Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Nix Eclips. Visit his blog!]

1982 was a big year for film. We got Blade Runner, Tron, E.T., The Thing, Conan the Barbarian, and First Blood. We also got Poltergeist, which happens to be one of the key films in the formation of the PG-13 rating, but more on that later.

The film is regarded as such a classic that Hollywood has recently decided it can do a better version of it. With a remake due out this month, I thought it was time to finally watch the original Poltergeist with my son, who’s 12. Just to give context, I was nine years old when I saw it in the theater (without my parents) and 40 when I saw it recently with my kid (tell me I don’t look it, and we’ll be best friends). My son had a good time with it, and it was fun to share it with him. However, watching it with him as a parent gave me a new perspective on the film.

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The year was 1982. I lived on the outskirts of a tiny town that was pretty stoked to actually get a Pizza Hut. We had a movie theater with one screen. My parents would drop us off or take us to films, but they had to be rated PG or lower. We couldn’t see Creepshow or Beverly Hills Cop.

Rated R was off limits, even though this was when being able to watch VHS at home was just starting to be a thing, and it was perfectly acceptable for all of us to sit down together and watch An American Werewolf in London or The Thing—as long the small boy didn’t see boobies, I guess.

And so, my older sister and I were dropped off to see this totally acceptable film called Poltergeist. I mean, it was rated PG! It was produced by Steven Spielberg and, you know, for everyone!

It terrified the shit out of both of us.

For those who don’t know, Poltergeist concerns the Freeling family, which consists of Mom (JoBeth Williams), Dad (Craig T. Nelson), young son Robbie (Oliver Robins), older daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), and younger daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke).

They move into a fancy new suburb built by the real estate developer Dad works for. They begin to have strange, supernatural things occur in their home, and Carol Anne begins talking to people in the TV that no one else can hear. Eventually, she’s sucked into the closet and trapped in the spirit world, and so the family calls in a group of paranormal researchers (including the great Zelda Rubenstein) to help. Eventually, they’re able to get Carol Anne back from the other side, and all is well.

…or is it?

No. No, it is not. Because there’s still a third act to get through.

Spoilers (for a 30 year old movie)!

The house was built on a cemetery, and the spirits are angry.

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

Surprise!

End pointless spoiler alert.

The movie starts innocently enough, with typical childhood fears: storms, creepy trees, creepy dolls, and dealing with the death of a pet. Then, the movie begins its inevitable crusade to find more and more ways to crush the soul of every child watching it.

A storm transforms a tree into a living, attacking thing. A life-size clown doll, which any kid would fear becoming sentient, is suddenly so.

Quick aside about that clown doll. As you might recall, it had freakishly long arms and legs.

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

My sister and I both had these weird monkey puppets with long arms and legs, and we loved them.

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

After we got back home from the movie, we both went to our separate bedrooms, grabbed our monkeys, opened our sleeping parents’ door, threw them in, shut the door, and tried to go to bed. If the creepy monkey puppets had attacked our parents, it would have served them right for letting us see this nightmare fuel!

But again, at this point in the film, we’re mostly dealing with childhood fears brought to (terrifying) life. It’s not until Carol Anne disappears that things start to become more horrifying for the parents.

At a loss, they bring in the ghostbusters/psychics, but they don’t derail the movie (like in the allegedly awesome Insidious. Get off my lawn). Instead, they add more mystery and tension to the story. At this point, Mr. Freeling is hopeless. He’s lost his daughter and can’t help his family without resorting to contacting these strangers and letting them into the madness that’s overtaken their lives.

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

These people should provide reassurance that everything is going to be okay, but the look on Freeling’s face shows us he’s broken and disheartened. He jumped into a living tree to save his son, but it was all a trick so the spirit(s) could take his daughter. He saved one child, but lost another, and now he’s haunted by her voice coming from the other side.

As for the ghostbusters… Well, there’s a scene where one of the paranormal researchers discovers he’s eating maggot-covered chicken, then goes to the bathroom to wash his face and tears his fucking face off. What in the hell?

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

Parental guidance is merely suggested.

The screams in the theater were deafening. Oh my god.

