The Film: Poltergeist

The Principals: Directed by Steven Spielberg, uh, I mean Tobe Hooper. Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunn, Zelda Rubenstein.

The Premise: The Freelings are a typical middle class family living the American dream in a suburban development that dad (Nelson) has played a large role in populating. One night during a thunderstorm, the youngest daughter Carole Anne (O’Rourke) begins hearing voices emanating from the static of the TV set. Soon, the family is plagued with increasingly terrifying paranormal occurrences, culminating with Carole Anne being pulled into her closet and disappearing, only to exist as a non-corporeal voice on the television.  The family calls in a team of paranormal researchers, led by the kindly Dr. Lesh (Straight) but they are ill equipped to deal with the increasingly bizarre and dangerous attacks by the restless spirits. Dr. Lesh calls on the help of Tangina (Rubenstein) a diminutive psychic who confronts the spiritual vortex and sends mom (Williams) into the nether realm to rescue Carole Anne. Once mother and daughter are back in the real world and safe, Tangina declares the house “clean”. The family prepares to move from their longtime residence, but not before spending one more night in the house. The spirits return with a vengeance and the family narrowly escapes with their lives, but not before discovering the horrible secret as to what lies beneath the idyllic façade of the development itself.

Is it Good?: It’s Poltergeist for Christ’s sake, of course it’s good. At this point it is probably safe to say that Poltergeist is a definitive haunted house tale, certainly for a generation and certainly as far as the 80’s are concerned. Along with the previous year’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and  E.T. it cemented Spielberg’s status as a stortytelling wunderkind (despite the film being credited to Tobe Hooper as director) and it has continued to scare generations of viewers. Who can forget the scary clown scene, or the dude ripping his face off, or the swimming pool full of corpses? Poltergeist is a seminal film that has been a template for ghost movies ever since, and recently has spawned antecedents in the popular Paranormal Activity films and James Wan’s excellent near remake Insidious. Quite simply, the legacy of this film cannot be oversold.

The production and performances are top notch across the board. This is classic Spielberg, and his touch is felt in every frame of the film, which makes it all the more absurd that some people will actually insist that Tobe Hooper directed the lion’s share of the movie. There is just simply no evidence of Hooper the artist here, unless you count the shocking gore of the face ripping scene or perhaps some of the tension and scares. But hell, Spielberg is no stranger to tension and scares, especially at that point in his career. The mother daughter relationship between Williams and O’Rourke really anchors the film, and upon revisiting it I found it to be one of the more enjoyable elements. I really felt the love between these two. Everyone else is great too, and with the meta-knowledge of the “Poltergeist curse” it makes viewing a little bittersweet. Dominique Dunn is a great presence with what little screentime she has, and it’s a real shame she was taken from us before she could have a career (Dunne was murdered by a jealous ex boyfriend soon after the film’s release). And little Heather O’Rourke…man, what a tragedy. O’Rourke would die of pneumonia during the filming of Poltergeist III a few years later while she was still a child. Go into the light, Carole Anne.

But you know all of these things already. I am not here just to praise Poltergeist – you can find that anywhere. I am here to damn it! Or at least take it to task a little. Because when I sat down to watch it this most recent time, I tried to do so without the lens of nostalgia, which we all know is a difficult thing to do.  And while doing this in no way really diminished my respect and love for the film, I could see some flaws and odd choices that I think at least warrant some discussion. So for the sake of a good argument, let’s take a look at some of the problems I had with Poltergeist.

First of all, the movie is ludicrous. Ludicrous! There is a basic, no-holds-barred approach to reality here that strains credulity at every turn. I mean, I get it, it’s a ghost story, we’re dealing with the paranormal. Things are going to happen that would not happen in our reality. But Poltergeist might as well be taking place in the world of Harry Potter. This isn’t a haunting, it’s a friggin’ magical realm bleeding into our reality! Things fly around in a swirling vortex making humorous noises, giant trees get sucked up into tornadoes and disappear, ethereal monsters pop out and shriek at you – I mean what the hell are the rules here?! Simply put – there are no rules.  The ghosts of Poltergeist can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Which begs the question, if these things are so powerful, why don’t they just take Carole Anne and whoever else they desire and be done with it? Why are they even mucking around with the stupid Freelings? Why don’t they just implode the entire development? There’s something to be said for not knowing all the answers, but the more you think about Poltergeist the more questions arise that really don’t have any good answers. The movie is inexplicable and absurd in a way that just couldn’t be done in today’s more reality-based cinematic environment. I weep for the poor saps that have been trying to remake this for the last few years. Good luck with that, dudes.

This disregard for reason extends to the plot itself. The most egregious example is when after all this crazy crap happens, the Freelings decide to just chill out in the house for one more night! Are you kidding me!? Their daughter has recently been sucked into a spirit nether realm in her closet and you let her and her brother crash in the very same room as said closet/portal to oblivion!? All non-reality based movies demand certain “gimme” moments, but the one in Poltergeist really tests the limits of what you are willing to let go. The audience I saw it with collectively groaned when Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams make the call to stick around one more night. It’s hard to get too mad at this plot development because it leads to one of the coolest and scary climaxes in horror movie history, but still, c’mon. They could have found a way to get there without such a lazy contrivance. You’re better than that, Spielberg. He must have been working on E.T. the day those pages landed on his desk.

There aren’t many more flaws in Poltetrgeist, but I do feel that the film grinds to a halt in the scene where Dr. Lesh and Mama Freeling exchange some booze and Lesh gives her theories as to the nature of the spiritual realm. It’s a nicely staged and well acted scene but it doesn’t really help to clarify much of what is going on, and it drags the momentum down. Tangina does a much better job at exposition when she shows up a few scenes later. But neither scene really clarifies what’s going on besides that the big scary uber-spirit wants Carole Anne for some reason. The film mucks up any chance it has to properly explain anything – at one point it is said that poltergeist activity differs from traditional hauntings because it is focused on people and not locations, but the reason the spirits are there is because of the bodies being buried under the development – so which is it? Poltergeist wants to have it both ways, and it’s a point that sort of niggles at you upon repeated viewings.

My final issue is with Dominique Dunne’s character. Simply put, as the older teenage daughter Dunne has no role to play here and in fact fucks off at a friend’s house for most of the movie. Why even have the character in the movie if that’s what you’re going to do with her? Dunne has a great presence in the few scenes she has, so it’s a real shame the film never figures out what to do with her. I would think having ghosts muck with the mind of a teenage girl could open up some real possibilities for scares. Sadly it doesn’t happen, and Dunne’s death guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen in any of the wildly inferior sequels either. A real missed opportunity.

In the end, none of my quibbles really matter because despite its flaws Poltergeist works. It’s the textbook definition of a ‘thrill ride’ of a horror film, or more accurately a spookhouse ride. It should be a must own for horror fans, fans of ghost movies and fans of good movies in general. It should be a perennial on your DVD or BluRay player each and every Halloween season.

Random Anecdotes: The reason Spielberg couldn’t direct this himself was because it was contracted that E.T. (which may as well take place in the same suburban sprawl) be his only directorial credit that year. Hence the hiring of Tobe Hooper as the proxy director, though no one will go on record admitting this.

Cinematic Soulmates: Paranormal Activity, Insidious, E.T., Poltergeist II & III and countless others.

Sorry for the crappy version of the trailer, it’s all YouTube had. Just see the movie already.