Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist is a 1982 horror movie produced by Stephen Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper. Set in suburbia, CA, the movie follows a family dealing with the disappearance of their daughter somewhere into the bowels of their haunted house. Nominated for three Academy Awards, it's hard to argue that Poltergeist doesn't belong among the pantheon of horror classics, but does it hold up more than thirty years later? The trailer is below if you haven't seen the movie; but come on, you're reading a blog about horror movies for goodness sakes, you've seen it.

 
 

Jack: Spoiler alert: I really like this movie. Going to have to try hard to have this whole review not just be fawning over what an awesome movie this is. Luckily, it’s far from perfect so there’s things to discuss; let’s get started.

Jake: *loads shotgun*

Jack: Right off the bat, there are some weird choices in the early part of this movie. Like the fat guy biking down the street with all the beers that the kids just start fucking with. I think we’re supposed to be on the kids’ side? But then he didn’t do anything wrong like yelling at them or drinking and driving. In fact, he’s so far from DUI that he is already off cars and on bikes even before cracking into those brews. So then I guess the kids are just dicks? Ultimately all irrelevant. Just weird.

Jake: I just chalk it all up to this being a Tobe Hooper movie. The random levity and offbeat humor is sort of his thing (after the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at least). Also, do we have to pick sides? It’s funny. That dude is on a mission. He is going to get that beer to his boys so they can enjoy the Rams game. He’s basically fuckin’ Pheidippides. Great way to start the movie, and pretty classic horror in terms of how it establishes characters through humor before any serious shit goes down.

A Real American Hero: G.I. Pheidippides.

A Real American Hero: G.I. Pheidippides.

Jack: I guess, although a real american hero wouldn’t have left so many beers all over the ground. But I kind of felt like the movie did want me to take sides in these early interactions. Plus, this is a horror movie, if you don’t pay attention to who’s an asshole early on, how can you enjoy the pithy one-liners that accompany their deaths later?

Jake: I think history proves me right, because we never see those characters again. Like even at all.

Jack: Well, I’ll reserve judgment until I see what herstory has to say about it. There’s another early character development scene where the characters do show back up: That dickhead next door neighbor. Clearly we’re not supposed to be on his side, but our first introduction to him is trying to play Mr. Rogers for his kid? Typically his kind of jock bully persona you’d think would be the one putting the football on while the hero is just trying to heroically play excellent age-appropriate educational tv for his child.

Jake: Heroically?! That kid is the real victim in this film. The fact that the kid wants to watch Mr. Rodgers over some vintage LA RAMS FOOOBAWWL is a shame and that neighbor is a terrible father for allowing it.

Jack: Okay, number one, it’s “Rogers,” not “Rodgers." Number two, I would watch Mr. Rogers over football any day of the shark week. Unless it was literally shark week, in which case I would be watching sharks.

R-O-G-E-R-S. No "D" motherfucker.

R-O-G-E-R-S. No "D" motherfucker.

Jake: You’re a goddamn communist.

Jack: In any case, these early weird character scenes don’t really detract from the movie, they just struck me as odd.

Jake: Again, Tobe Hooper. Not everything needs to set up the traditional hero / villain archetypes. Some stuff can just be enjoyed in the moment.

Jack: I did enjoy it. There’s a lot of little touches in the early shots that make this movie so good. Like the telephone cord getting tangled up in Craig T. Nelson’s tie. Subtle, relatable, and establishes with no dialog that he is just an every-man type guy trying to make it. Stuff for cinephiles too: the Wilhelm scream when the mom changes the TV station. By the way, so much great social commentary in that one line “that isn’t good for you” when she changes the channel from the static and doesn’t notice she’s left it on a massacre. The movie is full of little touches like this that aren’t lingered on clunkily.

Jake: Agreed. I mean shit, my favorite scene in the entire film is the very first scene. It cuts right to the chase and lays on the atmosphere with a glacial heaviness. I think I’m dating myself, but the tv station sign-off is kind of nostalgic. I also distinctly remember being sick once as a young child and waking up to the signoff and subsequent static. Maybe it was the fever talking, but that shit was strange. Everything about the use of the signoff at the start of this film is perfect. Especially because any movie that starts with the national anthem is going to score bonus points . . . I’m a goddamned patriot . . . But anyway, the static flicker that lights the room with an eerie glow really sets the stage for the rest of the movie.

