“… deserves its spot as one of the greats.”
Last night I watched the 1982 classic Poltergeist, and I loved it more than I remember. Poltergeist follows the Freeling family, a normal family who start to experience strange happenings after their daughter seemingly communicates with a television that is tuned to static. This escalates until their daughter goes missing and they have to rely on any paranormal expert that will help them get their daughter back.
What surprised me about Poltergeist this time around is just how upbeat the film is. I remember being terrified of the film after watching just a few years ago, but this time I noticed many more light-hearted moments. For example the beginning of the film starts off like any other film from the 80’s: we see a happy family living their lives, father is a working man, mother cares for the children, a baby (or really young child) who needs to be cared for, a young son who is wiseass, and a teenage daughter who rebels against her parents. It’s not exactly a nuclear family but its pretty fucking close. Throughout the beginning of the film this family exchanges banter like the best of ‘em. We get to see this somewhat dysfunctional group go about their days like its a sitcom, but then everything goes to shit.
What is interesting about Poltergeist to me is the way these paranormal events are handled, specifically by the mother of the family. Now the mother, Diane, is at home with her child Carole Anne so she is the first to notice these events. The first of which we get to see is all of the kitchen chairs arranging themselves in a pyramid. We then cut to later that night when Dad, Steve, arrives home and is greeted with a seemingly ecstatic wife. She hurriedly pulls him into the kitchen and places a chair in a specific spot on the floor, which then gets “pushed” to the other side of the room. Steve responds like he should, speechless and terrified, but Diane is seemingly amazed and almost happy, even allowing her daughter to take the place of the chair. This is not something that you see in paranormal horror movies, and it is an example of the lighter tone that I was discussing. This lighter tone also has another purpose: it makes the film scarier.
Throughout the beginning of the film your guard is slowly brought down with the endearing moments. You start to forget that Poltergeist is actually a horror film and start to enjoy like you would a comedy. Then it happens. The film cranks the dial and damn near makes me shit myself. I’m not going to go through every ‘event’ in the film, but I will say that even to this day it terrifies me. Part of what makes the film work is the effects and how these ‘events’ are depicted. Now of course there are one or two instances of effects that are less-than-stellar, but that is to be expected. What surprised me is how many effects still hold up. Some are done simply, like a crew member moving something when the camera is pointed elsewhere, and some are more elaborate using stop motion animation not unlike that from Ghostbusters or Clash of the Titans. My point is that these effects, however they were achieved, still do their job in Poltergeist.
The next thing that surprised me about Poltergeist was the score. Going back to what I was saying about Poltergeist being oddly upbeat, the score was what made me realize it. The easiest way for me to explain this would be to say that the score in Poltergeist takes pleasure in the small things. Throughout the film, even though there is something terrorizing this poor family, the score will take every opportunity to lift the mood. Dad found his car keys? Happy song. Mom cleaned all of the dishes? Happy song. Kid does something funny? Happy song. These are of course hyperboles, and looking back at them they don’t do the film justice. Really you have to experience these moments to realize why they are special in the context of the film. Of course there are other parts of the score to discuss such as the beautiful ‘theme’ to the movie which reminded me very much of Edward Scissorhands. There is also the ‘meat’ to the score, the scary parts. Now Poltergeist did something interesting with its score when the film was being terrifying. It made sure to always use shrill tones or make the instruments sound ‘tinny’ (for lack of a better word). By this I mean instead of using all instruments Poltergeist focused on ones with higher pitch, and for lower pitched instruments (such as the brass section) it used them in a way to accentuate the vibrations in the metal with caused a shrill, or higher pitched, tone. This was a really roundabout way of saying that the score did a good job of keeping me on edge when I needed to be.
I guess the last thing to talk about would be the acting, which I found nothing short of amazing. When the film starts out everything is happy-go-lucky, and we really don’t get to see the characters too well. When the film progresses the first performance I noticed was Craig T. Nelson as Steve. Now the film does a wonderful time jump after Carol Anne goes missing and we get to Steve, sleep deprived and angry (at the situation), consult some paranormal experts. This performance continues throughout the film as Steve grows more and more desperate to get his daughter back. The next performance I noticed was that of JoBeth Williams (Diane). now earlier in the film Diane was amazed, and almost happy, with these occurrences. Of course that goes out the window when Carol Anne goes missing and we get to see a desperate and emotional character who still ultimately has to keep her composure for the rest of her family. Especially toward the end of the film, JoBeth stole the show in my opinion. Of course we see great performances from the rest of the family too, but I have to mention Zelda Rubinstein who played one of the paranormal experts. Not only is her character amazing, but her performance matched it. I could on and on about this film and everything that makes it great but I think I will cap it here.
Ultimately Poltergeist is a classic horror film that is still effective today. With many facets (tone, score, acting) coming together to make a truly terrifying experience, Poltergeist deserves its spot as one of the greats.
I give Poltergeist an A