No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Poltergeist’

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I got the Blu-ray of “Poltergeist” around the time Circuit City was closing all their stores forever. I had seen bits and pieces of the movie before, but I had never watched it all the way through until a couple of years ago. What finally spurred me to watch it was having watched “Poltergeist III” on cable, and that sequel was a true abomination. I figured what came before that needless sequel had to be so much better. Getting past all the trivia surrounding “Poltergeist” and its so-called “curse,” it remains remarkably frightening for a PG-rated movie.

Actually, it’s quite fitting I watched “Poltergeist” during the period of the wildly successful “Paranormal Activity” movies since they all focus on the strange and bizarre happenings around suburban households. These days it seems like the “found footage” genre is the only way to make a horror movie set in the suburbs seem all the more frightening. But “Poltergeist” showed if you get the details just right, then you can find yourself relating to characters and their surroundings completely and without any question.

“Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe Hooper, but Steven Spielberg’s name is all over the movie as he came up with the story, co-wrote the screenplay and served as one of its producers. It’s hard to escape the influence he had over this production as, like “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” it takes place in the suburbs of America where many of us grew up.

We drop in at the home of the Freeling family which is located in the nice, clean California town of Cuesta Verde, and it’s the kind of neighborhood where the houses don’t look all that different from one another. The cars are parked out front because they aren’t parked in the garage for some odd reason, and the kids are riding their bikes all over the neighborhood.

Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful realtor and his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is a stay at home mom caring for their children Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne. One night, Carol Anne goes downstairs and sits in front of the television which is showing nothing but static. It’s an especially frightening image on the Blu-ray release as the flickering creates an eerie strobe light effect as if the house’s inhabitants are in the process of being brainwashed. Carol Anne begins talking to the television as if she’s having a conversation with someone invisible to everybody else. We can’t even hear what that someone is saying to her, but we believe Carol Anne is communicating with another and our imagination runs amuck at who that might be.

Following this, strange things begin to happen around the Freeling household like chairs moving by themselves and the furniture being rearranged in a heartbeat. One night while sitting in front of the television, a hand reaches out and pushes Carol Anne away which is followed by a force of energy penetrating the walls. Her parents wake up to see their daughter telling them, “They’re here…”

What makes “Poltergeist” so effective is how the filmmakers play on those childhood fears we all had. Whether it’s that creepy looking tree outside the bedroom window or the clown puppet which you fear will come alive and attack you in the night, we can all relate to what goes on here except, of course, for being sucked into another dimension. I remember always asking my mom to put my AT-AT toy, the Imperial walker from “The Empire Strikes Back”, on its side so it wouldn’t crawl over to me while I slept. I also kept having these dreams where this green school desk I had would end up rushing at my bed to attack me. Now imagine if these things happened in real life, and you will get a sense of what “Poltergeist” is all about.

There’s nothing too unique about the characters who live in Cuesta Verde, and this makes them all the more relatable. Seeing the kids’ room with those “Star Wars” posters and bed covers bring back a lot of memories. When these supernatural occurrences start happening and get increasingly worse, we can easily see it happening in our own homes. Then again, this might make our own households far more exciting than they usually are as living in the suburbs can be too low key for some.

“Poltergeist” is also perfectly cast with actors who inhabit their suburban characters with what seems like relative ease. Nelson and Williams still seem like the typical American parents we all know. Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne and Oliver Robins are perfectly natural as their children, and they appear very comfortable in front of a camera. You also have Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, a parapsychologist, and she gives this movie a strong dramatic weight.

There is also something to be said for Zelda Rubinstein’s performance as spiritual medium Tangina Barrons. While her high-pitched voiced might seem a little annoying, she makes her strange dialogue sound very believable as Tangina becomes the family’s last hope to save Carol Anne. It’s no wonder her presence in “Poltergeist” is so unforgettable, and not just for her immortal line, “This house is clean.”

Movies like “Poltergeist” usually have filmmakers getting too caught up in perfecting the special effects at the expense of everything else, but Hooper manages to balance everything out to create one of the most terrifying haunted house movies ever. As much as Spielberg’s name is all over this movie, I have to believe Hooper is the one who made this movie as scary as it is. While it may not be as unnerving as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (and very few movies are), he really packs in a lot of scares for a PG-rated movie.

You could also say that “Poltergeist” is a serious dig at the cutthroat world of real estate as Steven makes the horrifying discovery of how certain sacred things which were not moved from their original location. People will do anything for the perfect property when there’s a ton of money involved, and if they can cut corners to make house building go faster they will. Heck, this almost sounds like a supernatural version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

I can’t help but wonder if home insurance even covers supernatural occurrences like this. Would the Freeling’s insurance carrier find an excuse to deny them any financial compensation? Could you imagine the looks on their faces if their agent denied their claim for negligence as if it’s their fault for not reporting this to the authorities sooner? If I were on the receiving end of that, I would be pissed!

It says a lot about an 80’s movie like “Poltergeist” that it still holds up so well all these years later. Its portrayal of suburban America doesn’t look much different from what we see today. I guess the only real difference, aside from cell phones and iPads, are the number of bank foreclosures going on, and you certainly don’t see this happening here. While it may have been ruined a bit by sequels (and this movie really didn’t need any), it still is worth re-discovering and would make an interesting double feature with “Paranormal Activity.”

One other thing; is it just me or does that white spidery creature who blocks Williams from her children’s bedroom have the voice of MGM’s roaring lion?

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

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