relative of Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Skip ahead to 2013, and we find the same suburbs but a different sort of dread. The children of the hippies who had sold themselves out were starting families of their own or adding to the ones that they had already started, and all that consumerism and faux upward mobility that they had absorbed from their earliest memories expressed itself as mortgages that they couldn’t afford once the masters of the universe crashed the global economy. Anyone who was overleveraged on a mansion in a neighborhood that their parents used to drive by and covet felt like the playthings of a menace, all right, but not from the past, from ancient burials, but rather from above, from the technocracy, in the cold application of ruthless intellect, like the kind that you get from market corrections or the flying saucer people in Dark Skies (2013).
It’s fertile ground for a horror movie. But this disappointing entry from writer/director Scott Stewart doesn’t pick up where Poltergeist left off. Instead, it does Poltergeist again, blow for blow. The reasons to fear the suburbs may have changed, but if you ask Scott Stewart, they look pretty much the same, with just enough differences to avoid litigation. Let’s have a look at the damage.
We spoil a bunch of plot points here, including the endings of both movies, so don’t jump in if you don’t want to know.
As you can see by the title treatments, these movies have nothing at all in common.
The story takes place in a suburban neighborhood
The Dark Skies suburb is more upscale and conservative, like the sort of place that Romney would have carried, where the neighbors get together and grill hamburgers and hot dogs but complain about the Federal Reserve. The suburb in Poltergeist is solidly middle class, back when such a thing existed in this country, with rowdy, beer-soaked football-watching rituals.
The action centers around a typical family
Meet the Barretts and the Freelings. The Barretts are having money problems, and the specter of the foreclosure crisis is part of the texture of Dark Skies, so we don’t get to see them at their best in this movie. But the Freelings are as solid as a family unit gets. Their marriage is committed and obviously loving, and their children are rambunctious and happy.
One of the parents works as a real estate agent
This feels like the original sin, or the reason why the horror movie punishes the family that it does. The source of the sin depends on the movie. In Dark Skies, it’s being where you don’t belong. It’s living in a zip code that you can’t quite afford and rubbing elbows with people who aren’t really your peers. Lacy Barrett (Keri Russell) might have transgressed by letting outsiders into the community—outsiders including herself and her family. The Barretts are constantly embarrassing themselves, only sometimes because of their horror-movie problems. They’re just not fitting in like they should.
In Poltergeist, the parents have countercultural roots. They still break out the pot after they put their kids to bed. But they’ve made the transition into shopping-mall trawlers. They’ve betrayed the mass movement that ended a war after seeing all the stuff that they could get. That’s what Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) is selling. That’s also what he’s bought and what he’s brought upon his family.
The youngest child has a scene with an animal in a box
The youngest in Poltergeist is Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Her counterpart in Dark Skies is Sam (Kadan Rockett).
The reasons for the box are different. In Poltergeist, Carol Anne’s pet parakeet has died, and the family needs something to bury him in. His final resting place is the flower garden. But in Dark Skies, Sam is nursing his lizard back to health.
The parents hang out in their bedroom, and one of them uses glasses to read
And in both cases, it’s the real estate agent who can’t quite see.
The parents in Dark Skies are usually low-grade bickering, so the less time we spend with them alone, the better. Whereas the parents in Poltergeist couldn’t be any more content to be ending the day in each other’s company.
They like to watch television in bed
In keeping with the subtext of the films, the Barretts watch news reports about the bad economy and nature programs about unstoppable predators, while the Freelings watch whatever’s on.
The dad looks at himself in a mirror and notices that he’s aging
We’ve already met Steve Freeling. The father in Dark Skies is Daniel (Josh Hamilton). They’re both older than their spouses by a little more than usual.
A presence in the house announces itself with a geometric arrangement of objects
And the mom is the one who discovers it—Lacy in Dark Skies and Diane (JoBeth Williams) in Poltergeist. And they confer with their youngest immediately afterward.
The source of the disturbance? Ghost activity for the Freelings. Alien activity for the Barretts.
Static on the television is associated with the presence
In Dark Skies, the proximity of the aliens causes televisions to go haywire. In Poltergeist, the ghosts can communicate through the static, but they don’t create it. Reports of real-life paranormal phenomena often include descriptions of electromagnetic effects.
The family dog can sense the presence
This is another well-worn idea. The dog is already a part of the Freeling family at the beginning of Poltergeist, but the Barretts adopt a dog late in Dark Skies, specifically to warn them of aliens.
The youngest child knows what’s happening before the rest of the family does
Because they can accept its existence more easily. Sam refers to the presence as the Sandman. Carol Anne refers to it as the TV people.
Someone in the house has marks on their body, presumably from the presence lashing out at them, although the attack occurs offscreen
Sam is the victim in Dark Skies. In Poltergeist, it’s Marty (Martin Casella), one of the parapsychologists invited by the Freelings to investigate the activity in the house.
Someone in the house imagines a disfigured face
In Dark Skies, Daniel has a dream about Sam. In Poltergeist, the ghosts are “playing” with Marty.
The family consults a kooky expert
The parapsychologists on the Freeling case recommend Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), a pint-sized New Age exorcist, to cleanse the evil in the house. The Barretts go to Mr. Pollard (J. K. Simmons), who has experiences of his own with alien visitations.
Multiple monitors are deployed
It’s Daniel’s idea in Dark Skies and the parapsychology team’s in Poltergeist to put cameras in every room of the house.
When the presence moves against the family, the family fights to protect one child in particular
But the motives of the families are different. In Dark Skies, the Barretts have come to believe that Sam is the target of the aliens. This is a reasonable assumption for them to make given the knowledge that they have, but they aren’t in possession of all the facts, and they don’t remember crucial details that we don’t learn, either, until the end of the movie.
In Poltergeist, the ghosts intentionally distract the Freelings by putting their middle child Robbie (Oliver Robins) in danger.
The presence wants a different child and takes them in a blinding light
In Dark Skies, this is Jesse (Dakota Goyo), the Barretts’ oldest. In Poltergeist, this is Carol Anne.
It’s possible that the aliens tricked the Barretts like the ghosts did the Freelings, but the movie isn’t clear on this point. Maybe either of the Barrett children would have been fine, or any member of the Barrett family, and the aliens simply took the most vulnerable one. But the ghosts wanted Carol Anne all along.
The missing child can communicate through consumer electronics
Jesse reaches out by way of Sam’s walkie-talkie, and Carol Anne can talk through the living-room television. But while in Poltergeist this becomes a major plot point, in Dark Skies it’s literally the last thing that happens.
The family ends up moving
The resolution for the family is that that they’re expelled from the suburbs, but this is where the movies diverge. The Freelings get back Carol Anne and, having learned their lesson, banish the television, that ultimate symbol of consumer culture, from their temporary residence at the Holiday Inn. But the Barretts aren’t so lucky in their denouement. Jesse is gone, conceivably for good, although some cryptic statements from Mr. Pollard suggest that abductees can return. Daniel seems to hang onto this hope, since he’s tracking sightings and posting clippings on the wall in a way that won’t age well for him.
The suburbs in Dark Skies are a kind of Eden, but only for the chosen few. The Barretts are driven from their paradise of conformity and aspirational Romney votes, because they never truly belonged in it. They’ll never be able to find their way back, and they’ll feel its absence for the rest of their lives. Their marriage will survive another two years at most. But the suburbs in Poltergeist are a Sodom and Gomorrah that the Freelings are well and good to be done with. So while their family gets a shot at redemption, which they’ve taken, the Barretts are deep in real estate purgatory.