Directed by somebody! maybe it was you!
Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor
With Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), and Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina)
We've all missed movies that we should've seen. Here are three of mine, that might surprise you.
Spoiler alert: moderate
My weak excuse for never seeing it: the movie came out when I was negative three months old, and even when I was ten, my parents, by whom I mean specifically my mother, remained overprotective. She's been in no position to tell me what I can't watch for a long time, but sadly Poltergeist simply became one of those widely-beloved movies from the 80s that I kept meaning to watch, but never did, joining the ranks of such films as Once Upon a Time in America and Caddyshack. And yet I have seen Superman IV at least five times. I realize that I probably can't fix whatever's wrong inside me, and it depresses me a great deal.
Why I'm watching it now: I often make the claim "I love haunted house movies!", which is technically true, but only some kind of asshole would have failed to make the truly miniscule effort required to screen the very genesis of the suburban horror that he says he enjoys so much. So, I guess the real reason is that I want to be a different kind of asshole.
Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper, or by Steven Spielberg, or (probably) both. The U.S. Code and most state codes require one to mention this controversy in any discussion of the film. (These laws are probably unconstitutional.) But whosoever deserves to be known as its author, the fact is that Poltergeist remains infinitely more akin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind than to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yet it is also every atom—or nearly every atom—a horror film of the highest order. The point I'm dancing around is that Poltergeist could be analyzed as an interesting collision of sensibilities, if Spielberg were not, in 1982, just as accomplished a director of horror as Hooper, if not moreso.
Obviously, there is Jaws. Less obviously, there is Duel, which is Jaws but actually scary, because Duel is about a monster that cannot be readily avoided by simply living your life as God willed it, on the land. Least obviously, there is E.T., a film about an omnipotent alien prune that terrified me so much as a child that I have actively avoided it as an adult, even though I am made to understand it's not supposed to be frightening whatsoever. And let us not forget Raiders of the Lost Ark, which involves more bodily destruction than any David Cronenberg movie I can name.
So when a guy hallucinates tearing off his own face off in Poltergeist, handily the goriest moment in the film, you can attribute that to Hooper if you like. But there was a time when Spielberg himself loved to show the skin coming right off the bone.
Poltergeist begins with what child psychologists call a "warning sign." It's a mood-setting sequence featuring the Freeling family's youngest daughter, a little girl with the complexion of an animated plasticine angel, and the personality to match. Her name is Carol Anne—I hope you like it, for it comprises a sizeable portion of the dialogue in Poltergeist's screenplay. She wakes up in the middle of the night and ventures downstairs, where her dad, Steve, has fallen asleep before the TV. The cosmic background radiation crackles on the screen, scouring the color from her face in a harshly discomfiting steel-blue strobe. Something else is there, though, something that she finds so fascinating that I'm not sure she even blinks. The next night, the events repeat, but this time, the presence in the static makes itself known, at least to little Carol Anne, who announces, "They're here."
This synopsis omits a very significant segment of Poltergeist's runtime, wherein we just hang out with the Freelings, learn their ways, and come dangerously close to learning to despise those ways. The initial impression of the Freelings is one of a nearly obnoxious nuclear family, such as was known only in the death dreams of King Reagan as his mind collapsed in upon itself. So behold: Football! Dinner! Boys being boys! Girls being girls! Heedless morons that can neither disable the remote sensors on their TVs, nor come to an accord with their neighbor whose remote somehow changes the channels on their box, despite the two walls and twenty yards of space that separate them! The only part that I actually found myself actively approving of was the crushing conformity of the neighborhood's architecture: the entire community lives in copies of the exact same house. To this, I can only say that the houses are just on the decent side of "unnecessarily large," and I suppose I must enjoy it when American capitalism accidentally reaches the same conclusions as radical collectivism.
Of course, being faintly annoyed by all of this is something of the point, but it's nevertheless fortunate for everyone involved that the film eventually takes the shrillness of its suburban vision down from 11. It does this in a well-observed scene of Steve and mom Diane taking the edge off with a touch of pot, after the kids have been put to bed. For the first time, they feel like human beings whom anyone in 2014 could stand for more than fifteen minutes at a time.
Their Boomer reverie is soon shattered, of course, by the supernatural. Not counting Carol Anne, the first to see the signs is Diane, and for a day, it's seems like the psychokinetic movement of objects in the house might well be something to stare at in silent, ecstatic wonder, as a family. Then the presence makes its true intentions perfectly clear, and every aspect of the Freelings' fee simple estate, from the tree outside to the kids' closet, sets out to eat their children, bones and all. The closet succeeds, and Carol Anne is swallowed into what would, in another franchise, be described as the Further.
