Thirty years of horror: Poltergeist (1982)

Chris: It’s all here, really. In 30 minutes, Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist script creates the archetype for anyone wanting to follow him along with making horror films in suburban settings for the modern age. He establishes the normal familiarity of the setting, the relatability of the characters, and the mundanity that’s part and parcel of a middle-class suburban family and neighborhood. And then like a little kid making sandcastles on the beach, he gleefully, almost joyfully kicks it all over by introducing menacing evil spirits from beyond the grave.

But, after the jump, just how menacing are they?

Chris: Spielberg’s “how-to” manual doesn’t stop with the setting and the ghosts, though. He’s a better writer than that. Instead, he threatens his characters. These ghosts can steal people, and they have. He makes sure his scenario–however goofy it may seem on closer inspection–both forces the family to stay in the house and jeopardizes their safety. “Let’s just leave” isn’t an option here.

Tom: If I were to make a list of the top ten worst horror movies of all time, I’m pretty sure Poltergeist would be in the top five. It’s such a safe, precious, family friendly take on horror. One of the few things I like about Poltergeist is that it’s a time capsule of the 80s. Gene Shalit, Ronald Reagan, TV that stops broadcasting at night, the clicker remote controls, the parents covertly getting stoned in their bedroom late at night, that station wagon. Oh boy, that station wagon, presented unironically in all its wood-panelled glory. The construction workers leer at the sixteen year old in her schoolgirl skirt and pigtails while Mom looks on and shakes her head. “Boys will be boys,” she seems to say, shaking her head and smiling at the innocent fun of it all.

And when the ghosts themselves finally come out to join the playtime, they’re just as harmless. Note that our exorcist is the opposite of Max von Sydow in every way. “You’ve never done this before,” our diminutive psychic says to JoBeth Williams to keep her from going to the Other Side to save Carol Ann. The psychic has concocted a plan based on tennis balls and rope.

“Neither have you,” says Williams.


“You’re right,” the psychic says. “You go.”

It’s probably the most effective sequence in the movie because it’s about the maternal instinct versus the unknown and Williams plays it really nicely, far better than Richard Dreyfus sauntering into a Mothership at the end of Close Encounters. Plus, Williams’ passage to and from the Other Side is going to pay off with some birth imagery featuring the adorable little Hearther O’Rourke in her movie mother’s arms. But like the rest of the movie, it’s all so precious and unthreatening, so often going for the easy joke, defusing the tension with a laugh, such a wholesome family adventure, chock full of product placement. The power of Star Wars compels you. The power of Star Wars compels you. The power of Star Wars compels you.

Chris: Why do you hate America, Tom? I’m okay with the Disney-ish (or Spielberg-ish) tone of things, and even wood-panelling on station wagons. But what about that clown puppet with the bells? That’s not scary? I loathe both clowns and puppets and that thing frightened me far more than some of the big-money special effects. I think the tree and the storm and the lightning and the stuff flying around the room all tap into some pretty sweet primal scare veins.

Tom: I do grant that one of the scariest things in Poltergeist is a chair without a clown doll sitting in it. The chair scenes in this movie are far scarier than any of the special effects.

Chris: Speaking of which, do the special effects here count as CGI? It seems like they’re at least a primitive version of what we’d call generated effects in future years. Some look terribly dated and bad (the ghostly tendrils that come out of the TV set early on haven’t aged well), others I was OK with (the line of ghosts coming down the staircase). I think whoever was in charge here, whether that was Spielberg or credited director Tobe Hooper, realized as well that these visuals couldn’t and shouldn’t be the whole scary enchilada.

Tom: These absolutely aren’t CG! Some of them are old-school cartoon animation. Others are traditional matte effects of multiple shots superimposed over each other. Some of it is quaint, but for me, the only special effect that still has any impact is the stacked chairs in the dining room, courtesy of “the TV people”. Given that the house is so obviously a set and not a location, I’m guessing they just lowered the stacked chairs in from the ceiling? However they did it, that scene still works wonderfully.

Chris: We should probably actually talk about who directed this. As mentioned, Tobe Hooper gets the director’s credit, but there are reasons to doubt that this wasn’t at least a fully collaborative effort. I’ve heard rumors and innuendo about Hooper’s state of being during the filming of Poltergeist, but I’m not sure I buy that, either. I think Spielberg really wanted to make this script, had a small window of time to do it in, and found himself an associate director he was friendly with. Poltergeist arrived in theaters exactly a week before E.T. in 1982, and it seems to me just as likely that the crediting on screen has to do with avoiding friction between MGM and Universal.

