Well, I have a book to review and a movie to review, but since it’s October and I don’t want to fall behind on the scary movies, let’s do that one. The movie this time out is Poltergeist, written and produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame). Apparently there was a lot of controversy at the time over who really directed it, though, as Spielberg was highly involved and on set every day.
Poltergeist was the first horror movie I ever saw, at age 8. A lot of kids at school were talking about this one and I really wanted to see it, so one night when it was on HBO, my parents and I watched it together. Did it scare the daylights out of me? Yes! Did it spark a lifelong interest in scary movies that continues to this day? Yep, that too! And did it hold up for an adult viewer? Let’s find out.
Poltergeist is a pretty straightforward haunted house story. The Freelings have three kids and live in an idyllic house and neighborhood in a southern California suburb. Their youngest daughter, Carol Anne (5), has started waking up and talking to the static on the TV when Dad passes out after the late show and the channel signs off. She says the TV people talk to her. Weird things start happening around the house–for example, the dining room chairs will rearrange themselves when no one is looking, and the dog is acting like strangers are around. But at first it’s not too worrisome, almost fun.
One night a big storm comes up and the old tree outside the house comes alive, attacking the Freeling boy, Robbie (8) in his room. While the family is outside trying to pull Robbie out from the suddenly hungry tree, Carol Anne disappears. They search everywhere, only to discover they can only hear her through the TV’s speakers. The TV people have kidnapped her, and apparently taken up residence in the kids’ bedroom, where they conduct a 24-hour ghost party, including flying toys, random screams, and a blinding light in the closet. The Freelings contact a paranormal investigative team at the University of California-Irvine who tell them their house is haunted by one or more poltergeists.
Because poltergeist hauntings tend to be short-lived, they really need to get Carol Anne back from whatever realm the ghosts have spirited her off to in a hurry, or she’ll be gone forever. The paranormal researchers bring in Tangina Barrons, an exorcist and little person who knows just what to do. Tangina and her method of reaching into the world beyond are really quite clever (you’ll need rope, two tennis balls, and a bathtub of warm water…) and form the heart of the movie. I won’t say what happens next except to mention that their attempt to get Carol Anne back really, really pisses off the spirit world.
So did the movie hold up? I think so, mostly! Actually, what I didn’t realize as a kid is that Poltergeist is really a black comedy. I think a lot of scenes are somewhat tongue in cheek or played for laughs in a way I didn’t get as a kid. It’s also something of a satire, in which the modern trappings of prosperity–a big house, a customized kitchen, televisions in every room of the house–are shown to be empty materialism. In a metaphorical way, it isn’t the ghosts who’ve kidnapped Carol Anne, it’s the Freeling family’s unthinking lives of mindless consumption. In the end, when the haunting is revealed to be the fault of a greedy developer who moved the tombstones of a century-old cemetery but left the coffins in the ground underneath his new subdivision, disturbing the sleep of the dead, it represents an American tendency to advance a materialistic suburban life that has little respect for older, more spiritual traditions.
Story/Plot/Characters— Excellent acting, tight script from Spielberg, humor and great pacing. But, somewhat uneven tone, almost as if a horror-minded director and a highly-involved producer were working somewhat at cross-purposes. Loses all subtlety in the final act. (3 points)
Special Effects–Heavy on the special effects, state-of-the-art at the time, feel a bit dated now but still effective. (1.5 points)
Scariness–Some scary parts, including a scene with a toy clown under the bed that will stay with every kid who ever sees this movie. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness–A typical American suburb might not seem likely for an atmospheric movie, but scenes such as a parade of specters slowly descending the house’s curving central staircase, or the kids’ closet to the spirit world that seems to stretch on and on, or corpse-filled coffins popping up out of the half-drained pool, prove that suburbs can be the freakiest places of all. (1.5 points)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)