And this is where the film derails any preconceptions you had as to what a haunted house movie was supposed to do. The ghosts don’t just make noises and move stuff around, they can fuck with your head. Now you can’t even trust what you see or what you’re even doing.

Hopefully, you can see how the PG rating might have been a bit misleading. Had I been with my parents, I think I would have buried my face into their arms. Being alone with my sister, we were both plastered to our seats, eyes open and taking in every horrifying detail.

When Poltergeist was first submitted to the MPAA, it was given an R rating. Steven didn’t like that, so he pouted and stomped his feet, and the MPAA, recognizing that if you’re important enough and make enough money for the studios, all of your films deserve a PG with no cuts. (And yes, I realize that the credited director of Poltergeist is Tobe Hooper, but Spielberg’s style is all over this thing, and rumors persist that he’s the one who really directed the film.)

Later, we would get Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which also perturbed plenty of parents with their dark themes and violence. And who was behind those movies? Why, Spielberg again! Imagine that. Eventually, he personally suggested a middle ground between PG and R and, wow, they went for it. The world was never the same.

Watching Poltergeist recently, I was still affected by my childhood fears, but there was something more: The movie also made me think about how much I would sacrifice for my own child, and the feelings of hopelessness that would arise from not being able to do everything I want for my family.

Hell yes, I would jump on a living tree to save my son. I would tell him terrible things if I had no other choice (as Freeling must, to the voice of his little girl in order to save her). I want to be my son’s friend, but sometimes you have to be the bad guy to make sure you always get them back. All you ever want is the best for your family.

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

Pictured: Still not as terrifying as losing my son.

All the things about a PG-should’ve-been-R film (seriously, what the hell) that scared me as a kid still freak me out now. The new feelings I get as a parent are more emotional and depressing, but still disturbing. Basically, Poltergeist works on two different levels that can keep it relevant thirty years later. So why not fix that with an update?

Sam Raimi has stated that the new version he produced makes Poltergeist “accessible” to modern audiences. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. I just showed it to a nitpicky 12-year-old who’s grown up with CGI and dumbed-down horror movies and he loved it. Is it the effects? The story? Being set in the ‘80s? What is it that would keep someone from being able to enjoy the original?

Poltergeist (1982): Still scary, but for different reasons

Fake.

Let’s take a look at the trailers for both.

We can tell there’s some serious shit going on, but we’re not sure what it actually is. There’s a nice family having a really bad time. It looks like a scary haunted house picture, and based on this trailer, I’m sold.

And now, the remake.

While it’s not a bad trailer, well… There’s the clown attacking, there’s the tree, and there’s some asshole telling us about the house being built on a cemetery. What the hell? Why are they giving away the whole movie before we’ve seen it? And why is it the same damn movie with different actors?

I’m not totally against remakes, nor am I filled with “nerd rage” over raped childhoods. I liked the new My Bloody Valentine and I thought the Last House on the Left remake wasn’t too bad (until the ending). And of course, I love John Carpenter’s The Thing, Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Chuck Russell’s The Blob. What I don’t appreciate is taking actual good movies and remaking them just to make them more “modern”. And I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason why this Poltergeist exists.

The great, memorable remakes take films that could benefit from better effects or better story or better acting or all of those things. The pointless ones just capitalize on a name.

Sam, if you really think Poltergeist is such a good story that “modern” audiences need to see it, why not spend all your money on a theatrical re-release instead? Or do you think people today are too jaded to appreciate good filmmaking?

Because I know a 12-year-old kid who would disagree.

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  • Sykes

    Poltergeist terrified me as a child. And later, as an adult I realized just how good a movie it really is. Director controversy or not, it feels exactly like “What if Spielberg made a scary-ass horror film in the ’80s?”

    • NixEclips

      I would love to hear the “real” story as to what went on!

      • Sykes

        We’ll probably never get the full story, but we can only hope!

        • NixEclips

          You would think after all the alleged drug abuse and other shenanigans that his career would have been over. But then he had two huge pictures after that (budget wise. Not performance wise.). Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars. Although, look at the people behind those. Golan Globus and Canon, who were both not known for the wisest business decisions.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Excellent point regarding the trailer. It’s the same problem with the Jurassic World spots as well, when in both cases the name alone should largely sell the film and instead all the good bits are given away.

