When Poltergeist hit the scene, I like to imagine all of those people hitting their seats, laughing and talking, with zero clue of what they were in for.
Poltergeist (1982) follows the Freeling family living in a house in a new development. They soon discover strange things happening in their home. While they are initially charmed and amazed by the moving furniture, the disturbance soon becomes a nightmare as their daughter is sucked into another dimension within the house. Calling in the pros, the Freelings struggle to get their daughter back before the portal closes and she is lost inside forever.
Poltergeist manages to tap into childhood fear in a way that evokes those feelings in adults. When Robbie is in bed counting as the lightning gets closer and closer, it’s not a scary thing. But, we are scared anyway because we remember being that age and sitting in bed, listening to a storm, and becoming more and more panicked with each pending thunderclap. As he watches the clown toy across the room, hoping it isn’t moving, we recall a toy that was perfectly harmless in the light of day, but cast a shadow at night that gave it the power to terrify and haunt us. We see the tree outside his room and remember having a tree outside our bedroom, the branches tapping like fingers on the glass and demanding to be let in. This film is about making us feel like children again, invincible by day, but terrified at night, and powerless in the way that we had no control over our imaginations.
Original Poltergeist Trailer – MovieClips Classic Trailers
This is why the film works today. It spends time setting up this busy, loud, loving family making themselves at home in their new place. It makes us see our families, and makes them seem safe as long as they are together. But then, the house, the place where they were once so safe, turns on them. It also sets up a believable reason for them not to simply pack up and get the hell out of there. Once Carol Anne gets sucked into that closet, there is no way that they can simply pack up and leave. Because families stick together, it gives them no choice. They have to stay because even if they can’t find their daughter, they are going to stay where they can be close to her, and talk to her from time to time. While Robbie, the youngest, is clearly meant to face his fears, Dana, the eldest is shown as strong and independent from the start. My favourite scene involves her giving the finger to some construction workers who catcall her. Watching this brave girl break down as the movie goes on and her reality becomes shattered is very effective in ramping up the tension, and lets you know that even though it started out as a childish fear, it is definitely not that anymore.
I appreciate that this movie doesn’t discount the effect of Carol Anne’s disappearance on the other kids in the household. Many of these haunting movies have the parents shuttling the kids out of the picture as soon as something bad happens, and then we never see them again. But, because their sister is still in the house, that is not an option. While the couple does their best to shelter their other two kids from what is happening, they can’t ignore it, and they don’t do them the disservice of lying to them about it. It shows how traumatized these kids are, and how they are grieving their sister. They are confused about how to even do that because she’s not gone, not really. It is a realistic portrayal of a family that is close-knit and dealing with something that has the potential to break them. It makes you care about each of these characters, which makes this story that much more powerful.
The effects here are way ahead of its time. It is a mix of early CGI and practical. I guarantee you that every single person who has seen Poltergeist will remember the face peeling scene. The guy looks into the mirror, notices something, picks at it…and then peels off his own face! It is horrifying, and I’m sure in the top ten lists of many people for movie scenes that scarred them at a young age.
There is some controversy over who really directed this one. The credits list Tobe Hooper as the director, with Steven Spielberg as a producer. However, there are rumours about the fact that Spielberg spent so much time on set. I have to admit, this has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it. It is a blend of family and terror, and I could see it being a collaborative effort between the guy who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the guy who directed E. T. The elements blend seamlessly here, without the clash that you sometimes see with directors with stylistic differences. Just look at Justice League.
Poltergeist was recently remade with a well-intended modern version. Sam Rockwell takes the lead role of Steven Freeling (Eric Bowen in the remake). Overall, this movie took a lot of flack. That is bound to happen when a remake is done. It is hard to go into a movie that is a re-imagining of a film you were in love with. You have certain expectations. Overall, this movie was not bad. The effects were good, and that is one thing that I look for in a remake. Sometimes, trying to improve practical effects with CGI because practical effects are “outdated” completely backfires and makes you wonder if the whole thing was worth it. In this case, they work. The acting is solid, and many of the key story elements that made the original memorable were there: the clown, the tree, the closet.
‘Poltergeist’ Trailer from 20th Century Fox
What was missing for me was the feeling that the original evoked. There was a lot of family back story here about Eric being out of work, and the recession hitting them hard. There is already tension in the family when they move because they are downsizing to a new home, and Eric is looking for a new job and a fresh start. The original had them living the American dream, which it turned out had a dark underbelly. Their bond is tested as they go through the haunting, and they come out stronger because of it.
The remake, however, frames the haunting as a way to bring the couple closer together. It is trying to show that the money issue isn’t important, that as long as they stick together and believe in each other, they can make it through. But the fact that they were already being tested makes the test seem redundant. It doesn’t make us sympathize with their family or their plight any less, but it makes us care less deeply for their characters, somehow. Because their marriage was already shaky, we’re not rooting for it to succeed like we are with the original, which portrays a happy couple, living the rose-coloured life on the other side of the fence.
Poltergeist will be the film that influences all ghost films made for years to come. Its combination of CGI and practical effects and its ability to scare us with images but subtle and in-your-face is a rarity today. By finding the heart of this family and fears that are rooted in common fears that people face as children, Poltergeist manages to scare kids and adults alike with the uncomfortable fact that no matter how perfect the family or beautiful the home, something sinister can creep in at any time.