Scenes and dialogue from the original Poltergeist movie are so iconic, so embedded in the Gen X cultural zeitgeist, that I was tempted to “cheat” this week and skip rewatching the movie before writing my review. That would have been a mistake. Even though I saw the movie (in parts or the entire thing) at least 10 times between 1982 and 1992, I’d forgotten many of the scenes, including most of the movie’s first 24 minutes ending with Carol Anne’s eerie sing-song pronouncement, “They’re heeeere.”
Although the official director credit belongs to Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the first 24 minutes of the movie are clearly stamped with the style, tone, and personality of the movie’s blockbuster producer, Steven Spielberg. Cuesta Verde is a normal suburban neighborhood with children playing, dogs barking, and men cheering for their football team. The Freelings are a likable American family with plenty of love, humor, and minor squabbles. They live in a comfortable cookie-cutter home with a back yard, a two-car garage, and absolutely no elements of classic gothic settings like dungeons or towers or gables. There are hints of the darkness on the horizon, but everything feels almost idyllic … until it isn’t. A gnarly tree attacks Robbie, the closet swallows Carol Anne, and one of the paranormal investigators called in to research the situation is terrorized by maggots and a gory face-peeling scene. Now that scene is pure Hooper.
Diminutive psychic “house cleaner” Tangina arrives to save the day and steal the show. After engineering the release of trapped souls into the light and the rescue of Carol Anne from her pink ectoplasm prison, Tangina declares, “This house is clean.” Except it isn’t.
An hour and a half into the movie, we see the re-united family packing up the moving van ready to leave behind their house of horrors. Mom warns her eldest child to be home early because “Dad wants us to stay at the Holiday Inn on I-74” that night. And yet, a few minutes later the two younger kids are in their pajamas and mom is getting ready to dye her new gray hairs in a bathroom that is most definitely not packed up and ready for moving day.
This is one of the two serious problems I have with the movie. The whole family got way too comfortable, way too fast. And so the last fifteen minutes of the movie quickly turns into chaos as the clown doll attacks, the closet turns into a giant esophagus intent on swallowing both of the younger children, and skeletons emerge from the earth to attack. Mom is alternately thrown around her bedroom, smacked down by “the beast” in the hallway, and dunked in a muddy hole infested with corpses before she manages to save her children. The whole family barely escapes in their woody wagon as the neighborhood continues to quake, explode, and spew forth dead bodies out of unmarked graves.
The second serious problem I have with the movie is the title. This movie is most definitely not depicting anything close to a poltergeist encounter. I think the filmmakers just found the term in a book on the paranormal and liked the sound of it. But that doesn’t need to ruin the whole storytelling experience.
In his original 1982 review, Roger Ebert noted, “Nobody ever does decide whether a poltergeist really is involved in the events in the house, … but if that doesn’t prevent them from naming the movie “Poltergeist” I guess it shouldn’t keep us from enjoying it.”
Poltergeist premiered on June 4, just one week before E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial hit theaters on June 11, launching the Summer of Spielberg. Both of the movies were derived from Spielberg’s failed attempt to create a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The script for the sequel, entitled Night Skies, featuring cattle mutilations and murderous aliens, was eventually deemed too dark by Spielberg. So he worked with screenwriter Melissa Mathison to adapt the more playful alien elements into E.T. The darker elements were transformed into Poltergeist.
It’s hard to imagine when watching the movie 28 years later, but the special effects in this movie were considered awesome and groundbreaking back in 1982. Poltergeist garnered three Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects, and Best Original Score. (It lost in all three categories to E.T.) The visual effects look pretty dated today. But I think the musical score with its lilting lullaby notes during the opening credits and children’s laughter at the very end is still haunting today.
E.T.’s phenomenal box office success may have overshadowed its darker sibling, but both movies were financially successful, appealing to fans and critics alike. While the lovable little alien boosted sales for Reese’s Pieces candy as well as Speak & Spell toys, Poltergeist sounded the death knell for clown dolls. I have no use for the Poltergeist sequels and don’t ascribe to the infamous Poltergeist curse. However, the original movie stands the test of time and regularly appears on “Best of” Horror movie lists.
- What is Automatonophobia? (Fear of wax figures, humanoid robots, audio-animatronics, or other figures designed to represent humans.)
- What is Pediophobia? (Fear of dolls. It’s considered a subcategory of Automatonophobia)
- What is Coulrophobia? (Fear of clowns)
- So what do we call an irrational fear of clown dolls? Coulropediophobia? Automatonocoulrophobia?