We’re here! It’s a week before Halloween, but the release of Paranormal Activity 2: Electric Boo!-galoo seemed like the perfect occasion to watch the 1982 ghosts-in-suburbia film Poltergeist. About a family being terrorized by a specter older than Arlen and scarier than Phil, the flick has given birth to endless quotable lines, childhood nightmares, and rumors of a curse. Directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, but kinda maybe really directed by 1941’s Steven Spielberg, it remains a classic of the genre and a good warning not to let your kids sit too close to the TV.
Darren Franich: The first 20 minutes are all slow-building suspense. There are dozens of perfect little details about family life, like the dad convincing the kids that the lightning isn’t so scary, or the wife smoking a joint while her husband reads a book about Ronald Reagan. Then these very subtle spooky things happen. Chairs move. A glass breaks. It feels like a movie powered by spooky suggestion — very Paranormal Activity-ish, in fact. And then a tree smashes through a window, grabs the young son, and tries to eat him. End of subtly terrifying portion of the film.
Keith Staskiewicz: To me it’s those tiny suburban details that make the movie: The Chewbacca poster, the potato chip bag under the pillow, the remote control dispute with the neighbor. I think it’s interesting that Spielberg had to choose between directing this and E.T. after he completed Raiders of the Lost Ark, because E.T. shares that god- and/or the devil-is-in-the-details philosophy. From the kids’ Halloween costumes to, again, the Star Wars memorabilia (thanks, Raiders producer George Lucas!), it adds up to really make you believe in this vision of childhood and family life. The only difference is that the invading force is befriending your children, not absconding with them into the TV.
DF: But also, in E.T., suburbia is a Calvin-and-Hobbesian wonderland. In Poltergeist, suburbia is built on the corpses of older generations; it’s just Hobbesian. Poltergeist feels like a pessimists’ inversion of a Spielberg movie. The force isn’t invading. It’s been there the whole time.
KS I don’t think it’s an inversion. More of a flip-side companion piece. Poltergeist just shows the darker side of things. The family is still the central unit, and is still really what is at the heart of the film, but it just turns out that the American Dream is built on a sea of corpses.
DF: That strikes me as a gigantic difference. But this brings up the Big Question about Poltergeist: Who actually directed this thing?
KS: I view it as a Spielberg movie. I like Tobe Hooper, and looking over his filmography, I was surprised to find that there’s actually a bunch of great stuff beyond Texas Chainsaw Massacre that I usually forget about, like The Funhouse and Salem’s Lot. But I just see Spielberg’s hands all over this movie.
DF: To me, Poltergeist is a Spielberg movie the way that A.I. is a Kubrick movie. The outline is there, but the particular treatment feels completely different, even purposefully oppositional.
KS: Except Kubrick wasn’t constantly on the set of A.I., unless he himself was a poltergeist. “Come play with us, Stevie!”
DF: If you’re telling me that this is a straight-up Spielberg movie, then you have to acknowledge that there are some things in the movie that feel utterly unlike pretty much anything else Spielberg has ever done. Like the coffins popping up out of the ground. Or the utter anarchy of the ending.
KS: I don’t see how the face-meltings and leg-chompings of Spielberg’s other movies are all that different from something like this.
DF: Let’s just agree that Spielberg built a beautiful Spielberg-movie house, and then a strange presence invaded that house.
KS: And that presence was Tobe Hooper, under a sheet, with holes cut out for eyes. Upon rewatching, I feel comfortable dubbing this one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and at least part of that is due to the great special effects. Sure, the face-peeling scene looks a little fake, but that didn’t stop it from freaking the heck out of us. And almost everything else holds up tremendously well, even now. Combined with The Thing, it really makes you yearn for the practical effects of 1982 over CGI werewolves. I miss the good old days of muppets and slime. Why is everything so digitalized now? I hate modernity. Where’s my cane? Who changed the TV from Murder, She Wrote?
DF: Even when they open the door to the kids’ room and see everything flying around, the horrendous matte-ing doesn’t look any worse than current digital effects, really.
KS: Apparently they went all the way and used real skeletons in the pool scene because it was cheaper and more realistic than buying fake ones.
DF: This is reason number 50 million to love JoBeth Williams, who brings a believably gonzo level of playfulness, even kinkiness, to what could’ve just been a bland Mom role. I love how excited she is by the moving chairs: You believe that she’s a little bit bored, so a spooky chair is kind of fun. Craig T. Nelson is so good in this movie, too. Actually, between this and The Incredibles, he’s played two of the more interesting twists on the All-American father.
KS: The movie’s just so awesomely unrelenting: A half-hour of idyllic suburbia and cute family jokes, then it gets ramped up a notch, and once Zelda Rubinstein shows up it’s all screaming, strobe lights, flaming skulls, and frenzy. Your heart is in your stomach, which is in your throat. Then there’s a brief respite to trick you into thinking it’s the end of the movie, then: Clowns! Intestinal closets! Ghost spiders! Skeleton pool party! Imploding house! So many memorable images in a period of about 20 minutes.
DF: Zelda Rubinstein is my least favorite part of the movie. The reason I love Poltergeist is all the family stuff, and the presence of the ghost hunters just pushes it into this bizarre, semi-farcical quest. Like, you’ve got the little old lady teaching the children about the importance of being happy when you die. And then, an even littler old lady comes in and solves everything using sass and gumption. Even the cool special effects that we’re talking about aren’t really present in the Zelda part. It’s all just bright spotlights, and cloudy lights, and Zelda Rubinstein screaming “Go into the light!”
KS: Poor Carol Anne must have been totally confused by her parents’ inability to decide whether or not she should go into the light. “Go towards the light!” “No, wait, don’t go towards the light!” “Actually, yes, I changed my mind. Do, but then stop!” “Yes! No! Light!” I’d argue that Zelda brought a lot to the movie. The scene of her describing, in her helium twang, the circumstances of the unseen spectral realm, with the evil beast that presents itself as a child, was way creepier to me than if we actually got to see it.
DF: I definitely could’ve used less Zelda.
KS: But what about the curse? I can’t believe we’ve made it this far without mentioning the curse.
DF: Curse, what curse?
KS: You know, the Poltergeist curse. Many involved with Poltergeist have died under mysterious circumstances.
DF: Oh, pshaw! I don’t believe in such silliness. Do you, Keith?
DF: Keith? Keith?
Next week: Having blown through our scary-movie quota a week early, we’ll be watching something a little more family-friendly for Halloween in the form of a hapless, bald-headed kid and his pet beagle/WWI flying ace. We’ve already ordered our copy of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and we’re going to wait all night in the pumpkin patch for it to arrive. We suggest you do the same.