Sunday 26 November 2023

Poltergeist (1982)



I am continuing my trip down memory lane. 1982 was crammed with movies that have had vast influence on me, one way or another. “Poltergeist” is another such movie and this, I am afraid, not for anything positive. Mind you, I was barely nine years old when it was released and E.T. figures were the greatest thing in the world (right after pocket sized video games) and even the little I actually saw of this movie scared the shit out of me. Some of the scenes from “Poltergeist” haunted my nightmares for the better part of a decade after that and even the mentioning of the movie or references to it was enough to trigger anxiety. My relationship to this movie is a very good argument for age limits on movies. This time is the first time I have watched “Poltergeist” since back then. I am facing demons here.

In hindsight it feels rather silly. Although “Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Hooper, this is very much a Steven Spielberg movie and that softens the impact of it quite a bit. At least now it does. It lets us know with some certainty that the principal characters will come out on top and there will be some sort of closure. We will also be looking at this with some sort of childish wonder, even when things get scary. Nobody told me that as a child, but watching it now it is rather easy to dispel the power this movie has had over me all these years. That does not mean this movie is not a scary experience or in any way fails to be convincing. Horror movies have just gotten a long way, especially in terms of jump scares, since then. A movie like “Smile” freaked me out a lot more than this rewatch of “Poltergeist”.

In this house, it is my wife who is into horror movies. She fell asleep about two-thirds in.

Steve (Craig Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) live in the suburban community of Cuesta Verde with their three children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little 5-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Carol Anne talks to what she calls the TV people. She hears them when the TV is showing statics and she is not really afraid of them. That changes when they come out of the television and start redecorating the house. One fateful night Robbie is almost eaten by a tree (!?) and Carol Anne is sucked into the spirit world through a portal in her closet. Now she can only communicate with her family through the static signal on the TV.

Understandably upset, Diane and Steve get help from paranormal investigators from the local university (Ghostbusters, two years before that became a thing). Clearly in over their head, they seek further assistance from a medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), who looks and sounds like something straight out of a David Lynch movie. Together they seek an explanation and embark on a risky rescue mission.

The deeper explanation? Well, as everybody should know by now, never build your home on top of a cemetery.

The two things that stand out in “Poltergeist” are firstly how successful the cinematography is. The setting, the special effects and the characters are believable and convincing and the hair-raising effect of seeing the little girl talking to the television is very powerful. Especially if you are yourself a child. I can vouch for that. Production value is top notch here and I think Spielberg would not have settled for less. The spirits have an uncanny similarity to those from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and that is likely not a coincidence.

Secondly, the human (or “living”) side of the equation is not powerless. Combined, they are resourceful, and they can and do fight back. It is a VERY uphill battle, but there is something they can do and be successful about. Something modern horror seems to have forgotten. This hopeful element, which definitely comes from Spielberg himself, changes the movie from bleak disaster to something almost uplifting. It is still scary as hell, but it is not despondent. The child in me does appreciate that and it earns it extra points from me.

It was good for me to watch it again. The jump scares still have me on edge (jump scares always do, I am SOOOO easy), but the demonic grip this movie had on me have been dispelled. I would even rate this as a good movie, but please please keep it away from children.



  1. It's a good reminder that this in the U.S. is rated PG, which means "parental guidance" is suggested. However, that also means that kids can go to a movie with this rating without parental supervision. I saw this at 14 with my friends and without my parents or an older sibling.

    1. Even at 14 I would not have watched this, but then again, at that time the damage had already been done. I missed out on this movie all these years because i watched it way too early. Though, to be honest, i have no recollection of watching the entire movie before now.