Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

The Suburban Fantastic: A Semantic and Syntactic Grouping in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

The Suburban Fantastic: A Semantic and Syntactic Grouping in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Article excerpt

In the 1980s, American movies started to tell stories in which preteen and teenage boys living within the suburbs are called upon to confront a disruptive fantastic force, such as ghosts, aliens, vampires, gremlins and Frankenstein's monster. This new cycle of Hollywood films - the suburban fantastic - blends what Rick Altman terms 'semantic' material (characters, narratives, settings, tropes) from suburban culture with 'semantic' and 'syntactic' material (the constitutive relations between the different aspects of the text) from mid-twentieth century sf, horror and fantasy films. Popular narratives representing American preteen and teenage boys in suburbia, the suburban fantastic has been overlooked and dismissed critically because they have been predominantly made for children and marketed as family films. This article will begin with the earliest instances in this semantic and syntactic cycle, the sf and horror pastiches produced by Amblin - E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg US 1982), Gremlins (Dante US 1984), Back to the Future (Zemeckis US 1985) - and trace what Altman calls the process of 'genrification'. In this process, an adjective term attaches to a pre-established noun - in this case, 'suburban' fantastic - to designate a new semantic and syntactic grouping. Imitations and variations of this semantic and syntactic grouping are produced by other studios and may lead to the establishment of the adjective term as a genre in its own right.1 This article will discuss the current state of the suburban fantastic's genrification, and touch upon these films' production and reception contexts and their ritual and ideological functions.

The suburban fantastic cycle was born out of Steven Spielberg's project 'Night Skies', an attempt to create a sf/horror film that eventually resulted in two distinct but related films: Poltergeist (Hooper US 1982), in which a ghost terrorises a family in a new suburban estate, and E.T., in which a lonely suburban boy befriends an alien left behind by his race and protects him from sinister government forces. Together they organise a set of possible positions for the suburban fantastic. Where Poltergeist draws on horror, E.T. draws on sf. Where Poltergeist is satirical about suburbia and its residents, E.T. is nostalgic and sentimental. Where Poltergeist was a studio production, involving a directorfor-hire and Spielberg as producer, E.T. was a studio production involving a personal, semi-autobiographical story by Spielberg, who was director as well as producer. As Spielberg says, 'One is about suburban evil, and the other is about suburban good' (McBride 336). Both, however, blend the genres of the suburban melodrama and the twentieth century fantastic.

Poltergeist, released first, introduced the syntactical structure that came to define the suburban fantastic: the synchronisation of the character's personal melodrama to the appearance of the fantastic element into suburbia. The Freeling family seem to be disconnected from each other by their suburban life. The parents, Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams), are shot obliquely, without the direct camera focus typical of shots of main characters, and so come across as latently discontented. The emergence of a disruptive ghost through the television and the kidnapping of Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), their youngest daughter, manifest the parents' fear of child abduction and the dangers of modern technology. Meanwhile, the children's fears are manifest in a clown doll coming alive, a large tree outside the house coming alive, and a bedroom cupboard revealing a vortex to another dimension. The fight to save Carol Anne brings the family together and symbolically renews their bond to each other.

The split in Poltergeist between the personal melodramas of the adults and those of the children marks a transition from the 'suburban gothic' (see Murphy) to the suburban fantastic. The suburban gothic 'is a sub-genre concerned . …

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