Don't look directly into its eyes!
I wasn't a kid who grew up watching Freddy and Jason. I was a huge comedy nerd, and was never a big fan of being terrified. I saw Poltergeist around age 10, and it was one of my very first horror films. I was scared just putting the VHS tape in the machine, but its rating calmed me down considerably. After all, how scary could a PG-rated movie be?
The answer? Extremely.
To me, Poltergeist is the perfect horror movie. It is genuinely scary, it is genuinely funny, and you genuinely care what happens to the characters. It's even got some dynamite commentary going on -- the television is full of evil! The genius of Poltergeist is that it takes the haunted house and plops it smack dab in the middle of suburbia. It's not a creepy Transylvanian mansion, it looks a lot like where most people grow up. The Freeling family looked a lot like my family, and that made it all the scarier. Like many Steven Spielberg films, Poltergeist juxtaposes the fantastical with the real in a way that the viewer doesn't doubt for a second.
Speaking of Spielberg, the issue of how much of this film he directed has intrigued movie fans for decades. Spielberg is only listed as co-screenwriter and producer. Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is credited as the sole director, but many involved with the production (including Zelda Rubenstein in a recent aintitcool interview), claim Spielberg ruled the set. I'm tempted to believe the hype, considering Hooper never made anything half as good as this film again. It's like the rumor that Kurt Cobain wrote Hole's Live Through This album for Courtney Love -- it's probably unfair to speculate, and yet there's so much evidence to support the theory. Regardless, Poltergeist feels like a perfect marriage of the two filmmakers' styles. It certainly has that sense of wonder and magic that Spielberg always brings to the table, but in its scare scenes -- particularly the gruesome dude-peeling-off-his-face sequence, you really feel Hooper's ruthlessness.
About that face ripping scene -- wow. It's well known that Spielberg got the MPAA to bump this from an 'R' to a 'PG' (there was no PG-13 at the time), but I think the former rating would have been more appropriate. I remember my mom made Spaghetti-Os for dinner the night I watched Poltergeist, and I almost threw up remembering the clumpy red bits of face falling into the sink. The special effects in that sequence and everywhere else are really top-notch, and I don't even feel adding the "for its time" asterisk is necessary.
Poltergeist has a climax -- the bringing back of Carol Anne from "the dark side" -- that is genius and more thrilling than pretty much anything in horror. And then the film takes a breath for about 30 seconds and delivers a second, bigger, better climax. I always relax and forget round two is coming, and then I see JoBeth Williams in that bathtub, and I get charged up and tense all over again. "Oh yeah!" I shout to myself. "There's more!"
You can't talk about Poltergeist without talking about that clown. That motherf***ing clown. I had seen Stephen King's It on television the year prior so I was already no fan of the red-nosed freaks. Even an utterly ridiculous giant spider finale couldn't scrub the hissed "We all float down here!" from my brain. For a good six months after the miniseries aired, I was not right -- looking over my shoulder in my own home, checking my closet before bed, avoiding sewers. But at least with It, I knew I was getting a demonic clown when I went in. Poltergeist did not offer me that information.
Hell, even before the Poltergeist clown came to life, it was already the scariest movie prop I'd seen. My stomach flipped a little with each ominous cut to the clown, but I thought it was just a decoy. I figured they were flashing to the spooky doll to put you on edge before the real threats entered the picture. And then the kid, Robbie, looks to the foot of his bed, and...the motherf***ing clown ain't there! Robbie looks under one side of his bed. Nothing. A sigh of relief. Oh, thank God. He looks under the other side. Whew. Nothing. But, on the way back up, well before you expect it, there it is. In all its freaky glory. And it drags the kid under the bed. And I screamed like a baby. No, that's not even strong enough. I screamed like one of Britney Spears' babies. Just utter, genuine terror like I had never experienced before, and like I haven't experienced since.
This whole finale, where Robbie is beating the clown, the closet's going crazy, JoBeth Williams is being thrown around her room in her underwear, then being screamed at by some giant ghost/dog/dinosaur/old man combo, then falling into an open pool of mud and being attacked by Spielberg's favorite menace -- skeletons, then nearly being buried alive, followed by the old "hallway gets longer" trick, followed by the kids being nearly sucked into the closet by what appears to be some sort of womb...well, it's an incredible sequence. When little Carol Anne says "No more," we're saying it right along with her. The film ends with the Freelings staying at a Holiday Inn, and just as the credits roll, they kick the television set out the door. It's a perfect ending to a nearly perfect film.
Though no one here went on to superstardom, the cast of character actors is first-rate and utterly believable. Craig T. Nelson is so wonderful in this film, never more than when he starts going nuts at the end. His completely insane, bug-eyed delivery of the line -- You son of a bitch, ya moved the cemetery but ya left the bodies, didn't ya! Ya son of a bitch! Ya left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! Ya only moved the headstones!!! Why?! Whyyyyy?!?! -- is one of my favorite moments in 80s cinema. My best friend and I used to re-enact this scene, screaming at each other in the living room, seeing who could take it further over-the-top. JoBeth Williams is excellent as the mom -- fiercely protective and caring, but also kind of a hippie (dig that pot-smoking scene!). Oh, and she's hot. Very, very hot. Oliver Robins as Robbie is one of my favorite movie kids ever -- not too cute and really natural and funny. And who can forget little Heather O'Rourke as Carol Anne -- "They're he-ere." Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight delivers a swell monologue that bored me to tears as a kid, but now I see it as a nice little successor to Robert Shaw's shark attack speech in Jaws. The pint-sized Zelda Rubenstein obviously steals the film, and was robbed of a Best Supporting Actress nomination. "This house...is clean."
I don't remember much about the sequels -- except for Robbie's braces attack in Part II -- but the original remains my favorite horror film. It still scares me, and to this day I can't pass a clown without wanting to beat the hell out of it. In Monika's Cinematical Seven last week, she referred to Poltergeist as a "Scary Movie for the Wimpy." Madam, I must respectfully disagree.