Poltergeist (1982)

Directed by Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg

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In Poltergeist a vengeful spirit takes over a suburban household and won’t leave.  At first it’s a novelty, providing one of the more amusing moments of the film in which the family plays with the mysterious forces that we as a movie audience know to run away from.  Then a tree tries to eat their son, and a bright light steals their daughter.

The family, the Freelings, will consult with a couple mystics to get their daughter back, and things certainly do get a little more creepy along the way, but I think much of this movie’s charm has to do with Steven Spielberg’s choices as a director (and it seems he did direct it).  It’s the same touch that makes movies like Jurassic Park and E.T. so great.  It’s E.T. trick or treating, the boy finishing the ‘count to three’ after getting shocked off a fence, and in Poltergeist it’s Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) slapping herself after they ask the neighbors it they’ve noticed any strange activity going on.

There’s also that scene early on when Diane becomes enamored with the spirits in her home, excitedly showing her husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson) the way an apparent gravitational force pulls something, even their daughter, across the kitchen floor.  In most movies of this sort we have to sit by and watch the characters either dismiss these strange occurrences or fear them.  In this case they have a different approach which goes against our expectations enough to make us question if we really know what’s in store.

Once the forces that be get more sinister, of course, they learn to fear them.  Poltergeist, for a horror movie, doesn’t spend too much time immersed in the horror spectacle outside of three big sequences.  These moments, however, are big and loud enough to put us on our toes and make up for the relative quiet of the rest of the film.

I think it’s also important that we do (or I did) care for the family involved.  They feel like real characters, at least the parents do, even though the children do seem plagued by the problems of most movie children, defined by a single quality (such as the sullen teenager).

The lasting image of Poltergeist is the young daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) staring into the static tv.  It’s eerie, effective and will be returned to throughout the film.  When she is sucked into another realm of some sort, the family can hear her through the television set, letting us know she is as of yet unharmed but also acting as a chilling barrier between them.

As the Freelings try to get her back, they will have time to listen to other mystics wax poetic about where she is and thus what may lie behind our thin grasp of reality.  It’s not that Carol Anne is deceased, just that she has graduated into another plane of existence, one that may even be more idyllic than our own.

Most horror movies suffer from an underwhelming eventual reveal of all the things that have been teased throughout the film.  Whether it’s a monster, spirit or psychopathic killer (as in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), this force is glimpsed or mostly implied throughout much of the film and then shown in its full glory in the end.  You see it in Jaws or the latest Godzilla; by showing less you can convey more.

In the end, then, the monster will be out in the open, and suddenly we see it in the cold hard light of day.  Its scales, claws or long, pointy teeth may no longer scare us the way our own imagination could.  I bring this up to say that Poltergeist only got better the more we saw of the spirits possessing the Freeling house.

The final sequence is spectacular.  It comes after we think everything has been resolved, though because of the sudden mundanity (the Freelings are preparing to move) and the lack of music attached to said mundanity, we know something big and bad is about to happen.  And it doesn’t disappoint.

Poltergeist is like the horror movie equivalent of a piece of classical music that builds and builds to the final crescendo.  Everything works to get us to that point, and the movie only gets better with time.

Now, the three noteworthy things about Poltergeist have to do with its release (1 week before E.T.), the confusion about who truly directed it (Hooper or Spielberg), and a supposed curse (in which two young members of the cast passed away not longer after the release and a third actor was murdered).  Poltergeist does seem to be a Spielberg film, complete with the “Spielberg One-r” in which he effectively combines multiple set ups into a single shot (such as before they enter the portal to get Carol Anne back), and it does seem to be a nice complement or counterpoint to the other Southern California suburban film, E.T.  One deals with a broken home looking for and finding otherworldly inspiration which finds them in the form of a friendly alien from above, and the other deals with a tight knit nuclear family being pulled apart by otherworldly spirits from down below.

Finally, the “curse” is part of the movie’s lore and, frankly, makes the horror more chilling.  The story itself is eerie though a little silly, but the story surrounding the movie makes it feel like the type of campfire story you listen to before realizing you’re in a horror movie.

Up Next: Outside Providence (1999), Red Dawn (1984), Time After Time (1979)

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