I suspect that most people of my generation are like me: They saw Poltergeist sometime during their preteen years, it scared the holy zombie bejesus of them, and they haven’t seen it since. Personally, I remember witnessing the film mostly from behind a couch, fearful that the dead spirits would leak from my own television, as they had in the film, and rip me away from my home and throw me into a netherworld with the giant-headed beast.
Of course, since then, I’ve forgotten most of the film’s details (does anyone else remember that Craig T. Nelson was the father in the film?), but much of Poltergeist’s iconic imagery has stuck with me (reinforced by innumerable parodies): The little girl staring at the television snow, the skeletons in the swimming pool, the eerie dwarf lady, and — of course — that huge skeleton head peeking out of a closet full of light and fire, an image that figured central in many a preadolescent nightmare.
And while the most of you who haven’t seen it since your middle-school years may not be surprised to learn that it’s not nearly as scary as it was when you were watching it on that VCR with the wired remote from behind your fingers, you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually a very family-friendly “horror” film that’s about as dark and sinister as E. freakin’ T. In fact, though it says it was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it has writer/producer Steven Spielberg’s schmaltzy-sweet imprint all over it. Indeed, at the time of filming, Spielberg was contractually forbidden from directing Poltergeist while he was working on E.T., but most accounts suggest that Tobe Hooper was a stand-in and that Spielberg did most of the work, which makes sense because watching it as an adult, Poltergeist packs all the terror of another Spielberg-produced film, *batteries not included.
But then again, Poltergeist — which is being screened in select theaters on Thursday as part of its 25th Anniversary celebration — isn’t a bad film, either. It’s just not particularly scary to adult, or even teenage, audiences (which is probably why so many of our parents had no problem allowing us to see it in our formative scarring years). I suppose, even, that it’s a decent way to introduce younger kids to horror films; it is rated PG after all (though, it’s part of the reason that the MPAA eventually introduced PG-13 to the ratings system), and aside from a face-peeling hallucination, it’s not a gory film. But, for those wondering why coulrophobia is so common to this generation, you can probably trace it back to the goddamn clown doll in Poltergeist, which still managed to haunt me watching the film today.
Otherwise, it’s a modestly spooky film in the way that haunted houses put on by the local elementary schools are “spooky,” which is to say hardly at all, though there is a certain delight in walking into a dark auditorium and putting your hand in a bowl full of pasta labeled as guts. Indeed, in the beginning, there’s little indication that Poltergeist is anything but a family movie — Steve Freeling (Nelson) is arguing with his neighbor because his remote keeps changing the channel to “Mr. Rogers,” while Steve is trying to watch the game with friends. However, that night, the family television really does go haywire when a shiny light shoots out of it while the twee daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), is watching, eliciting the now famous rejoinder, “They’re here.” After Carol Anne’s mom, Diane (JoBeth Williams) discovers, and is pleasantly bemused by, kitchen chairs that stack on their own and spoons that magically bend, an earthquake disturbs the house, provoking a tree to attack the son, Robbie (Oliver Robbins), which acts as a distraction while the house steals Carol Anne and puts her into the netherworld where, we later learn, she gets to hang out with the spirits of dead people who haven’t found their way to “the light” just yet. It’s all very Scooby Doo.
A few paranormal experts, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), are brought in to help bring Carol Anne back from the dead dimension, and they soon discover that the kids’ bedroom closet is some sort of portal to hell. So, they bring in Tangina, the very short eerie woman that made me feel funny in very non-sexual places as a child, but who actually looks like a dwarvian cross between the Good Witch of the North and Ronnie Milsap in a muumuu, which is to say she elicits laughter more than the creeps. She delivers a lot of Spielbergian gobbledygook about the power of love and its ability to save their daughter from “the light.” And so begins the rescue effort, which features all the special effects wizardry that Industrial Lights and Magic could conjure back in 1982, i.e., they used a lot of strobe lights and papier mache. And it’s all done to an Oscar-nominated action-adventury score, by Jerry Goldsmith, that sounds like something you’d hear in an Indiana Jones film and not a horror flick, which makes it awfully hard to get scared when you keep waiting for a huge boulder to roll around the corner.
And so, watching it again in 2007, I’m a little perplexed as to why Poltergeist warrants the 25th Anniversary rerelease treatment. Judged by today’s standards, it’s far from a classic — in fact, it’d probably be chased away from theaters faster than Tom Greene. And so I suspect it’s a confluence of two things: 1) Our collective childhood memory of Poltergeist, left largely undisturbed over the last two decades, in combination with the pall of the supposed curse of the film: It was Dominique Dunne’s final movie before she was brutally murdered; little Heather O’Rourke died of septic shock during the filming of Poltergeist III; and two other cast members of sequels died in a very non-mysterious way, all of which (and several other coincidences) JoBeth Williams suggests resulted from the use of real skeletons in the film’s swimming pool scene. I don’t buy into the curse, of course, but the idea of it certainly colored my perception of the film to some degree. So, in the end, maybe this is just another one of Hollywood’s cynical attempts to exploit the dead, both literally and cinematically. But it does beg the question: What is the Poltergeist for this generation of pre-teens? I’m guessing that in 15 years time, there’s going to be an awful lot 30-year-olds scratching their heads, wondering what the hell they found so spooky about The Sixth Sense.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Poltergeist / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 3, 2007 | Comments ()