The Series Project: Poltergeist
I'm sure everyone about my age (let's say, born between the years of 1975 and 1985) perhaps have a common experience with Tobe Hooper's 1982 horror flick Poltergeist. That is to say, we all share a common trauma. Poltergeist was released in 1982, and there was no MPAA-sanctioned PG-13 rating as yet. As such, parents the world over decided that it would be okay to drag their young'uns to what appeared to be a quaint and enjoyable PG-rated family-themed haunted house picture. It was produced and written by Steven Spielberg too! The guy who just made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind! It was sure to be dazzling and enchanting!
One evil tree, one evil clown, one torn-off face, several demons, and dozens of muddy skeletons later, those same parents were no doubt fretting about grossly expensive therapy bills for their children. Psychologists all over the nation perhaps owe a debt to Tobe Hooper for inducing nightmares in so many kids in the 1980s.
Yes, Poltergeist, still rated PG to this day, was aimed at kids, and is still one of the more frightening movies that horror-dom has ever seen. I once wrote a personal essay about how Poltergeist was my very first horror movie, and how badly it traumatized me when I first watched it on VHS at age 8. I was always drawn to ghosts and monster and horror as a kid, but I was always far too terrified to actually sit down and watch a horror movie. When I finally bucked up and rented my first (from 20/20 Video on Wilshire Blvd. In Santa Monica, CA) it had to be Poltergeist, one of the scariest.
Talking to other kids my age, they all had similar experiences. The Spielberg brand and the PG rating left parents feeling it was “safe” for kids. As such, kids watched it. As such, kids had nightmares.
The film was a huge hit and spawned two sequels. I have revisited this trauma of my childhood as an adult, and even pushed through the entire three-film cycle and will, as the mastermind behind The Series Project, report my findings. Lets snuggle up under the covers and prepare to hide out eyes for the scariest ghost movies of the 1980s.
Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982)
The thing that will perhaps strike you most palpably about Poltergeist (aside from the eventual freaky ghost stuff) is how lived-in it is. Tobe Hooper, perhaps taking advice from Spielberg, constructed a very real suburban WASP family environment. The kids bicker and chatter. The adults get impatient and smoke weed after hours. The rooms are cluttered and dirty. The teenage daughter may or may not be sexually active, and it distresses the parents without being a plot point. It's a movie set that, in a very vital way, doesn't feel like a movie set. What Hooper did was try to excise all the usual mannerisms of suburban movie life (most specifically the antiseptic “Lassie”-like cleanliness) and make a suburban home that resembles yours. This is essentially a horror film for the working middle class.
The Freeling family live here. Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a real estate developer and a dippy dad of the highest order. Mom Diane (JoBeth Williams) is an energetic stay-at-home mother. The kids are teenager Dana (Dominique Dunne), 8-year-old Robbie (Oliver Williams) and the little kid Carol-Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Carol-Anne has been behaving oddly. She watches late-night, static-filled TV screens, and seems to be talking to people. When a ghostly hand reaches out of the TV one late night and leaves a burn mark on the opposite wall, it's pretty clear that something evil is afoot.
Sure enough, freaky crap kicks into high gear. The canary dies. The other things. At first its just chairs that rearrange themselves, but just as quickly, the gnarled old tree outside of Robbie's window reaches into his bedroom and tries to eat him. Then Carol-Anne is sucked into her closet, and vanishes into an ethereal ghost dimension. We can hear her occasionally screaming in terror through the dimensional plane. Kids love that!
Paranormal investigators (Beatrice Straight, Martin Casella, and Richard Lawson) are called in to suss out the damage and bust the ghosts. They are unprepared for the rooms full of flickering lights and floating objects; they're used to the occasional ghostly photograph. They determine that the house is filled with poltergeists. When one of them is influenced by the ghosts TO TEAR HIS OWN FACE OFF WITH HIS BARE HANDS (BECAUSE KIDS LOVE THAT!), they call in a diminutive psychic expert named Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) who seems to know what's going on: There are evil spirits in this house who want Carol-Anne's life and to infiltrate this world. They haven't moved on.
A nice touch: Robbie and mom have a few conversations about the nature of death, and why ghosts haven't moved on. It's a very natural conversation a real parent might have with a real kid. Tobe Hooper may be more interested in the freaky crap (he did make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre after all), but he is a skilled enough director to make real characters out of his victims.
Dad learns that their house – indeed the entire pre-fab suburban community they live in – was actually built on an old sacred Indian cemetery. Herein lies the theme of the picture: Americans are not sensitive to the land, raping the landscape willy-nilly for tract housing purposes. Our hunger for McMansions is too great. I think we can all gibe with that.
Eventually the family learns how to get in and out of the ghostly dimension (enter through the closet, exit through the ceiling in the den), and mom goes in after Carol-Anne. There is an influx of evil spirits, but mom returns safe, coated in pink grimy ectoplasm. Just when Tangina declares that the house is “clean” CREEPY CRAP STARTS FLYING EVERY WHICH WAY. Poltergeist is notorious for the error of its finale, wherein the family decides to stay in the house for hours and hours and hours after they have retrieved their daughter from a creepy ghost dimension, only to encounter demons, floating mud skeletons, and a giant intestinal mouth. When all this begins, Carol-Anne pulls her bedcovers up to her chin, weeping, quietly pleading “No more…”
She speaks for all the kids watching. No more. We've been scared enough. We're already traumatized, Tobe. But no. We're going to have a few more minutes to ensure that you won't sleep for a month.
Poltergeist is a slick and entertaining and scary and actually quite good haunted house effects extravaganza. It was a huge hit, and was nominated for three Academy Awards (for visuals, sound, and music). I suppose a sequel was inevitable. The sequel is kind of odd, though.