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.