For horror film enthusiasts (which I do not especially consider myself to be one), there are generally two opinions about what was the creative hey-day of the genre. It’s either the 1920s and 30s at the height of the Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney era, or it’s the horror resurgence of the 1970s and early 1980s (also known as the rise of Wes Craven, George A. Romero, and Tobe Hooper). I don’t really think I have much of an opinion there because horror isn’t exactly my forte. Still, among my horror-loving friends (of which there are many) opinion is pretty evenly split. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (with a script written by Steven Spielberg) is on the films that always comes up as a classic of the early 1980s horror genre. While I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I did when I was younger (it simply wasn’t as scary as I remembered it being, unlike say The Exorcist), I did pick up on some not-so-subtle social commentary that I missed the first time around. There’s certainly no denying that back in the 80s Spielberg was one of the all-time masters of capturing what it was like to be a child, and the way that Poltergeist fed on very literal childhood fears remains pretty impressive. Also, though some effects are obviously quite dated, the film managed to remain visually impressive despite being 30 years old (this year).
In an archetypical American suburb, the Freeling family are the poster-child for the well-adjusted and loving WASP family. Husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful real estate agent for the realtors that built the entire development where the Freeling family (and dozens and dozens of others) lives. Wife Diane (The Big Chill‘s JoBeth Williams) is a loving stay-at-home-mom (who smokes the occasional joint in the evenings) that looks after the family’s three children ranging from 5 to 8 to 16. When the youngest daughter, Carol-Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke), starts hearing voices talking to her out of the static of the television, the Freeling house is quickly taken over by the supernatural. Though the incidents start off as seemingly innocent (chairs and people moving on their own across the kitchen floor), it isn’t long before the malicious side of the spirits break through and Carol-Anne is sucked through a portal into a limbo-dimension and the son is nearly devoured by a tree into the same dimension (or possibly another). Diane and Steve have to enlist the help of parapsychology experts who quickly learn that they too are in way over their head.
This film is not subtle whatsoever in making a statement about American consumerism and the hypocritical lives of the average WASP-ish suburbanite. It’s especially obvious during the scenes before the haunting gets out of hand. We see these people living in an almost disgusting level of comfort, and their biggest problem is that the remote controls of the Freeling neighbors are at the same frequency as the Freeling house and they get in a remote control war. They can waste food. There is a recurring visual motif about things that have been buried getting dug up (which is taken to its logical and horrifying conclusion in the film’s climactic final scene). All of these things are fine. While Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed the film, it was written by Spielberg, and all of his films operate on two levels. You have the story and then there’s the obvious allegory (i.e. E.T. is really about divorce and not actually aliens). And I’m always down for some good finger-poking at the suburbs. And when the film delivers the scares, they are often (though not always) pretty successful. Still, good lord, the exposition in this movie could have came out of one of the later Star Wars films. They would just talk and talk and talk and try to explain things in explicit detail that would have been better served by leaving more to our imagination. Poltergeist suffered from the one thing Spielberg usually gets right. It tried to tell more than it showed.
This is going to be my shortest movie review in ages (they’re usually more like 5 or 6 paragraphs instead of 4), but I still feel like I’m dying from my sinus infection, and my head is still buzzed on enough allergy medicine for me to float away on a wave of suphedrine. And I just think about Breaking Bad every time I take it (cause Suphedrine is a major ingredient in methamphetamine, although not in Walter’s cause he found like a work around in making it which is why his meth is blue. I think. I’m not a chemist). Slowly but surely, all of the energy I’ve been expending doing posts over these last couple days despite being sick has turned my mind into total mush. It’s not good. Anyways, if you’ve somehow managed to not see Poltergeist in the last thirty years, it’s still a really good movie. I’m not sure if I would call it a great film, but it’s fun, and it manages to deliver some legitimate scares. And for all movie buffs, it’s cultural legacy is pretty substantial so that alone would justify a viewing.
Final Score: B+