Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in /home/moviezeal/public_html/wp-content/themes/valenti/library/core.php on line 1457
United States, 1982
Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Written By: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated PG for graphic violence, adult situations, adult language and gore
The problem with horror is it can be hard to make your audience “feel it.” If you’re sitting around a campfire, and someone tells you about a haunted house, adding, “Pretty scary, huh?” you might agree (certainly out of politeness if nothing else). However, if you lived in said haunted house, you would probably get used to it after a while, and terror at seeing the furniture move would quickly devolve into annoyance. Horror filmmakers, of course, don’t particularly want to make a film about annoyance—and so are under constant pressure to continually build the horror up to something bigger, often regardless of what implications that might have for plot and character.
This is the case with Poltergeist, a 1982 horror picture directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—no, the original, not the unnecessary remake) but written and produced by Steven Spielberg (who evidently called many of the shots). Like most early Spielberg pictures, this one is essentially a special effects film, which works both for it and against it. On the one hand, there are some incredible set pieces throughout; on the other, the film fails to ever really develop its characters in meaningful ways. And if you’re watching the film a decade or two after it was produced, it’s probably the latter you’ll notice more.
What story the film has centers around the Freelings, a family of five who live in a recently built suburban settlement, in which Steven (Craig T. Nelson), the husband and father in question, also sells real estate. Youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been behaving strangely lately, having intimate conversations with television static. One night, she wakes her family up to deliver the iconic line “They’re here,” and the requisite horror begins. It starts innocently enough, with objects moving themselves around, but soon more sinister things begin to occur: trees snatch people out of their beds, whole rooms are taken over by spirits, and Carol Anne herself disappears, sucked into an interspatial ghostly dimension.
Of course, much of the film is taken up by her parents’ attempts to recover her, which leads to a lot of incidents, some scary and some (unintentionally) silly. The question is, will you care? When you get down to it, a horror film, like any other “genre film,” depends primarily on the strength of its characters. While parents who have lost their daughter should be expected to want her back, it’s hard for us as the audience to sympathize if we never get to know their daughter in the first place. Poltergeist seems to consider characterization a distant second to wowing its audience with special effects, and in doing so merely distances its audience from the gravity that the effects need to convey. There are a handful of “jump scares” here, but in order to truly terrify you, a film needs to make you be scared for its characters. In that respect, Poltergeistdoesn’t fare particularly well.
That being said, we should probably take the film on its own terms: as a showcase for some pretty scary special effects. In this respect it arguably succeeds. It’s highly probable that some modern viewers will be less than impressed with the pre-digital effects on display here (which mainly consist of stop motion and puppetry), but I think you could make the case that effects which show their limitations can be more effective than those that don’t. The effects in many recent films can fail to impress, simply because the audience knows that filmmakers can show anything they want with the use of a computer; Poltergeist’s are impressive for accomplishing what they do without computers. There’s an attention to craft here that’s hard not to admire.
There are a lot of silly moments here—sorry, but parapsychologists who sit around looking at ghost-meters are hilarious, no matter how you portray them—and a “surprise” ending that’s not all that surprising, but in the end Poltergeist is a pretty decent film. The climax, though it doesn’t entirely connect on an emotional level, is pretty much a must-see for its epic ambitions alone (in addition to making us all wonder, for the millionth time: If everyone is scared of clowns, why do they keep forcing them on children?). Finally, the film closes with one of the funniest sight gags you’re likely to see in a horror picture this side of William Castle. Poltergeistmay not be flawless, but for people who like their horror fast and light, it’s fairly easy to recommend.