Jack: Rock, flag, and eagle buddy. Even my shit-head modern sensibilities couldn’t ruin the movie. At a couple of points, some sarcastic joke or thought popped into my head, and before I could jot it down, someone on screen made the same joke. I would reference one of the jokes specifically, but I didn’t jot any of them down (weren’t you paying attention just now?).

Patriotism personified.

Patriotism personified.

Jake: This is a crackerjack operation we’re running here isn’t it?

Jack: Even though it makes fun of itself, the movie is very clearly from a different era. During one of the first haunting scenes, where the stroller moves, you can literally see the wires on the stroller when everything calms down. Sort of jarring. Also the construction workers being outrageous perverts sub-plot probably wouldn’t fly so much today. Those guys were real rapey. Also product placement has gotten a lot more subtle. You don’t see someone walking around holding a cheez-it box awkwardly so that the logo is facing the screen for a good eight seconds. Do you know how long eight seconds is? Long. Go ahead, count it. I’ll wait. See? Long.

Jake: Goddamn it. Now I really want some cheez-its. Vamp for a minute, I’ll be back in a few.

Jack: You know this is written right? I also completely forgot that this movie is not actually using the “Indian burial ground” trope. In fact it goes really far out of its way to specifically not involve an Indian burial ground: It references it as if it was already a trope when this movie came out. That sent me right down a rabbit hole of references to Indian burial grounds. Turns out quite a few people had the same mistaken memory of Poltergeist being the progenitor of the trope. Probably a Berenstain / Berenstein Bears situation. (If you’re curious, Amityville Horror seems to be the first movie to use the trope).

Jake: Berenstein for life. My universe was much better than this one. And it’s interesting that you noticed that so much. I remember from my few times seeing the film in the past that the movie was definitely of the haunted house variety, but the whole burial ground concept never really crossed my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I remembered the scenes with the skeletons in the pool and the coffins popping up and dead, decaying bodies flying all over the damn place, but I never really gave it much thought. I remember the corpses being dressed in their burial suits, jewelry etc. Maybe that’s why? Is the Indian burial ground trope so strong that I don’t even give passing thought to the haunting potential of the inhabitants of a regular ol’ burial ground? On a more important note, I remember hearing somewhere that Hooper, Spielberg Et al. used REAL skeletons for the film because they were significantly cheaper than having synthetic ones made. That’s creepy as hell.

Jack: Damn. I did not know that. That is creepy. Where do I sign up to have my skeleton used as a prop in horror movie? Is there like a card I can keep in my wallet?

There is now. Feel free to use this. No charge.

There is now. Feel free to use this. No charge.

Jake: . . .

Jack: There’s something else I got wrong too: I always assume that modern horror movies benefit from having certain tropes pre-established by movies like Poltergeist. It’s why I get frustrated when a movie like Paranormal Activity spends so much time explaining the research into the supernatural---you don’t need all that exposition because Poltergeist has already done the groundwork for you. But, as it turns out, Poltergeist didn’t even need any a tremendous amount of pedantic explanation for its paranormal researchers. There’s a German lady and her two sidekicks, and they research ghosts. Then there’s a Kim Jong Il looking lady who exorcises ghosts. Got it? Okay. That’s all you need. Turns out I was still able to understand the movie without 12 minutes of backstory for those characters (but as we’ve established in past reviews, I am very clever).

Jake: Kim Jong Il? The hell is wrong with you? Her name is Tangina, and she is the best character in the film. She is appropriately creepy but somehow genuine. Hard to explain, but put it this way - the idea of her character is sort of absurd but she makes it feel natural. I thought she did an excellent job. And to get to your point, I think it could be a bit biased due to your exposure to the trope because it is a trope. It might have felt a bit different if you saw this shit in 82. Really though, I’m just defending it because without the paranormal research carrying on, we might have not been treated to the scene where the dude rips his own face off. That remains one of the single most traumatizing scenes from any movie I've ever seen. When I first saw that at the age of pretty damn young, I almost shit my pants. I don’t care if it didn’t actually happen. It was insane. And nothing in the movie leading up to that makes you think it’s coming.

You know what, you're right. They totally don't look the same at all.

You know what, you're right. They totally don't look the same at all.

Jack: You’d better be careful with the pants-shitting. Some cyberbullying teen will video it and post that shit online. Then you’d be stuck as a computer ghost. But you’re right, and I was paying the movie a compliment. I really liked those plot points and especially liked how they didn’t require being set up with pedantic exposition. Terrific. Also terrific were full-on haunting scenes. They’re intense and hold your attention, they have comedy in the darkest moments, and the special effects, while clearly dated, don’t ruin the whole mood. One thing that did stick out to me, and I assume was done on purpose, was that Craig T. Nelson says he’ll never let go of the rope, but the literal second that big, scary face-demon shows up, he instantly drops it. Why was he even holding on to it? What good was that doing? She was always going to fall out of the other portal right?

