What Poltergeist Means to Us
This movie fucking rules. I can watch it every single year in October and not care. Now generally I do it every other to keep things fresh, but still. This may be one of the all-time great films. I’m not sure if it’s more horror or thriller or the perfect blend of both. But no matter what it is still fantastic. The Jerry Goldsmith score is top fucking notch and I will die on this hill that it’s the best Tobe Hooper film. I get the love for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for its groundbreakingness, but I am bored to fucking tears by it. Maybe one day I’ll rewatch it and change my mind. But I doubt it. Anyway, back to Poltergeist… It’s brilliant. Watch it if you haven’t and if you don’t like it, don’t talk to me.
“They’re heeeere…” Man, I love Poltergeist. It’s a film that for me is almost comfort food, like Bride of Frankenstein or Suspiria. Something I’m always in the mood to watch. It’s an enjoyable spookfest that’s heavy on the enjoyable, if a little light on the spooks – at least for the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That being said, I did find that whole sequence with the steak and the guy looking in the mirror afterward to be delightfully gruesome. As a kid who sometimes did manage to sneak out and stay up until the screen turned to static, I definitely checked those pixels for ghost faces and listened to it for spooky voices. I always buy into the Freelings as a family – the actors are all top notch – and I think that’s what makes the film work so well.
Unlike a more sedate haunting film like, well, The Haunting, the activity escalates to unbelievable pretty quickly. We have minor, even playful, events and suddenly Robbie, is being eaten by a tree and something steals Carol Anne right out of this world. Throughout all the crazy, though, the Freelings keep it anchored. They KNOW it’s insane – they apologize more than once – but they just move forward, dealing with it, struggling with it. You feel for them and it’s that identification that lets all that crazy work. And work it does, and if I find myself walking around the place saying “This house… is clean!” after a quick sweep, can you blame me? A great spooky season viewing, and one I think I should watch again tonight.
I was young the first time I watched Poltergeist. Too young to understand that Tobe Hooper’s film didn’t just profoundly impact the horror genre; it helped revolutionize it altogether. Its special effects and storytelling techniques pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the horror genre. I had always loved how Poltergeist expertly blended the horror genre with a captivating family drama, never having to rely solely on jump scares to terrify its audience. Instead, along with its frightful effects, the film delved into the psychological fears and vulnerabilities of an ordinary family living in what appears to be an idyllic suburban neighborhood.
From the film’s beginning, Hooper begins to establish the terror of what is to come. The Freeling family has moved into a new, idyllic community and broke ground on a new pool. It’s then that strange occurrences begin to plague the family’s home. The supernatural activity seems almost harmless at first, even entertaining. But very quickly, things take a sinister turn as an entity known as the “Beast” kidnaps the Freeling’s youngest daughter, Carol Anne, while continuing to torment the inhabitants of the Freeling home.
There’s not much about Poltergeist you’ll find me criticizing. I think it’s expertly paced and has fabulous performances and effective scares. Not to mention, the score. Soft, melodic, and frightening all at the same time.
Today, many people may consider Poltergeist an outdated movie in a world drowning under CGI and AI techniques. But in 1982, Poltergeist’s use of puppetry and special effects was rather groundbreaking. From spectral entities to a malevolent clown doll, the practicality of the effects gave Poltergeist a sense of realism, immersing the audience in the visceral horror that the Freelings were feeling throughout the film.
One of the movie’s most influential and iconic scenes is also a mark of Hooper’s brilliant direction. Young Robbie Freeling is not a fan of a rather inconspicuous clown doll that sits on a chair in the room he shares with Carol Anne. Throughout the movie, this doll is seen, but never really felt, but for a moment, when Robbie gathers up his courage to throw a blanket over the smiling doll.
Even while the rest of the house is plagued with ghostly apparitions and Carol Anne’s disappearance, the clown remains innocuous. But Hooper bides his time until Robbie, his family, and the audience are finally at peace, having supposedly defeated the Beast and rescued Carol Anne. That’s when he unleashes the final act of mayhem, including turning Robbie’s fear of the clown into a reality. Pennywise may have triggered an intense phobia of clowns for many, but for me, the clown in Poltergeist, its coiling arms and innocent smile to sinister, demonic grin, is what made me scared to sleep at night. Simple puppetry was used for this scene, giving it a tangible realism that still haunts my dreams.
And speaking of hauntings…
A CURSED FILM?
One of this film’s enduring legends is that the Poltergeist set was cursed, thanks to the production using real skeletons in a scene where JoBeth Williams’s character falls into the flooded swimming pool excavation and skeletal corpses begin to surface around her. While it’s true that real skeletons were used (apparently a long-standing Hollywood tradition) and many tragedies plagued some of the people involved in making this movie, I have always been reluctant to buy into the “cursed” set explanation. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, old and young, and it feels wrong somehow to blame a film set for that reason. However, the “curse” seems to be attached to the film’s legacy regardless. I would recommend watching the Poltergeist episode of Cursed Films on Shudder if you are interested in more!
Poltergeist’s influence cannot be overstated. We see it in the cultural impact it has had (They’re heeeeeeeere!) as well as the various movies and television shows that draw influence from the movie’s storytelling techniques and its themes of family, the supernatural, and fear of the unknown.
Poltergeist managed to effectively weave together paranormal horror with familial drama, presenting something much more profound than the cheap scares and gore one might find in a typical horror movie, which is why it continues to resonate with audiences today. It’s certainly a movie that has stuck with me over the years and continues to be one of my favorite watches this time of year.
Share your memories of Poltergeist in the comments below!