Tom: This is clearly a Steven Spielberg production, or at least a point where Tobe Hopper has been swallowed whole and scrubbed clean by the anodyne Hollywood approach to spectacle and therefore horror. These ghosts are almost indistinguishable from the aliens from Close Encounters, brilliantly backlit and accompanied by the lens flare that will wend its way into the young mind of JJ Abrams and out onto the screen decades later in Super 8, this time accompanying another misunderstood monster that needs only the sympathy of children and newly wisened parents to get it home. “This house is clean,” the movie’s Yoda observes at the end of the second act. Lady, this house was clean all along.

Chris: If you won’t clap for Tinkerbell, I can’t save you. But yeah, obviously this movie has Spielberg’s apparent fingerprints all over it, regardless of that opening credit. The establishing scenes with the family have the Spielberg-ian pitch-perfect feel for tone and dialogue. There are simply too many scenes too thoughtfully shot to have come from the same guy who did Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot. When the tree branches come through the window to try to steal away the little boy, it’s as if Spielberg was almost deliberately thumbing his nose at Hooper’s Salem’s Lot window scene.

Tom: There is one briefly subversive moment when you might guess the director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was loitering around somewhere on the set, probably at craft services, waiting to take a turn at the camera. Now he gets his chance. Acts one and two are tidily squared away, but there’s still about thirty minutes to kill. So the Beast — the cover of an Iron Maiden album was bound to work its way into a movie sooner or later — is back for more. The academics and psychics have all gone home. It’s just JoBeth Williams, naked and luxuriating in a tub. For the final confrontation, she’s wearing only a T-shirt and panties. There’s a suggestion that the Beast is trying to pull her shirt off. In another movie out in 1982 called The Entity, Barbara Hershey suffers a similar fate to more horrifying effect. But this is just Poltergeist, so Williams is merely tumbled around in a rotating room funhouse gimmick like a pair of jeans in a dryer. When a skeleton dog drives her away, it’s old-school horror and cheesecake, her long toned legs tucked under her, the leering monster’s face looming, her shrinking in terror. It’s the stuff of horror comic book covers or trashy paperback novel covers.

But then comes a moment where I can almost imagine that someone has a point. Williams runs screaming into the rain for help from the neighbors. She slips and tumbles into the unfinished pool, which is nothing more than a mud pit at this point. The earth starts vomiting up corpses as she thrashes in the mud, flailing around to get out, clawing at the loose dirt edges of the pit, trapped in the aspirations of her middle-class suburban development. In a real horror movie, this would have been her fate.

But along comes the comic relief neighbor to pluck her to safety. The problem with Poltergeist as a serious horror movie is that it has no bite, and any time it proposes a bite — Why did no one else get mauled like the guy who lifts his shirt to show a bloodless shark bite scar he’d supposedly just received? — it pulls back or makes a joke or offers some sort of pat “familial love conquers all” solution, where Hell simply can’t suck hard enough or is unable to lock the wooden gate at the side of the house, so everyone escapes to a motel to allow the movie to close with one final joke.

Chris: It seems like familiarity and time have dulled some of the fright out of this for me too, sadly. JoBeth Williams is fine, but Craig Nelson’s woodenness and the movie’s inability to develop seemingly interesting supporting characters in the parapsychology team probably keep this from being something I can watch more than every few years now. The ending’s histrionics with a vortex and reddish goo and the weird medium lady feels a bit too happy and family-friendly as well. Still, if — like Tom — you’re part of the Paranormal Activity generation of haunted house viewers, this seems like the wellspring from which those were born.

Tom: I’d actually describe it as the mainstreaming of horror, which meant removing a lot of the horror, at least up until Blair Witch Project emerged from the woods in Maryland, and paved the way for Paranormal Activity. It took a long time for commercially successful ghosts to recover their sense of malice. Poltergeist was a turning point, making horror a wholesomely Hollywood spectacle. The 70s are officially over, ladies and gentlemen. As such, Poltergeist was one of the worst possible things to happen to the genre.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)