Thursday, May 13, 2010

Poltergeist (1982)

"So I'll watch Poltergeist," I thought. "It's rated PG, it's written & produced by Steven Spielberg, it's kiddie horror. There's no violence, nobody dies, it's a ghost story. Should be good for a laugh."

Holy shit. This movie seems specifically designed to cause nightmares. Did I forget that Spielberg previously directed Duel and Jaws? Did I disregard that director Tobe Hooper was best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I'd seen it before, but obviously I forgot about the clown, the tree, the scene where the guy looks into the mirror and sees...

I'll backtrack. I didn't forget about any of these things at all, but Poltergeist is certainly more relentless than I remember it being. The story involves a bland '80s American family living in a boring house in a cookie-cutter suburb, whose lives are invaded by ghosts that first create a little fun, then maliciously target their children, especially their five-year-old daughter.

Spielberg touches abound throughout the movie (there was considerable controversy about how much of the movie was really directed by Hooper) from the lovable family dog to the huge amounts of then-impressive special effects to the general "sitcom-America" setting. There's also a heavy dose of the sadism that was particularly prevalent in his movies of the '80s, including his propensity to do horrible (though non-lethal) things to kids, and of course his usual complete lack of sexuality.

It seems to be a 'message' movie to a certain extent: the parents voted for Reagan (or at least read books about him) and smoke dope around their kids, the dad is a real estate agent, and they are perfect examples of '80s consumers. There is a definite sense that they are being punished for all of this. I'm all in favour of ghosts that torment Right-voting capitalists, though your mileage may vary. It also seems relevant that the kid-snatching ghosts come out of the television.

It's a contemporary ghost story in more ways than one. One interesting thing about it is that the haunted house is actually very new. According to the back-story, the house was built five years earlier and this is the first family that have lived there. There is an explanation for where the ghosts are coming from, but it's very unusual to set a ghost story in a house without some kind of Terrible Past. Even Hill House, a mere 80 years old, has plenty of nastiness in its relatively short history.

Speaking of that Shirley Jackson story, Poltergeist is yet another descendant, as it features a team of supernatural detectives getting out of their depth. But those characters are here played mostly for laughs.

All of this is secondary to the fact that this is the movie where that scary-looking tree outside your window, and that incredibly creepy clown doll that you really wish your aunt hadn't given to you, really are trying to kill you. The movie seems to be saying "Hey kids, you know how your parents said that all those things you're scared of are really harmless? Well, they were lying. Good luck sleeping tonight!"

So we get a scene where the father insists that the horrible gnarled tree right outside the children's window is actually wise and benevolent and looking after them - immediately followed by a scene where this same tree crashes in through the window and tries to eat a ten-year-old boy. This kid (played by Oliver Robins) does the best job of looking terrified that I think I've ever seen in a kid actor, and he does it a lot throughout the movie. Heather O'Rourke, who plays the 5-year daughter Carol Anne, is much more relaxed; even when things get really extreme, she seems more anxious than afraid.

There's a lot of black comedy throughout, from the death of the budgie right at the start to the EC comics gruesomeness towards the end. For a PG movie, this sure has a lot of disgusting images.

I should probably hate Poltergeist in a lot of ways, not least because the trend of big-budget thrill-ride effects-driven jokey-gruesome Boo!-horror movies can be traced directly to it. But I don't. It's a lot of fun. It's the fun of a rollercoaster, and none of the scares cut very deep. It won't stay with you for long. Unless, of course, you have a big scary tree outside of your bedroom window, in which case you're on your own.


  1. That mirror scene. :(

    That's all.

  2. One of the things that always sticks in my mind is the early haunting stuff. There's something that feels very smart about the way that, after the initial scare at being haunted has passed, the family treat it like a novelty. Demonstrating with the moving chair and so on. I love that, because it really makes the film feel like a modern ghost story, that kind of careless irreverence.