Summer of '82: Poltergeist -

Summer of '82: Poltergeist

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  • Starring: Heather O'Rourke, Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Zeld Rubinstein and Dominique Dunne
  • Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor
  • Directed by: Tobe Hooper
  • Studio: MGM
  • Rating: PG
  • Run Time: 114 minutes
  • Series:

Summer of '82: Poltergeist

"You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you?"

By Rob Vaux     June 04, 2012

 When asked which movie first scared them, most people turn to an expected slate of children’s flicks: appropriate for all viewers, but containing some undeniably freaky images. (The Wizard of Oz comes readily to mind, as does Disney’s Snow White.) But when you ask which horror movie first scared them, a significant number of people would probably pick Poltergeist. It was rated PG, after all, and prominently featured Steven Spielberg’s name when the director was preparing to unleash the ultimate cuddly alien upon us all. So who worried about letting the kids take a look at Poltergeist?

That attitude lasted – at best – until the hideous fucking clown popped out from under the bed. An entire generation followed it up by sleeping in mommy and daddy’s room for the next month.

We would have done well to look closer at the poster and note that Steven Friend-to-All-Children actually only produced the film (though rumors continually surface to the contrary). The director, Tobe Hooper, has a much different set of films on his resume… notably one about power tools and suspicious meat products. With that name in the forefront, the pants-wetting terror that followed should come as less of a shock. Certainly, the two filmmakers baited their hooks well. The film’s haunted house appears in modern suburbia, occupied by a Norman Rockwell family of the sort that Spielberg adored. The first half hour plays like a low-key sitcom, as dad (Craig T. Nelson) bickers with his neighbors, mom (JoBeth Williams) negotiates the passing of a pet canary, and their three kids engage in various forms of low-key normality. Even little Carol Anne’s (Heather O’Rourke) sleepwalking incidents seem perfectly ordinary, as does her habit of talking to the TV after all the channels sign off for the night.

Therein lies Poltergeist’s sublime rope-a-dope. We integrate ourselves into this family immediately, and the film unwraps its carnival of horrors solely through their eyes. The ghosts in the TV soon manifest themselves more directly and while we eventually understand their reasons for being here (more or less), that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. We see much of it through the perception of the children, who view it as alternately fascinating and horrible. The parents ultimately revert to a similar state. They understand nothing about what’s happening around them and can only latch on to the most direct goals if they wish to escape their formerly perfect home alive.

Hooper’s scares rely upon that unknown quality: the fact that that these spirits could appear at any time in any form and do any number of scary things. The banality of suburban America makes the horrors on display all the more chilling. We built our tract homes on the bones of older, darker things… things that have a way of asserting themselves over our ridiculously self-centered attempts to cover them up. (Kubrick touched on the idea first with The Shining, and shades of the concept echo in more recent horror films like Ringu.) To that, Poltergeist adds an instinctive knowledge of childhood fears: monsters in the corners, demons beneath the bed, the imposing tree outside the window ready to gobble you up at any moment. If they can exist where we live– amid the humdrum worries of raising kids and keeping up with the neighbors – then their veracity becomes impossible to deny.

Looking at the film thirty years later, it remains a ferocious product of the 80s… not just in its fashions and suburban locale, but in things like the TV which plays such a pivotal part in the proceedings. Station sign-offs no longer exist, and the electronic snow that entices Carol Anne rarely (if ever) appears on our screens. That datedness helps add to its charm, as does the relatively slow pace with which it unfurls its story. A more recent film would jump right to the scares, but Poltergeist seduces us with more discipline than that. The supernatural goings-on start out comparatively benign – as if the spooks and specters were nothing more than the latest appliance to make the folks next door envious – before showing their true colors and exacting a terrifying cost.

Whether Spielberg or Hooper actually directed it is irrelevant. Shades of both filmmakers appear within the film’s framework, and it becomes all the stronger for each man’s contribution. It remains the ultimate Reagan-era horror movie: nuclear family consumerism thrust against the terrifying fundaments of the universe. And in a long-ago summer bereft of financially successful horror movies, its impressive box office performance speaks volumes about the fears it could conjure. Thanks to Poltergeist, more than a few of us still sleep with the lights on: the world has changed, but our closets haven’t, and it knows better than most movies what lurks in the darkness beyond.


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SinisterPryde 6/4/2012 12:28:16 AM

Its also noteable that in a time when slasher flicks were quickly becoming prevalent that the total body count for this movie was zero.

raa2001 6/4/2012 1:13:42 AM

 Poltergeist scared me the most as a child

ElBaz13 6/4/2012 5:00:06 AM

I remember watching this on home video when it first came out. Didn't sleep for days. That clown doll got to me.


karas1 6/4/2012 6:00:23 AM

Rob, you're a hell of a writer.  You have a winning way with words.  I love reading your reviews.

zopilotez 6/4/2012 8:12:58 AM

Even today, this is still one of the best horror movies

jppintar326 6/4/2012 10:41:28 AM

Sad that Heather O'Rourke died at such a young age.  I don't know if I believe in the Poltergeist curse but the fact Dominique Dunne also died and two people who appeared in the second movie died does make you wonder.

raa2001 6/4/2012 11:04:02 AM

 The doll and the tree scared the you know what out me as a kid. I had toys under my bed and I also had a tree next to my window that would cast a scary shadow during a thunderstorm.

Wiseguy 6/4/2012 12:24:58 PM

LOL raa, I had the same experience. I swear that tree gave off shadows that looked like bony claws tryin to get me. This was while I lived in my uncle's house, he'd hear me whimpering and come to investigate and I'd deny that I was crying. I was scared of the tree but more scared to admit I was crying because I was scared of the tree.

Love this movie. Wasn't it getting remade or was that shelved?

DarthoftheDead 6/4/2012 1:35:06 PM

The only Horror Movie scarier than Poltergeist (to me), Rhinestone.......

MaLarrya 6/4/2012 3:55:14 PM

I used to live in Simi right around the corner from where Poltergeist was filmed. This was an exciting time (1981), seeing all the trailers, construction crews, and actors. I actually saw them filming the part when Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his boss were walking out of the house and down the front walkway discussing why he hadn't been at work in some time. I was pretty sure Speilberg was there next to the camera but wasn't too familiar with his appearance at that time. I talked with some of the crew members who were digging holes in the grassy areas running along the sidewalk, asking them what the movie was about and what the holes were for. One guy showed me it was to put the coffins inside on hydraulic lifts.

I figured this was some cheap horror movie that would blow since I didn't recognize any of the actors’ names starring in the movie. I had no idea how awesome it would be, until I sat in that darkened theater the following June on opening night. What a total shocker! I remember seeing it with my friend Dan and we discussed for a while afterwards how surprised we were that a PG rated movie could scare so well. Today it stands as one of my top 5 favorite horror movies of all time. I really do miss those summers in Simi, they had such wonder and discovery.

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