Poltergeist (1982) ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein
Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
As a species, we odd beings known as humans mark the passage of time in a variety of odd ways. Some keep pictures, whereas others may travel to specific locations on an anniversary. Me? I watch certain films each year at particular times, for they either remind me of that time of year, were released at that time originally, or give me a general ‘feeling’ that can only come from being wrapped up in them. The original Poltergeist belongs in that category. It puts me in the mindset of a fall evening, when the howling, cool wind carries a bite that only a thin-skinned child can feel. It also calls back to a time when the nuances of a house frightened me, when I assumed that things going bump in the night were after me, and when the fear of being lost was tantamount to death itself. Directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre veteran Tobe Hooper, but crafted by Steven Spielberg (we can argue about that later), Poltergeist is a film that has affected me deeply in different ways at different points in my life. It remains one of the best films of the genre, darned near a masterpiece of spiritual and familial terror.
I was near the tender age of 5 when I first saw the film, as it aired on broadcast TV for the first time. For some unknown reason, my parents felt I was up for the experience. After all, it was rated PG; a rating that was clearly inaccurate for the terrors and occasional gore on-screen. However, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the furor surrounding its’ gore was still two years away, and thus the MPAA had yet to develop the PG-13 rating. I remember feigning my bravest face after it was over, wanting my parents to continue bestowing those special privileges upon me. Inside, my stomach churned. Like any child that dealt with a menacing-looking tree, static on an analog television, or a creepy stuffed animal their family thrust upon them, it was clear that Poltergeist spoke directly to me.
As I learned later in life, that may have been close to Spielberg’s intention. Like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released a week later in 1982, he framed this story through the lens of a child’s experience. Children can be easily frightened by stuffed animals, or thunderstorms, dark closets, or even a misshapen tree. Parents generally try to assuage them, and over time they overcome those irrational fears. Poltergeist is intimately aware of those fears, and they’re all systematically brought to life in the film. The scary tree will eat you, clowns are evil, and the closet literally will come after you. In this film, the cozy comforts of a friendly neighborhood and a cookie-cutter home cannot save you. From a parent’s perspective, all the safeguards we build up around our children, all the rules about talking to strangers, the fears we allay in our kids- this film boots them to the side, praying on our “parent” brain as well. The film begins with that innocent, sweet tone, slowly lurking in the shadows to take everything precious and stomp on it.
Spielberg and crew made a smart, timely film that tore into the very fabric of baby boomers’ suburban dreams. Representing the now aging demographic is Steven Freeling (Nelson). He’s the consummate post-hippie salesman father, passively parenting his children, selling carbon copy real estate like an old pro, escaping in aggressive Sunday football parties and beers with the exuberance of a frat boy. His wife Diane (Williams), still riding that wave of hippie bliss, has yet to encounter her primal, maternal self at the beginning of the film. Perhaps it’s the pot residue, but the most trying thing she seems to encounter are misplaced clothes and the death of the family bird. They’re living the dream, or at least the Reaganomics version of the dream. Even their kids are cute and relatively well-behaved, if not also blissfully unaware. The dynamic can be summed up in a scene where Carol Anne (O’Rourke) is gently chided for staring at static on the screen for it will “hurt her eyes”; Diane changes the channel, apparently fine with the war film now on the tube instead. Oh, the irony!
Then it starts to happen. Carol Anne is caught talking to the ‘TV people’ in the dead of the night, the house appears to quake, and household objects move themselves. At first, Steven and Diane think it neat, like a trippy magic trick; then comes the menace of the trippy magic trick, the snatching of the ‘WASP’ dream. Carol Anne is taken somewhere, Robbie (Robins) is nearly devoured, and Dana (Dunne) is hysterical. Steven, against his beliefs, consults a parapsychology team at the local college. This motley crew, led by Dr. Lesh (Straight) and the odd, diminutive Tangina (Rubenstein), quickly learn that the Freeling’s predicament far exceeds the excitement of a time-lapse video. In the span of fifteen minutes in the film, we go from seeing this relatively normal family deal with a standard, nighttime thunderstorm to being completely strung out in immeasurable grief, pleading with pseudo-science for assistance. This paranormal spirit that envelops the Freeling house succeeds in luring the family into a false sense of security, then it viscerally “breaks on through to the other side”. What follows is a series of unexpected, thrilling, deeply moving scenes that play with the notions of life, death, instinct, and fear.