    I’m with you in regards to how scary the original Poltergeist is. I was a few years older than you and saw it in the safety and comfort of my home and it still scared the piss out of me.

    • NixEclips

      My kid was either not as affected or put on a pretty good face. I’m just glad he enjoyed it.

  • damanoid

    Hey don’t even suggest that the puppetry effects diminish the scariness of Mister Hideously-Long-Armed-Lion-Roaring-Wispy-Haired-Door-Guardian-“Don’t Touch My Babies!”-Freaky-Skeleton…Thing. I seem to recall that they filmed him underwater to get that extra-wispy floating hair effect. I think I read that in Cinefex once upon a time, or possibly Fangoria.

    I have a rather cynical theory about why the new movie changed a fairly basic plot feature. In the original story, the Freelings have moved into a new suburb that Steven has helped to sell. The new movie suggests that the Freelings are desperate, and the suburb that they have moved into is fairly run-down. Why this change? Even in these post-recession years, it’s not as though bloated, crappy housing developments are no longer being built. The original movie was fairly novel in its use of a spanking-new contemporary setting for a haunted house story. In fact that was the whole point: the new development enraged the ghosts and provoked them to bust loose. If the neighborhood has been there for years, as in the new trailer, this no longer makes sense. So why are the Freelings suddenly poor?

    My guess: scan lines. A brand-new TV with its purely digital signal will not produce the “static” and visible scan lines depicted in the iconic “They’re here” scene from the original movie, and on the associated movie posters, trailers, spoofs and parodies, etc. Therefore, the Freelings have to be poor enough to own a somewhat crappy (though still widescreen) TV, otherwise a modern remake of Poltergeist couldn’t recreate that classic scene. An audience will not accept a flat blue screen as a portal to the afterlife. Sure, the moviemakers could probably have done something new and creative with distorted pixel patterns and other digital phenomena– but if they were interested in doing something new and creative, they wouldn’t have remade Poltergeist.

    • NixEclips

      That…thing… Never quite registered properly. My wife and I were even talking about what the hell it was supposed to be. One thing we agreed on was that, whatever it was, was terrifying.

      I’ve seen some comments, elsewhere, that suggest that there are ways something similar can occur with Hd Tvs. All I know is I own an old school Tv for playing Atari and I might just turn it on in the middle of the night and wait for my kid to wake up.

      • damanoid

        I figure the Skeleton Thing was just one more indicator that all the classic haunted house rules have been vacated for this movie. Yes, there are giant fire-breathing rotted skull-necks in the afterlife! Yes, your bedroom closet may suddenly turn into a slurping corridor of anime flesh tentacles! Sometimes the omniscient psychic spiritualist authorities are just flat-out WRONG! Why, even our glowing skeletons are mutated and freaky beyond all get-out! Just look at his cute little skeleton haunches! An ordinary glowing skeleton is a laughably corny haunted house cliche, but what about a skeleton with fangs and insanely long gorilla arms, roaring as it scampers after you on weirdly tiny skeleton legs? This is messed up on several levels at once, and your survival instincts are not prepared to process them all!

        Your plan to entertain your child with TV static has merit. If possible, position the clown puppet for maximum effect.

        • NixEclips

          That scene where Mr. Freeling ignores what Zelda is telling him, “You said to not go into the light!”, and then starts pulling the rope. Holy shit. I still don’t know who I’m supposed to support! He got them out, but maybe she had some sort of plan. Agh! I don’t know!
          And we were able to finally see what that thing was supposed to be, but we always thought it was some weird spider-skull thing.
          I gave away the monkey puppet to a small child that loved it. She was not tainted with the memory of this film and could give it a good home. Jesus, if something were to happen…..duh duh duhhnnnn!

          • damanoid

            Intellectually, I know I can go to IMDb and see that Zelda Rubinstein had an extensive acting career, but I have trouble imagining her in any role other than Tangina Barrons. It seems to me like an instance of perfect casting. The character might otherwise have been merely eccentric, but she brought an amazingly unsettling edge to her performance. You could sense that she wasn’t telling all that she knew. I guess maybe she didn’t tell Stephen the whole plan because that would have required her to explain fully that he was potentially feeding his wife to a giant dinosaur-sized undead skull monster. But I’m just fan-theorizing. They could have made a whole series of movies about her going around fighting the supernatural, and I would have watched the hell out of them. Spielberg uncharacteristically failed to notice that franchise potential.