Jake: I just want to focus on the fact that in a battle of humanity vs the great void, the tool used to retrieve a human from the abyss is a fucking rope. A rope. Take note, kids. Always have a rope.

These guys knew.

These guys knew.

Jack: The encore haunting is great too. I’ve seen that motherfucking clown grab that kid like seven times by this stage of my life, but it still scares me every motherfucking time. Hot damn. Now I know everyone will rant and rave about the “they’re here” line from earlier, and it certainly is a classic, but the best line of this movie by far comes at this point. Carol Anne, after the haunting starts anew, just gets a dead look in her eye, and mutters meekly “no more.” JESUS! That line hits so hard. Knocked the wind out me.

Jake: Why does he leave his family alone in the house anyway? I don’t care if you think the haunting is over. If shit that serious went down in my dwelling, I would be gone. I certainly wouldn’t be relaxing there ever again. They asked for that one, and what they got was one of the best haunting scenes ever. It’s complete mayhem. Possessed clowns trying to choke a kid out, light demons being spat out of the gaping maw of another dimension, corpses being flung all over the goddamned place, and the house itself collapsing into nothingness… Wow. The movie still holds up and shows why the classics are classics. Some people may think that because it's now 30+ years old, it might not be as scary. That would be a big mistake.

Jack: I’m debuting a new segment this week. You ready Jake?

Jake: This was not discussed in the meetings at all. Expect a call from my attorneys.

Jack: Well we’ll let the suits in Washington sort all that out. In the meantime, here’s Jack’s incomprehensible note of the week [imagine game show music here]:

“Napkin for when it's nighttime?”

Found this in my notes for the early section of the movie before the haunting really starts. The fuck could this possibly mean?

Jake: Ask beer number 11 or 14 or whatever you must have been on by that point. It will probably know the  answer… Ratings time.


RATINGS (1-10)

For 1, think of what Billy Bob Thornton thinks of interviews that are totally normal and not awkward at all (buckle up, this is a long one):

 
 

For 10, think of how Michelangelo would rate pizza:

This is not the Mikey with whom I am familiar. Goddamn kids today.

This is not the Mikey with whom I am familiar. Goddamn kids today.

 

STORY:

Jack: 7 - Nice and simple. Essentially defined the haunted house genre.

Jake: 9 - The ideas this movie presents are pretty complex and hard to grasp, but it does it so well. That you could call it simple is a testament to how well executed the story really was.

 

WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Jack: 4 - This may be the aspect of the movie that ages the least well; I never forgot that I was watching a movie

Jake: 6 - Some of the absurdity feels a bit jarring, but that’s part and parcel when it comes to Hooper. I mean, has anyone seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 . . . ?

 

SCARE-FACTOR:

Jack: 6 - That fucking clown. The skeletons and coffins are cool, but didn’t even scare me the first time I saw the movie when I was six or whatever.

Jake: 7.5 - They used real skeletons.... I also need to take this opportunity to comment on something else here because I couldn’t slot it into my review. This is one of the few films that has a reputation that precedes it in terms of scary shit. It’s the victim of the so called Poltergeist curse, due mainly to the unfortunate deaths of several characters in fairly quick succession after the movie was completed. Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne, is one of the most recognizable characters in the history of horror films, and she died only a few years after the movie. So did the actress who played her older sister in the film, as well as a few actors in smaller roles. This movie is kind of like Macbeth.This also raises the question, does the actor who played Robbie now feel like he is living in a Final Destination film?... Damn. Also, I hate clowns.

 

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Jack: 6 - Sure, the cgi doesn’t totally hold up, but it’s still used pretty well and there isn’t so much of it that it wrecks the movie.

Jake: 9 - They used real skeletons.

OVERALL:

Jack: 7 - I wanted to rated this movie higher, but my ratings for the individual sections didn’t bear it out. Does that mean our rating system is flawed? Yes. Does it mean we will fix it? No. How dare you suggest our system isn’t perfect. Bottom line: If you haven’t seen this movie, then you are wrong.

Jake: 7.875 - First, your current overall rating isn’t supported by your individual ratings. Math harder. But I agree that this film certainly warrants a high rating. This is genre-defining stuff here.