There’s nothing more magical than a Steven Spielberg film. From E.T. The Extraterrestrial to Jurassic Park – not forgetting Raiders of The Lost Ark – his movies transcend the generational gap, often appealing to children and adults alike. He’s responsible for some of the most spectacular and most crowd- pleasing films of all time, to the point where even if you’re not cineliterate, his films have probably still formed part of your growing up.
Think about it, if you were to name some of the most iconic and remarkable cinematic moments of all time, a great deal would of them would be from Speilberg’s catalogue. E.T. and Elliott silhouetted against the moon as they fly in his bicycle, or perhaps their heartbreaking farewell, which still makes me cry buckets to this day. The first time you see that giant Diplodocus in Jurassic Park reach up to eat some leaves from a tree, or the moment Indiana Jones gets chased by a massive boulder – all of which accompanied by John Williams’ equally as iconic music – are all awe inspiring pieces of filmic history, that are equally memorable and fantastical.
There’s a dark side to the film-maker though – one which can be easily overlooked through the childlike wonder that his movies create. In fact, if you look at the director’s back catalogue, taking into account the films that he has produced and written, you’ll notice a physical, as well as a thematic tenebrosity that includes children in peril, child abandoment and murder in the least likely places.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Spielberg’s menacing side is Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom which, Poltergeist aside, is the closest the director has ever come to making a straight up horror film. In truth, all the Indiana Jones films have their moments of terror, as the series works to a very specific formula. You have the introductory set piece, the exposition, the adventure, a huge action sequence, and then a finale which drifts into the realms of black fantasy – whether that may be the melting faces scene in Raiders, the rapid ageing of Walter Donovan in The Last Crusade, or the weird inter-dimensional alien-stuff in Crystal Skull.
The horror in Temple of Doom is consistent and relentless though, with a terrifying centrepiece that sees a man have his heart ripped out by somebody’s bare hands, before being sent into a fiery pit of death. It’s really, genuinely scary – so much so that it caused great controversy on its initial release. Long time friend and collaborator Geroge Lucas has always taken the blame for Temple of Doom’s dark tone, citing his recent divorce as an excuse for the macabre, but is Spielberg completely innocent in his involvement.
The man himself has always expressed his own disappointment with the final product, and has said, on numerous occasions, that he wished they hadn’t had gone that dark. Yet, if you were to look at the other features that he was involved in around the same time as Doom, it’s clear that Spielberg seemed to be going through a dark spell too, with a string of releases that could be best described as ‘sinister suburbia’.
In 1984, the same year in which Temple of Doom was released, Gremlins hit theatres. Directed by Joe Dante, but executive produced by Spielberg, this cartoonish comedy that saw a small town become terrorised by little, mischievous, and violent creatures, has a nasty streak running through it. It may be set at Christmas, but there’s hardly any seasonal good will to be found as the citizens of Kingston Falls – also used as Hill Valley in Back To The Future – are attacked by the chainsaw-wielding, knife-throwing, crossbow-firing monsters.
To be fair, the Gremlins get a bit of a hard time too, as they are burnt, blended and microwaved to blood splattering effect. This is not a film for children. Yes, there’s cuteness in the form of the adorable and ‘friendly’ Gremlin, Gizmo, but most children would struggle to deal with its more adult nature. All the violence may be played for comedic effect most of the time, but the peril, the tension, the creature design, and basic conceit have more in common with the horror genre than they do any other.
Two years previously, in 1982, Spielberg produced another attack on peaceful suburban living – the Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. Rumour has it that Spielberg actually wanted to direct the haunted house picture – most cast and crew will testify that he did direct it, as he was a bigger prescence on set than Hooper – but it was a choice between Poltergeist or E.T.
We all know he made the right decision. E.T is the much better film by a million light years, but then that isn’t without its dark side either. Poltergeist though is Spielberg at his most openly malevolent, an opportunity to really let his dark side shine. With the help of Hooper – who was enlisted for his brilliant work on one of the scariest films of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – he unleashes a living hell on a lovely, nuclear family.
A lot of the scares in the film come from Spielberg’s own fears as a child. He too was scared of clowns and a tree outside his bedroom window, so uses Poltergeist as a way of projecting those fears onto the screen. In a way, this makes the film personal, yet there’s no denying the glee in which Spielberg takes in terrifying the audience.
Like Gremlins, Poltergeist is first and foremost, a lot of gorey, grimey, fun. From the moment a man has a vision of ripping his own flesh from his face, to the big, muddy finale that sees the dead literally rise from the ground, the film revels in its own silliness to the point of satire.
What I find most interesting about Poltergeist though, is the surburban setting. Spielberg’s fascination with peeling back the curtain on the glossy, white picket fences, crisp green gardens, and the Lego houses of residential America. In this respect, it has something in common with both Gremlins, and indeed E.T.
In fact, I’d argue that E.T. is just as dark as those other films, in a much more subtle and thematic way. Whereas Poltergeist was somewhat influenced by Spielberg’s childhood fears, E.T. was influenced by his parents divorce. The theme of abandoment – both Elliott and E.T. are left behind – is a very scary thing as a child; the children characters themselves are put in peril (Spielberg famously replaced guns with walkie talkies, only to go back and put it back to the way it was); and that sequence where E.T. ‘dies’ is about as heartbreaking as they come.
Again, E.T. sees a small town infiltrated by outside forces – not just aliens, but hooded, unnamed government officials. In this it’s the humans who are the ‘villains’ of the piece, or, more specifically, adults. The fact that the only grown-up we see for the majority of the film is Elliott’s mother, creates a sense of dread as soon as their home is invaded by these outside forces.
The film is rife with paranoia as vans with satellites drive around the neighbourhood, listening to people’s secret conversations. We’re left with this recurring idea that as nice and pristine as these towns are, there’s a shady underbelly where not everything is what it seems, and where danger lurks around every corner.
This is typical of the film-maker however. Since his first feature length debut in 1971, he has taken everyday situations and found danger within them. Duel – which was actually made for television – takes the story of a business man driving a long, open road, only to find himself terrorised and tormented by a crazed truck driver.
Four years later, we would get Jaws, one of Spielberg’s most famous, and most brilliant films to date. This time it was beach-goers who were in trouble, as a great white shark begins to prey on the residents of an otherwise sleepy beach town.
As well as being truly one of the most thrilling films ever made, it’s also terrifying. John Williams’ infamous score is enough to send chills down the spines of those who’ve seen the picture, and who can forget that shocking beach scene which sees a fountain of blood erupt from the sea, as a young boy is attacked by the shark.
Even his follow up, Close Encounters of The Third Kind has a deceptively dark undercurrent as the lead hero, Roy, effectively abandons his family for a chance to go off gallivanting with some aliens. The centrepiece which has a young boy being abducted, is as well constructed and chilling as you’d like.
If you look back at Spielberg’s career, right from the very beginning, I think his affection and talent for horror is absolutely apparent. He’s used sharks, dinosaurs, aliens, gremlins, ghosts, to entertain is and scare us out of our wits.
The darkness in his movies go much deeper than the physical though and tap into our childhood fears of abandoment, loneliness, and the stuff we just don’t understand.
A lot of Spielberg’s films are too scary for children, yet we all associate them with growing up and perhaps that’s the point. Being introduced to darkness is after all an important part of growing up, and Spielberg’s movies tie into that theory.
His films are indeed magical, funny, exciting, and moving, but they are often scary too. The ability to combine and blend all these things at once is exactly why he’s one of the greatest film-makers not only working today, but of all time too.