Even if you don’t know me personally, it may not come as much of a surprise that I’m fairly familiar with Poltergeist: take a look at my username. Hailing from the same era as so many cultural phenomena which defined a generation, Poltergeist stands apart from the Star Wars, Alien, and Indiana Jones pictures for its singular generic makeup: it’s a haunted house picture as special-effects roller coaster ride. It’s the creaky ghost-house redefined for Spielbergian family values, reconfigured in prefab suburbia, and rigged up in state-of-the-art blue-screen and prosthetics. it’s thoroughly aware of its own placement in the blockbuster cosmos–Robbie Freeling, middle-child, terrorized by malevolent kid-eating trees and diaboliocally grinning clown dolls, packs his bedroom with memorabilia: Darth Vader, sci-fi posters, a jacket emblazoned with that latter-day Wolf Man, Chewbacca.
It’s not surprising then, that Poltergeist, for many kids now in their twenties, was their first horror movie. Famously rated PG (which in part, along with other Spielberg products made to terrorize tots, including Gremlins, helped establish the PG-13), the movie is something like a particlarly gruesome Little Golden Book; it could be subtitled “My First Horror Movie.” Not that the film isn’t at times truly horrifying: it can still send shivers up the spine (those skeletons popping up from underground in the family pool; that persistent stuffed circus freak) and cause stomach discomfort (a man–with the aid of an off-screen Spielberg’s own two hands–rips his own face off in pulpy chunks in front of a bathroom mirror); but what makes Poltergeist so oddly accessible for the young mind is the film’s forthright placement in the everyday goings on of an average family. Despite its foreboding opening (with little Carol Anne perched in front of the TV late at night, talking to its black and white fuzz after it’s signed off for the night), Spielberg’s script takes a lot of time to establish the humorous, very normal, interactions of its various family members: former hippie dad turned real-estate agent Steven, trying to find his conservative side (he’s seen reading a Reagan biography, in full camera view); live-at-home mom Diane juggling three kids, housework, and her once active ’70s open mind (she smokes pot when the kids are in bed and hides the stash when the kids come complaining they can’t sleep); eternally pissed teenager Dana; timid, yet brashly masculine 8 year-old Robbie; and of course, angelic, impressionable 5-year-old Carol Anne, who will be swept away into the otherworld, through the spiritual conduit of the TV.
A joint production between Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper–a renowned “collaboration” which resulted in much, much, much confusion on set and in the press over who had creative control over the film–Poltergeist is always considered, easily, an odd mix of Spielbergian sentimentality and Hooper-esque gore and grime. If only it were that simple: Spielberg’s always shown a penchant for scaring the living shit out of people (particuarly tots). What is Hooper’s and what is Spielberg’s has always seemed reductive–what matters is that the joint effort forced both filmmakers to do something just a little different…it’s Spielberg’s first ever full-throttle scare machine, and it’s Hooper’s most character-driven, satisying emotional narrative.
Poltergeist‘s concerns with the spirit world (it devolves into a lot of tantalizing mumbo jumbo about the “light” and crossing over) often seem to take a back seat to its primary power as a supreme sound and light show (it’s the one film where Spielberg’s need to flood everything with backlighting actually has a narrative context). No doubt, Poltergeist is touching, and its literal rebirth narrative–in which a mother must reclaim her daughter and push themselves back through a goopy plasmic birth canal into our world, i.e. the living room–gives the haunted house genre some metaphorical heft; but it’s most memorable as a gallery of beasties and eye-popping wonders.
More than anything, it’s the sheer awe with which the film views the spirit world that makes it not just scary, but transcendent. When the ghosts first invade, and their intentions seem rather harmless (they simply move some furniture around and break some glasses), Diane embraces the intrusion with childish delight, jumping up and down and clapping her hands. She even sets up floor diagrams in the kitchen to demonstrate the otherworldly power for her baffled husband. Such glee is shortlived. (It’s all fun and games, till somebody loses a child…) It’s the most refreshing twist on the haunted house genre I can recall–and a brilliant evocation of misguided 70s hope and freedom transitioning to 80s disillusionment.