the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Thursday, October 18, 2007


It’s scary to think that it’s already been 25 years since Poltergeist first haunted theater screens. Of course, as a child, I was never allowed to see it. Too demonic. Too frightening. It wasn’t until a dark Halloween night in my late 20s that I sat down to it and The Exorcist (another forbidden film from my youth). The Exorcist scared the living daylights out of me (still does), but Poltergeist was a sensational roller coaster ride.

Though I have friends (friends working on their PhDs in film studies with concentrations on the horror genre, no less) who insist Poltergeist was a horror film when it came out in 1982, I’m not buying it. Sure, Poltergeist is scary, but not in the usual sense. Poltergeist is creepy in that it purposely evokes our childhood fears — bogeymen in the closet, clown dolls coming to life, monster trees, etc. But Poltergeist is frightening in a way that is actually fun, rather than objectively terrifying. This is horror filtered through Disneyland.

This has everything to do with writer/producer Steven Spielberg. Though directing credits belong to Tobe Hooper (director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Poltergeist is every inch a Spielberg film. Hollywood lore records that Spielberg stepped in to direct several sequences. I believe every word.

The Freelings (then unknowns Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams) are a typical American family with three kids and a dog living in a brand new neighborhood of sprawling suburban, cookie-cutter style homes. When a poltergeist (German for “noisy spirit”) manifests in their house, the family is not initially concerned. At first the phenomena is merely playful, if mischievous. When household objects begin moving by themselves, Diane can’t wait to show Steve.

But it isn’t long before the pranks turn malevolent. It just so happens that the new housing development was built overtop a graveyard, and the spirits of those dead interred within wreak havoc on the unsuspecting Freeling family, going so far as to snatch the cherubic Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) to another dimension. In over their heads, the couple employs real life ghost busters and eventually a diminutive psychic (Zelda Rubinstein) to purge the ghosts from their house and rescue their daughter before the coming spectral apocalypse when all hell, literally, breaks loose.

Poltergeist works — and works astonishingly well — precisely because the action does not take place in a clichéd, putrefying haunted house but rather in a pristine, comfortable, modern housing development — the heart of normalcy — a setting Spielberg mined for satirical effect so often in his career. If E.T. (released that same summer) represents Spielberg’s commentary on the fragmented but functioning suburban dream, Poltergeist is the nightmare.

A film of equal parts heart and a dazzling display of sound-and-light craft, Poltergeist is one nightmare I love to revisit time and again.


Anonymous robyn said...

A couple of points:

1. Horror is an elastic genre, which like all genres is hard to pin down but determined on more than whether it has had its desired fear effect on any particular spectator. I don't find most horror films scary even though they are classified that way.

2. People have unfair expectations about modern horror - bad acting/actors, low production values, gore, cheesiness. Horror is a low brow genre and A-list Actors/directors (with some exceptions) don't want to be associated with it which is why The Others, The Devil's Backbone, Silence of the Lambs, etc are always advertised as suspenses, thrillers, gothic dramas or any variety of such BS.

3. Almost ALL modern slasher/horror films are set in the suburbs (Nightmare on elm street, Black Christmas, Prom Night, Night of the Living Dead (kinda), Carrie, The Stepfather, halloween, I know what you did blah, blah, Scream, you name it). Haunted houses belong to gothic era horror pre NOTL and their remakes. Torture porn has relocated slasher elements to extreme rural settings or industrial warehouses, bldgs and other wastelands.

4. Everything that is scary is based off of childhood fears b/c childhood is when we first learn about boundaries. We become afraid of everything institial, liminal and impure like the undead (vampires, zombies), mind that can control matter or traverse time and distance (telekinesis, poltergeist phenomenon), people that are part animals (werewolves), people who's psyche's are split (serial killers, split personalities), inanimate objects that become or too closely resemble the animate (dolls, manniquins), etc.

5. Poltergeist follows the syntax of most modern horror - suburban normality, the return of the repressed in monstrous/liminal form, girl in distress, restoration of the status quo through the gory defeat of the interloper, an ambivalent ending. It just doesn't happen in the gory excess that we are used to seeing in horror films, it's more like an old school ghost story with better effects but nonetheless it reeks of watered down horror for the masses

12:57 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

And ladies and gentlemen, when I said I had "friends working on their PhDs in film studies with concentrations on the horror genre," Robyn was exactly who I was talking about. Well said, as usual!

1:25 PM  

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