REVIEW: Poltergeist (1982)
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall
Written by: Steven Spielberg (screenplay & story), Michael Grais, Mark Victor (screenplay)
Edited by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn
Cinematography by: Matthew F. Leonetti
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Richard Lawson, Zelda Rubinstein, Martin Casella, James Karen
Poltergeist and the films that followed it have become some of the most fabled films in Hollywood history. Seemingly everyone knows about “Poltergeist curse” that was often been attributed to the ironic fact that the first film used real human skeletons as props in one pivotal scene and was rumored to have afflicted many people who worked on the films throughout the trilogy, ranging from small incidents on the set to the deaths of many of the films’ stars during that time. Producer Steven Spielberg was also the subject of much Hollywood scrutiny over his role in the first film’s creation, as he had a contract with Universal to not direct another film while he worked on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for them, but many who worked on the film claim that Spielberg had, in fact, taken over a lot of the directing duties on the set from its credited director, Tobe Hooper, likely in order to avoid any legal ramifications. Content wise, the film was also one of the most controversial films of its time, initially being issued an R-rating from the MPAA before Spielberg and Hooper talked them down to a PG, thus making it perfectly acceptable for younger audiences to see this scary movie without adult supervision if they so wished. Though it wouldn’t be the final straw that broke the camel’s back, it would be just one of the many that would convince the MPAA that a rating between the two was needed and eventually lead to the creation of the now ubiquitous PG-13 rating.
But even with all the stories and rumors surrounding it, these bits of movie trivia would hardly be enough for a film to endear upon itself such critical and popular adoration, let alone a film in the horror genre. Plenty of horror films go down in history as being popular hits and thus spawn a seemingly endless number of sequels, some even achieving a respectable “cult classic” status, but relatively few can actually call themselves genuine “classics” and actually have the credentials and content to prove their status. Poltergeist can most assuredly claim genuine “classic” status.
Like many of his films, Spielberg’s influence can be felt here in full force through the way in which average American family life is juxtaposed by something much grander happening to them that tests their endurance, brings them closer together, and perhaps even infuses their average lives with the wonder and awe of things previously unknown that were around them the whole time. With Poltergeist, Spielberg traded in sharks and aliens for spirits and demons from another plane of existence who begin to haunt a family in a planned neighborhood of cookie cutter houses that the father, Steven, just so happened to have had a big hand in building as one of his company’s top developers. It’s an idyllic little neighborhood they’ve got going and seemingly the perfect place to raise their kids. One night, however, the littlest member of the Freeling family, Carol Anne, begins talking to a presence within the TV that the others can’t see. They shrug it off, however, as children often do strange things like have imaginary friends.
Part of the appeal of the film is how intimate we get to know these characters and their relationships with one another. Unlike, say, the Halloween remake I recently reviewed, Poltergeist is not your typical cynical horror film where the characters who should be nice aren’t and are either hiding secrets from one another or permanently harm their relationship with the other members of the cast through some selfish and/or stupid action. Mistakes are made, yes, and not everything that’s going on in the family is fully understood or handled quite as they should be, but what sets Poltergeist apart from the rest is the fact that this is a family that loves and cares for one another, and this is portrayed not just through their dealings with the paranormal, but in the way the film also shows us early on how they handle the everyday stuff, as well – stuff like the kids’ fear of a loud thunderstorm, the death of a beloved pet, the scary clown doll at the edge of the bed, secret late night phone calls to boyfriends, or even the parents’ need to just unwind at the end of a busy day and flirt with one another (and, shockingly, even smoke a bit of weed). The point is that they’re far from perfect – there’s even a hint that the relationship started off on shaky ground, as the mother, Diane, is said to be 32 in passing, and yet their oldest daughter is 16 – but the Freelings are more than getting by now, and they’re doing it happily and loving one another, too.
When Carol Anne’s imaginary friends prove to be all too real, however, and she is sucked into a spirit dimension from which only her voice can be heard, it’s that strength and togetherness that holds them together, even as these unbelievable events threaten to finally break them. These events can easily be seen as metaphors for a number of major family crises. Obviously the film touches upon the fear of child abduction with Carol Anne’s being spirited away into an unknown place, but it also mixes in the fear surrounding job security and the ways in which one’s occupation might affect family members directly or indirectly. Combine this with all those other everyday fears, it’s easy to see the parallels to real world that are being toyed with by the filmmakers.
And yet, in spite of all this fear and confusion, there are some surprising moments of calmness. They seek help and answers from people outside their family who are willing to hear them out. They maintain their love for one another and somehow manage to function on a basic level. Perfection is never even suggested, as Steven also struggles with the stresses that his family situation is placing on his work, too. There’s even a subtle crisis of faith, as the mother gives in to her fears and allows a medium to perform a ritual that she knows violates her beliefs as a Christian. The resolution to this matter is subtle, but to all those paranoid Christians I’ve known in the past who have claimed this to be a blasphemous movie that will invite hell spawn into your own homes, I say, firstly, get a grip, and, secondly, pay closer attention to the film’s true finale and the words that the mother says and when she says them. It might actually surprise you.
As with all things, of course, a movie is not just a message but also its presentation, and that’s another area where Poltergeist is heads above the rest. Its script is smart and the dialogue is natural. Not a moment is wasted in mostly pointless scenes meant to be “creepy” in concept but which otherwise has no significance to the rest of the story or characters. It would have been easy to just show a chair scooting across the floor by an invisible force as a character walks off screen or turns their back and does not notice. This is a film that has them notice, react, and even interact with it. This is an intimate film thatt also happens to run at a perfect pace throughout its nearly 2 hour length, deftly intermingling moments of drama, humor, wonder, and terror, all with the aid of Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score.
The effects, perhaps with the exception of the infamous face-peeling scene that hasn’t aged too well but remains creepy nonetheless, are phenomenal and hold up to this day, 32 years later, probably due to so many of them being practical, but also because so many of them are carefully created. The movie’s scares don’t rely just upon gore, tricky camera angles, and sudden appearances from once-off-screen creatures. They exist because we care about these guys and because the tension is carefully built up for the film’s more spectacular set pieces to ensure they have the proper impact. A great deal of thought was put into building tension and giving greater significance to even the film’s cheesier, weirder moments, as with the strange tree outside the younger kids’ window.
Performances across the board are also very strong, from Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as the concerned parents to even from the adorable Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne. I think the one and only major complaint I might have is that the teenage daughter isn’t very well developed, nor is the actress particularly strong, but this is easy to overlook with so few scenes, and at least there’s a very character appropriate reason for this teenage girl leaving: she wants to be with her friends.
I very nearly didn’t review this movie due to time and energy constraints, but having seen the film recently for only the second time in my life (largely due to the fact that there was, in fact, a lot of stigma on this film growing up among fellow Christians) and knowing that I wouldn’t have wanted to wait another year to publish this glowing review during a more appropriate time, I just couldn’t resist pushing through. I know this is going up a little late into the 2014 Halloween season, but if you have the time and access to the movie, I highly recommend you sit down and watch it while the time is right, too. Of course, even if you miss it, there’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t just, you know, watch it anyway. Poltergeist is still going to be just as spectacular at any time of the year. It has definitely risen to the ranks in being one of my own all-time favorite horror and Halloween season films that I will undoubtedly watch at least once each year this time of year. It’s pretty much spectacular in almost every aspect.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5