“Hello? What do you look like?”
After watching the remake of Poltergeist (2015), I thought it would be an appropriate time to re-watch the original Poltergeist. I watched it as a teenager many moons ago, but would viewing it as an adult change my perception of it? Seeing that guy tear off his face in the mirror has always stayed with me, but would time be kind to effects like that? Most importantly, does it still retain the chill factor (that the remake sadly lacked)? So, in a darkened room, I sat down to watch Poltergeist (1982)…
A normal American family slowly become victims of paranormal activity. The spirits eventually take the youngest daughter, Carol-Ann, into the ‘netherworld.’ The mother and father hire paranormal investigators to help them get their daughter back. What strikes the viewer initially is the beginning: the camera slowly zooms out on a TV, broadcasting a ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ adverts of sorts. The tune is accompanied by images of US landmarks. Ominously, the TV turns to the fuzz of empty reception. Images of patriotism are supposed to soothe us (well, an American audience anyway!). But what follows gives us a sense that something isn’t right. A little girl kneels down in front of the TV and asks “what do you look like?” We cut away from that scene to an overview of the town the house is located. In the typical American house, a typical American family go about their business. The mother (Diane) is tidying up, the father (Steve) is hosting a football game with beers for everyone, the youngest daughter (Carol-Ann) is upset about her bird dying and the son (Bobby) is climbing a tree.
As with all of the best chillers/horrors, everything seems perfectly normal at first. Even though I’m a Brit, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ almost brought me to my feet! But the clue that something is wrong lies within the first few moments of the film. All we see are fuzzy images which look disturbing before the camera pans out to reveal the TV screen. On the outside, everything seems okay with the family, but as we look closer, we will see that there are strange things occurring. Of course, when Bobby sees a storm coming from his position atop of the tree, it’s a less subtle way of telling us that danger is coming…
“The grass grows greener on every side!”
But that can be forgiven, as slowly but surely, the evil within the house reveals itself. We aren’t rushed into the horror and chills. Once again, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ advert leads to a fuzzy TV. Carol-Ann is drawn to it for the second time, but a spectral hand comes out of the screen. It disappears into the wall and an earthquake occurs. “They’re here” Carol-Ann announces. The unnerving aspect of ‘Poltergeist’ is that the spirits target the children of the family. In the first signs of paranormal activity, like chairs being dragged across the floor or being stacked up, Diane sees it as an amusing diversion from her mundane daily life. She even uses Carol-Ann instead of a chair to show Steve, who laughs as well as Carol-Ann is dragged across the floor. Carol-Ann sees whoever is in the screen as friends asking for help. Of course, they are not friendly, and soon abduct Carol-Ann after a night of increased paranormal activity. The only remnant of her is her disembodied voice, coming through the fuzz of the TV screen.
It’s in these quiet moments, rather than the large ‘scary’ moments, that are most affecting. The dated effects take away quite a lot from the large ‘scary’ moments. The aforementioned face-tearing scene will always look more gruesome in my mind than it does in the film, as just one example. But, thankfully, the film doesn’t rely solely on cheap scares. We are shown Diane staring into the fuzzy screen, just as Carol-Ann did. But Diane is listening out for her daughter. Carol-Ann’s response is followed by a flash in the ceiling and audible thrashing somewhere in the room. The paranormal investigators tell Diane that there is a nasty spirit looking after Carol-Ann…Intimate moments show the strain on the rest of the family, due to the paranormal activity and the abduction of their daughter. It’s these moments that make the viewer more susceptible to the horror, as we are emotionally invested in this family.
Of course, the major message of Poltergeist (1982) is the dangers of technology. The TV becomes a conduit for evil spirits, thirsty for young blood to set them free. However, it’s also about the sins of the father affecting his children. Steve works for the company who built the small town. His boss later reveals that the town was built on a cemetery, but reassures him that the graves were relocated. The latter assurance proves to be false. Steve is partly responsible for the trauma that his family endures. Of course, at the end of the film, we see him get rid of a TV in the motel room the family are staying at. But shouldn’t he be asking questions about himself instead of blaming the TV? As in life, it’s easier to blame the TV than to look at ourselves and find fault.
Poltergeist (1982) has mellowed with age, but it’s still able to chill and scare in moderate measures. It’s an expertly-made film (with more than a few Spielbergian touches to make the director’s credit to Tobe Hooper questionable!) with a score that adds to the horror instead of dousing it in nose. The true horror lies in a normal family being torn apart by unseen forces. These unseen forces target the children, the weakest of the family. And that aspect is simply timeless. Between the original and the remake, I would choose the original any day of the week!
VERDICT: 8/10. Poltergeist (1982) has been tamed with time, but it still has the power to chill, over thirty years after its release. A classic horror film, no doubt about that!
(Click here for my review of the remake, Poltergeist (2015))