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