            She and Craig T. Nelson played off each other wonderfully in this movie. He was such a credible Everyman figure, an average Joe trying to hold his family together and falling apart in the process. Of course he wouldn’t embrace the idea of an occult outsider doing his job for him. They explored this idea further in the sequel, which I thought was not really very good in a lot of ways, but also had some surprisingly good bits. (“Hey, check it out, the evil cemetery has another, even more evil cemetery underneath” was not one of the good bits.)

          • NixEclips

            She was in some movie I always passed up in the movie rental place. Something involving an eye. Show me the box or poster and I’ll know.
            As for everything else, it’s time for us to finish Wrong. Perhaps I’ll continue later! Thanks for the chat!

          • damanoid

            10-4, thanks for the replies, I enjoyed your article. I may or may not see the remake, although as you noted, just from the trailer it feels like I already have.

            Lanky Irish Priest is a poor substitute for Zelda Rubinstein.

          • NixEclips

            Anguish. That was the movie. Never watched it. I think this was the cover.

  • Jen

    This film scared the daylights out of me when I first saw it. My brother and I were terrified but couldn’t look away from the screen! The things that scared me the most: the clown scene, the face of the beast and the creepy music. I thought the theme song was really disturbing. The composer did a great job.

    • NixEclips

      Perhaps you would enjoy this.
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=d5HMwJmuCuo

      • Jen

        Ha Ha! Thanks for that. My sentiments exactly. Let the original film be. Nothing can be as good and creepy as the original film.

  • Sarah Pace

    I interpreted the contradiction of go/don’t go into the light as Tangina knowing that the spirits would follow Carol-Ann and if she got close enough to “the light” then the wandering spirits might be able to pass on. I figured that she might have also done this to push the parents into going the extra mile to save their daughter. I like the original Poltergeist with the only flaw I can find is that the Freeling family is a bit grating, which makes it a little hard to sit through the beginning of the film, but I’m all over it once the plot starts. 🙂 The commercials for the remake are laughable. When you have made me laugh at a little girl being dragged like a ragdoll up stairs by an unseen force, you’ve done something wrong.

    • NixEclips

      When I was younger I felt like she had betrayed them and was sacrificing their daughter to let the others move on. That feeling still sits underneath my rational, adult thinking that she knows what the hell she’s doing. But I can see Mr. Freeling feeling the same. “Screw you, lady. I’m getting my family back NOW.”
      Nice call on ragdoll girl i’m laughing just thinking about it.

  • KHarn

    Originally there was an “M” (for “mature”) rating between PG and R. Why they dropped that I don’t know.
    PLEASE Hollywood, stop remaking older movies UNLESS you can correct any mistakes that were in it, do scenes you couldn’t do years ago, or put a different twist on it. Otherwise, just admit that you can’t come up with anything new and SHUT DOWN.

    • Greenhornet

      It just hit me, there are elements in this movie that a similar to The Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost”. Was this “inspired by”, co-incidence, or just a haunted house trope?
      (I accidently used my other screen name again)

      • NixEclips

        That was written by Richard Matheson, who Spielberg worked with on Duel and then hired for The Twilight Zone movie. So, yeah, it’s pretty obvious Spielberg was heavily influenced by that episode. Good eye!

  • Joy Blunt

    Any original movie like this cannot compare to a remake, you will never get the initial reactions that you get when you first watch a thriller or scary movie. I definitely agree they should’ve warned audiences but he may have projected the reactions of the innocent public to be to his advantage in the long term. Love this review and I still remember how shocked me and my little brother were watching a VHS copy of this movie for the first time after out parents went to bed, Epic!! Let’s just say my bro has never trusted my movie choices ever since….still waiting for another modern day thriller that’s actually truly scary…..

    • NixEclips

      The wife and I are trying to think of a movie that truly scared us, as adults.Something like Martyrs messes with you but isn’t frightening.
      Thanks for reading!