So I guess I made it through the first weekend in Oct. Considering I’m now sitting at my desk at work, this really does seem to be the case. Oh Mondays…
Anyway, it’s day 3 of scary movies! Today is about one of those classic horror films of my childhood, one of the first movies to ever scare me. Did it hold up? Was it everything I remembered? Well… maybe not exactly…
Poltergeist – USA, 1982. Dir. Tobe Hooper, Screenplay Steven Spielberg. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, and Heather O’Rourke.
In a week when I’ve watched The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm St, and Alien, it seemed like it was also a good time to revisit the last film on my IT TERRIFIED ME AS A CHILD list. Poltergeist. It had been a while since I’d watched Poltergeist. Not that I haven’t seen it many times, I just haven’t actually watched it start to finish in at least a couple of years.
It seems like the four movies on my list split right down the middle – the films that held up and the ones that didn’t. Alien and The Exorcist? Still scary! Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street… not so much.
I’ll get to the rest of these films later in the month, but let’s start here with Poltergeist.
First of all, how weird of a combination is Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper? I mean, sure Spielberg gave us Jaws (my favorite movie) and Duel, both solid entries into the horror genre. He also gave us E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Right before Poltergeist.
Hooper on the other hand? Hooper is responsible for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
E.T. meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I wonder how that pitch meeting went…
I mean, I guess that’s how we got Poltergeist.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Poltergeist. I think it’s a wonderful, silly movie. I just don’t think it’s very scary. Which is something of a let down after having such strong memories of it scaring the crap out of me when I was a kid.
Or, at least, the idea scared the crap out of me. It took me a long time to actually be able to watch the movie. By the time I reached the fifth grade I was watching X-Files like a champ, but before that the mere description of a horror movie was enough to give me nightmares.
In particular, I remember the scene in the kitchen being particularly frightening, you know the one where the guy’s face melts off? Yeah, that one. It scared me! The guy’s face melted off! But watching it now… those special effects… How did I not notice how bad those effects were? Raiders of the Lost Ark came out at the same time! The face melting there was great! Poltergeist, where did you go wrong?
Really, the special effects in this movie are pretty silly but I’d argue maybe not any worse than something like Ghostbusters. The difference being that Ghostbusters is a comedy. Poltergeist is trying to scare us. At least, I think it is?
Is it though? It feels so much more Spielberg than Hooper. More family fun times, Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Salem’s Lot or Tales From the Crypt.
The music alone is so different from everything I’ve watched up until this point. From the surreal organ of Carnival of Souls, to the ominous, tension of the themes for Alien, the dark and discordant, or screechy and disconcerting, the music of all the films serves the same purpose: it puts the audience on edge. It preps us for the scares that are soon to follow.
Poltergeist does the opposite. The music here is light, it’s fantastical. There’s more emphasis on Diane’s thrill from the sliding chairs or Dr. Lesh’s childlike wonder as spirits float through the living room. The music almost never conveys a threat, a sense of danger, there is no warning, and there really is not much that is frightening.
It’s funny, but IMDB classifies this movie as “Fantasy” as well as “Horror” and that feels apt. Sure, scary things are happening. The focus just seems to frequently be more on the sense of wonder though than the feeling of terror.
Aaaaaand. I guess that’s okay. I wasn’t scared watching Poltergeist again but honestly, I really enjoyed it. This movie is funny! It’s fun. It’s also interesting.
Released in the early 80’s, Poltergeist came right at the moment as the horror genre was shifting away from the slow build of The Exorcist to the frenetic, hypersexual slasher of the 80’s. In the 80’s, the horror genre became all about Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers. It became all about make-up effects, blood, and gore. Every film upped the ante and folks like Tom Savini and Rick Baker raced to outdo themselves. If Friday the 13th II wasn’t gorier than Friday the 13th, well, then, what was the point?
There was also a shift away from films where a family unit is being threatened to films where the teenagers are being punished (this shift has continued even further to films where victims are even further dehumanized and tortured, “torture porn”).
In this context, watching Poltergeist elicits a feeling of nostalgia in a couple of ways. For me personally, on an obvious level it makes me look back to childhood, to a point in time when I was scared of the boogey man. For kids under a certain age, this movie is probably still pretty scary. It’s also a film for a society looking back to a “simpler” time: Diane and Steve were clearly children of the 60’s – they smoke pot, they’re pretty free and laid back – and here they are, finding themselves stuck in suburbia where you can’t tell one home from the next.
This is a film about Diane and Steve and the crisis they’re facing in a changing world. Skip a head a couple of years to A Nightmare on Elm Street and we see the other parents of their generation facing broken marriages, their children slaughtered for their mistakes. The innocence and wonder of Spielberg’s Poltergeist is replaced by the jaded cynicism of Wes Craven’s Elm Street.
And now, 30 years later, Freddy has become quaint and the basements of Hostel or puzzles of Saw have become de rigueure. Do I wonder why something like Poltergeist still appeals to me, even if the reason is different now than it was? Nope, not really. Poltergeist makes me smile even if it doesn’t scare me. My reactions to it are different than they are to other horror movies but that’s okay. I don’t need every movie to scare me. Sometimes it’s nice to feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Especially when the rest of my night is filled with things like Final Destination. That is not a movie that makes me feel particularly good. No, not good at all…