1982, Best Summer Ever: “Poltergeist”

August 3, 2012

Of all the mysteries that surround Poltergeist—the identity of the actual director, the rash of deaths that’s followed the film series—the most confounding may be how dramatically it fell off the cultural radar. Consider the other movies from that summer alone: Conan, and The Thing got remakes, Escape from New York and Rocky III got sequels, Star Trek II got both sequels and a remake, and E.T. is still considered a landmark in summer films. These are signs of the profound effect they had on the cultural landscape. Yet despite Poltergeist’s massive popularity it never went much farther than a couple of lousy, little-known sequels. And yet, the film was a massive hit that had everyone squeaking “They’re here…” for years afterward. So what happened?

Well, I think a big chunk of the explanation lies in what a truly strange breed of film it is. It’s a PG-rated horror film. How many of those are there? I dunno, but I can’t think of many. Even in 1982, horror tended to dwell in the safe, no-holds-barred sactum of the R-rating, where we could show Ed Begley Jr’s arm being ripped off and Nastassja Kinski walking around nude. Even the recent trend of PG-13 horror flicks like the Prom Night remake was motivated by building a larger audience rather than actually making them family-friendly. With Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg wrote (and possibly directed—more later) a horror flick the whole family could enjoy. And make no mistake: this is a movie about family.

Yeah, we know the story: family moves into a new tract-housing project, and loses their youngest daughter in the TV set. What is striking about this film is how solidly this movie centers itself around the family unit. This is a pretty novel concept when you think about it. Typically, horror films operate on the trope of a protagonist being stripped of his/her support systems until they must confront the terror alone.

Yet in Poltergeist the parents immediately recognize the supernatural nature of the threat and do everything possible to recover their missing clan member. It creates a palpable momentum as we wait for the parents to call the police or doubt the parapsychologists who arrive to help them, but the movie never pauses to run in those circles and just keeps hurtling us headlong into the horror. Sure, Craig T. Nelson has a couple of moments of doubt for Zelda Rubinstein’s pint-sized medium Tangina, but she puts him in his place and the movie continues to move.

Poltergeist also never lets either of the parents harbor a doubt about getting the hell out of the haunted house. They’re stuck there until they can recover their daughter, but once that’s done they’re all about getting the hell out of Dodge—the house, and the money they sunk into it, be damned.

This family-centric viewpoint clearly comes directly from Spielberg’s own personal growth. Consider that in 1977 he made Close Encounters, in which Richard Dreyfuss barely provided any support to his own amok family, drives them away with his mental breakdown, then casually leaves them behind to take a ride on a spaceship. With Poltergeist and E.T., Spielberg would engage with the bonds of the family unit.

Of course, the film is also a first-rate production. Yes, Tobe Hooper ostensibly directed, but Spielberg wrote the screenplay, produced, and by his own admission, took the initiative in, um, directing Hooper’s directing. It’s pretty easy to pick out a Spielberg’s movies—he has a singular directorial style.  Hooper, by contrast, has no style that I’ve ever been able to detect. It’s telling that this movie has never been regarded as a Tobe Hooper film, and his subsequent films have all been varying degrees of failures. Bottom line: Spielberg steered this train, and he doesn’t make junk.

He’s got an able assist with a first rate cast. Nelson does fine work here, as a credible father figure, and he plays well off of JoBeth Williams as his wife. Even the kids—the late Dominique Dunne as eldest daughter Dana, the late Heather O’Rourke as lost-child Carol Anne, and Oliver Robins (still alive, as near as I can tell) as son Robbie are all pretty good actors and never become shrill or overly cute.

Spielberg also builds in a critique of the atavistic endgame of three decades of white-flight. The housing tract (none-too-subtly named “Cuesta Verde”) is a series of identical tickey-tack boxes, which devour all the land in their path. Nelson’s sleazy boss, heading up this project, casually brushes off Nelson’s concerns about the sprawl ruining the natural view of the hills, and, most-critically, the fact they’re building atop of cemeteries (yeah, that’s gonna come back to bite them all in the ass). He even throws in a nice bit of foreshadowing as the bulldozers tearing up the earth for the family pool inadvertently excavate the cigar box coffin containing Carol Anne’s dead parakeet.

You’d think these would be fairly easy ingredients to replicate, but future filmmakers never did. Not while there were Jasons and Freddies to spin off into sequel oblivion. It’s not that it couldn’t be done, but, hey, why bother? Spielberg—particularly in those years—had a special touch for knowing how to make films fun—whether they were swashbuckling adventures or haunted house spook-stories. It’s a rare talent, and the fact that no one’s yet figured out to recreate that magic at least ensures that this movie will be left well enough alone.

Plus, how creepy was that clown doll? Man, when Robbie finally tears the thing apart, all I could think was, “Dude, you should have done that when you first got the thing.”


  1. This movie scared the bejebus out of me when I watched it as a kid. I recently watched it with my 11yo daughter, didn’t want her to miss seeing it. She was not as scared.

    Also, there were 2 sequels to Poltergeist, not that they were any good.

    • Yeah, scared the hell out of me too when it came out. Kids are hardier these days when it comes to scary movies…

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