The really neat thing about Poltergeist is that it provides the most compelling reason in the world for its victims to stay in the haunted house. Poltergeist's 21st century descendants have largely sidestepped the issue by simply making hauntings attach to the person, rather than any particular place. But here, they can't leave because they can't leave their daughter behind: Carol Anne is still alive, her voice still heard as an electronic voice phenomenon over the TV.
The sublime thing about Poltergeist is how quickly and brutally it turns from whimsy to abject fear. As a horror film qua horror film, Poltergeist absolutely peaks in its first set-piece, forcing the parents' animal despair right down your gullet. It's felt most viscerally in JoBeth Williams' performance, which sets its sights on the unabashedly hysterical (for lack of any better word), and strikes it so perfectly it's physically distressing to witness; after the first shock, one may need less to scream than to just break down in sympathetic tears. Poltergeist never gets scarier than this. In fact, Poltergeist never quite approaches this level of unreasoning fright again. But the scene is so good, and casts its shadow so long and so broad, that Poltergeist is right to believe that it has absolutely no need to one-up itself.
The balance of the film to follow is a child abduction story that happens to involve ghosts, complete with the scenes to be found in any kidnapping procedural, of officious but sympathetic strangers setting up headquarters in their house while the family psychologically and physically decays. Like any parents caught in between grief and hope, they leave Carol Anne's bedroom just as it was. Except, in Poltergeist, what it was and what it remains is a vortex of wailing terror.
Well, terror and passable special effects.
If Poltergeist could be credited for absolutely nothing else—and I've credited it for a great deal already—it's that there is a value to its production, hardly ever seen before and hardly ever seen since in any film of its breed. Sometimes this is absolutely to its benefit: the tree coming alive looks amazing, and the final fate of the house is iconic for a reason, and so simply bitchin' (despite the limitations of the technology) that I hardly minded knowing how the film ended ahead of time. (Poltergeist is so engrained in our culture that I could have related a 90%-accurate plot summary without ever having seen it.)
Sometimes, though, the reliance on special effects, and more specifically the hyper-80s aesthetics of those effects, make you wonder why the Freelings' haven't just called the Ghostbusters, which is a psychotically unfair thing to say, given that the latter film wouldn't even come out for two whole years, but when your movie features ectoplasm, the heart is not going to dwell on the niceties of chronological priority.
Speaking of how Poltergeist became an indelible part of our American civilization, now comes (inevitably) Zelda Rubinstein. Her character has been parodied so ruthlessly that the impact I presume she must have had in 1982 is all but lost to three decades of stupid pop culture references. In the cold light of 2014, you can see that her third act appearance is not even strictly necessary to the narrative—I doubt very much that it requires a psychic to conceive of the idea of tying a rope around your waist in order to enter a magic portal and retrieve something from the other side, even if apparently it does help the brainstorming process along. I'll confess, too, that I thought that Beatrice Straight's far more sober-minded performance as the chief paranormal investigator is not just significantly more in tune with the film, but generally better to boot. The way she's almost physically shoved offscreen by Rubinstein is kind of a shame. But rest easy, weary crybaby. I won't stand too far apart from consensus: Rubinstein's is an enjoyable presence.
The very strangest thing about Poltergeist is by no means Rubinstein's spiritualist, however, though strange she is. No, I must be referring to Jerry Goldsmith's oddity of a score. Sometimes it is exactly what you'd expect, and sometimes it seems like it's wholly unaware that Poltergeist is not in any way a nice-minded film at all, not once Carol Anne is stolen. There are vast stretches where the score's only connection to the story seems to be as some kind of cruel ironic counterpoint. This is felt most keenly in the very end, where consoling music bereft of even a melancholy note plays over the epilogue, and most of the credits... till finally it dissolves into the monstrous laughter of the damned themselves. I rested easier, then, secure in the knowledge that this was not some kind of messy mistake made as the result of two different directorial visions, but intent.
That brings us, finally, to the miraculous thing about Poltergeist. With the exception of some isolated editing stumbles so severe that you can hardly believe that they could happen during a professional Hollywood production, it's a miracle how very seamlessly this film hangs together—that is, given what we know about its underlying construction. Though opinions can and have differed, the tonal shifts that take your feet right out from under you don't just feel deliberate, sometimes they even feel necessary, in order to get at how it must feel to be living your life by the numbers in upright conformity, only to have it devastated by an experience that you might, at a distance, be able to explain, but never truly understand.
It's a damned fine motion picture, is Poltergeist: great enough to withstand all sorts of nitpicks. Like how a paranormal investigator could possibly get so bored that he'd rather listen to music on his headphones than document the supernatural entities he's finally been given proof exist. Or how neither the Freelings nor anyone else ever appears to file a police report, despite the cacophony of loud noises, the obviousness of the family's terrible distress, and a missing blonde-haired white girl. And I won't even take points off for how (by the film's own defined terms) the very title is a lie. Anyway, that last one was excusable: after all, The Haunting was already taken.