Of course the audience knows that something wicked cometh their way, for Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant and sinister musical composition wonderfully telegraphs it. The innocent chants of a children’s chorus, coupled with precocious flutes, played against the backdrop of the Cuesta Verde neighborhood, slowly give way to shrill, treacherous brasses that signal the forthcoming evil. I remember this score more than most; perhaps because, like Spielberg, Goldsmith created something that might exist in the mind of a child. Just as the film covers a checklist of my childhood fears, the score is the soundtrack of my childhood dreams, full of light and dark.
It’s also important to focus on the film’s outstanding performances. For all of the sadness and punch lines that surrounded this cast over time, everyone is superb here. Both of the younger actors, especially O’Rourke, perfectly depict the innocence and real, palpable fright essential to their roles. Nelson, as recognizable as he and his booming voice are, works well as the spaced-out dad forced into action. Williams breathes life and guts into Diane, lending an honesty to a character that we weren’t entirely sure could handle the stress at first. As a parent now, it tears me apart to hear her lament “she went through my soul”, syrupy words aside. Beatrice Straight, the veteran stage actor, grounds the film in the middle of the chaos by patiently delivering a touching monologue about life and death. It’s simple, sure, but it doesn’t pander. Zelda Rubenstein’s most recognized role was Tangina Barrons, and for good reason; her odd, stern way of squeaking out lines drew ever so close to camp without crossing that line.
Tangent to the film itself is the much-publicized aura surrounding it, including the deaths of Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and others involved with the original trilogy. The idea that the films were ‘cursed’ became something of a Hollywood legend, as did the story that real skeletons were used in the original’s pool scenes. To boot, the notion that Spielberg literally directed the film has been debated for some time. Despite Hooper’s credit as director, this movie does walk and talk like a Spielberg film, to the point where the Director’s Guild of America actually investigated the matter, leading to an open letter decrying the rumor by Spielberg himself. We also know that Poltergeist exists in the pop culture ether with a select group of films; be it “they’re here”, “go into the light”, or “this house is clean”, many of the film’s moments and lines have been spoofed, hinted at, or quoted; few are those who cannot point out a Poltergeist tidbit.
The critical mass when this film arrived on the scene was generally positive, but still underwhelming. As strongly as I have praised it here, I’m left with the feeling that Poltergeist is remembered well, yet may actually be underrated as a film. That horror films tend to suffer from an aversion to praise may be in part to blame, but it seems as though the film’s influence on pop culture may have distracted some from seeing the film’s quality. Those that see this today for the first time may not agree with my assessment of this film. That could be based on comparisons to today’s thrillers combined with pre-existing ideas, but that is not an indication that the film aged poorly. It genuinely seems to be a film that many look back on fondly, without the need to lament its’ age. In addition, I find Poltergeist to be more of a “spiritual social commentary thriller” than a horror film anyway. It bothers to challenge our ideas on a possible ethereal plane of existence, it asks what lengths a family might go to in order to save one of their own, and it threatens the dreams of the baby boomer generation.
Every child of the 80’s can see a little bit of themselves in a film like this, which lends to the film sticking in our minds. Robbie’s side of the bedroom looked exactly like, well, my room. That gnarly tree looked strikingly similar to a gnarly tree in my yard, right behind my bedroom window. His fears were my fears. Heck, I couldn’t sleep with the door closed for years, for every time I saw light through the door frame, I was convinced a spook awaited me. Consequently, Steven and Diane’s realized fears as parents ended up mirroring my fears as well. It touches at the very core of our parental instincts, like the desire to protect our children at any cost, even if it means confronting the ‘Beast’, or how mad we’ll dash to them when we sense danger (and how long that journey seems, no matter the distance). Poltergeist is a film that seems to have crawled out of my childhood dreams and onto the screen- then back into my head as a parent, solidifying my opinion of it as a timeless classic. Is it possible that I’m putting too much on the film, and the actual result is weaker that I give it credit? Sure. It’s also possible that Spielberg, Hooper, and crew simply captured lightning in a bottle, making a film that exceeded even their own expectations. Time has been kind to Poltergeist, which has grown into an eminently watchable, smart, visceral thriller that aged far better than this writer.
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