Poltergeist is fantastic because it somehow both includes, and subverts, seemingly every convention the horror genre has. The family doesn’t leave the haunted house, they stay. They instantly accept what’s happening. The ghosts are revealed early in the story. People actually capture them on videotape. What you think is the big ending, isn’t. And along the way, there’s a unique, lovely yet off-putting blending of tones that keeps anyone watching riveted and engaged.
Of course, none of this is a revelation. When Poltergeist was released in June of 1982 it was a big hit that spawned two sequels and, eventually, a remake. Most people agree the film is a classic of the horror genre (it holds an 85% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which seems low to be honest), but with the film newly on Netflix, we thought it was a good time to revisit and appreciate just how good this Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy work truly is.
The basic story of Poltergeist, if you don’t know, is that the Freelings—a normal, suburban, Southern California family—are terrorized by an evil spirit that lives in their house. This spirit initiates communication through the static on the television and eventually kidnaps the family’s youngest child, Carol Anne. Most of the film follows the family trying to get her back.
It all starts fairly quickly. The film opens with a seriously disturbing—because it’s so out of left field—rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a TV channel goes off-air. Static begins and young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) sits in front of the TV and begins talking to it. Even people who don’t necessarily know Poltergeist know this iconic image and the film just opens with it. Boom. Something is inside the TV and this girl can talk to it. Later she delivers the iconic line “They’re here.”
From there we get to meet the family, which also includes mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), father Steve (Craig T. Nelson), oldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), and middle child Robbie (Oliver Robins). Creepy things are afoot in the Freeling house but no one seems overly worried for a while, even when the kitchen chairs start to stack themselves and move in front of the family. Things change in an instant though when, all of a sudden, the scary tree looming outside Robbie and Carol Anne’s window comes to life, grabbing Robbie while the closet sucks in the entire bedroom, Carol Anne included.
I mention these things not because I want to summarize the film, but because the story’s structure and ability to shock is built into its every fiber. It starts with a bang and lulls you into a safety net, even while acknowledging the weirdness, and then all of a sudden hits you with a ton of terror. Once Carol Anne has been taken, Steve instantly knows where to go and who to talk to. Help arrives, and then more help arrives, and so on. Which is to say Poltergeist has almost no fat on it. Every scene is used to the maximum, whether it’s to build sympathy and character or to scare the living shit out of you.
As this is all happening, Poltergeist brilliantly plays emotions off each other to keep that shock and awe going. After Steve comes back with the paranormal investigators, the whole group endures a terrifying night in the house. Diane calls out to Carol Anne, who hears her and responds from another plane of existence. Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score sets the mood, but instead of a typical, intense, horror score, it sounds more like a lullaby, making the moment surprisingly sweet and emotional. And yet, the whole thing is drenched in the implicit knowledge and horror of knowing a five-year-old girl is alone in some horrific purgatory. That balance of sweet and scary works so well and really makes Poltergeist stand on its own.
And so, for a good half of the movie, Poltergeist uses those strengths. Then the paranormal investigators bring in Tangina, played by Zelda Rubinstein, and everything shifts. She’s an intimidating presence in a diminutive body and the juxtaposition works perfectly; with her voice and her confidence, she adds a whole new flavor to the movie building to the big “cleaning” of the house and rescue of Carol Anne. That scene, combining flashing lights, blaring music, and sound design that dials up everyone’s screaming, all combine to make a scene so intense, so scary, it simply has to be the climax. Right?
Carol Anne is back and all is well with the world but… the movie hasn’t ended? Why hasn’t it ended? After the rescue, Poltergeist has built up so much tension and anticipation that every single normal thing the family does makes you want to look away. Brother and sister playing? Mom taking a bath? All terrifying. We all know something bad is coming. We just don’t know when or how. When that bad thing happens though, which it most certainly does, it leads to another series of unexpected shocks and thrills and ends the film in spectacular fashion.
All of this is anchored by two things. First is the film’s PG rating. Released a few years before the PG-13 rating existed, it pushes way more boundaries than many PG-13 films do. It’s gory, creepy, and risqué, all under the guise of simple “Parental Guidance.” Nearly four decades later, that adds a certain delight to it. Then, saving the best for last, there’s the magnificent, layered performance by JoBeth Williams. She’s undoubtedly the star of the film, and I’m actually at a loss as to why this performance isn’t mentioned alongside Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien as a groundbreaking turn by a woman in genre film. The character goes through the emotional wringer while maintaining a believable, vulnerable core. Nelson’s performance as her husband is undoubtedly great too, but his portrayal of an ‘80s dad feels fairly typical. Williams is not that at all—she’s powerful, poignant, perfect.
Watching Poltergeist for the first time in years I was left stunned by just how good the film was and left pondering its intentions. In several ways, it’s kind of a film student’s dream. Not only is it a tour-de-force of filmmaking, acting, and blockbuster sensibilities, the layers beyond that are ripe for interpretation. Here we have a film set in the early ‘80s, opening with the national anthem, where the dad reads a Ronald Reagan biography and helps build indistinguishable suburban homes that are basically on top of one another. And, spoiler alert, this modern version of lemming-like suburbia is literally built on top of relics of the past. Plus, the film came out the week before Spielberg’s E.T, which is set in the same kind of neighborhood. There’s so much going on beyond the surface and it’s saying a lot about America, suburbia, society, the past, the present, the ‘80s. That a film as fun, entertaining, and scary as Poltergeist could have that going for it too just cements its place as a classic.
- As a Star Wars buff, I love that Robbie’s side of the room is chock full of Star Wars merch. He’s got action figures, posters, and clothing, all of which adds not just a layer of realism—a young kid in 1982 would obviously be obsessed with Star Wars—but a level of distinction other films couldn’t achieve simply because of the permissions and clearances. Thankfully, Spielberg knew George Lucas a little bit. (And yes, there’s Star Wars in E.T. too.)
- Speaking of directors, there is a long-standing theory that Tobe Hooper didn’t actually direct Poltergeist, Spielberg did. While that’s never been “officially” confirmed, it’s basically considered fact these days. Watching the film, it seems if not obvious, very likely. Hooper was obviously a talented horror director but Poltergeist, which Spielberg conceived and co-wrote, just has a perfect tonal balance much like the other Spielberg films of the era. And, for my money, it’s right up there with the others. If you watch the film thinking it’s a Spielberg movie, you won’t be able to unsee it.
- Finally, the clown. I don’t get the clown. There’s this gruesome looking clown in Robbie and Carol Anne’s bedroom that sits in a chair facing Robbie’s bed, and eventually, inevitably, it attacks him. Robbie, what are you doing? Get rid of the clown! Why do you keep the clown? Why does anyone own a clown??
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