Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. Ignore Tobe Hooper for a moment. He will be taken seriously when we look at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Poltergeist is a Stephen Spielberg film. His name appears four times in the titles, three times more than Hooper. Spielberg is worth more than $3 billion dollars. Some of that money came from the profits he made from the success of Poltergeist. The film was popular but the highest it has ever ranked in the list of successful horror movies was 54. Now it is outside the top 100. Horror movies became even bigger business after Poltergeist.
The film entertained people, and for that its makers should be given credit. The special effects are good and imaginative. In 1982 Poltergeist was unusual and welcome because the horror occurs in a bright modern home. This was a bold move by Spielberg. The film also has the ingredients that made ET and the Indiana Jones movies so popular. These consist of cute suburbia, screwball comedy, winsome children, a strong heroic mother, confused and limited adults, Wizard of Oz saccharin and superhero action adventure. The horror in Poltergeist is explicit but, because of the mix and approach, the terror is diluted. Poltergeist may have entertained many people. It is doubtful, though, that any of them were kept awake by its images or ideas. Spielberg said that the tree outside the bedroom window of the young son Robbie Freeling was inspired by his own childhood memories. This may or may not be true. There is neurosis in Poltergeist but it has nothing to do with the horror. For that we have to observe the Freeling family in their quieter moments and when they are not being all-action heroes. The Freelings have their limitations, mother smokes marijuana and becomes silly, and father reads a hagiography of Ronald Reagan. When the child is captured by the tree, father Steve Freeling and mother Diane Freeling spring into immediate battle. The scene is well done, especially for those who like last second Indiana Jones style clutches, but it is entertaining rather than unsettling. One scene does use horror to emphasis anxiety. A ghost hunter stares at his reflection in the mirror and sees his face fall apart. The scene is marred by limited make up but in 1982 it made audiences avert their eyes. The ghost hunter is removed from the team and is not seen again. There is no room for anxiety in Poltergeist. Absurd heroics will be required, and actors who think that they might be in a horror film are obliged to leave quickly.
The idea for Poltergeist was borrowed from the Richard Matheson short story Little Girl Lost. Matheson also adapted the story for a Twilight Zone episode. Spielberg was familiar with both Matheson and The Twilight Zone. The best film Spielberg ever made he directed for TV; Duel was based on a Richard Matheson short story that had the same name. Poltergeist also inspired Japanese director Hideo Nakata to make The Ring. In the original story by Matheson the girl is lost in the fourth dimension after disappearing under her bed. In Poltergeist the son wrestles a large puppet under his bed. The reference to Matheson is welcome but the scene is not consistent with the rest of the narrative. It is not the only narrative inconsistency. Monsters appear alongside skeletons and disappear for no good reason. There are also a couple of continuity slip-ups, which is unusual for Spielberg. Those interested in that kind of thing should watch the dog in the taxi.
Howard Hawksian screwball comedy dominates the beginning of the film, as it did in another film about a threatened family, The Birds. The domestic conflict is lightened through zany characters and wisecracks. The comedy is continued for the arrival of the poltergeists but ends when the tree attacks the son. Spielberg likes a set piece but this one arrives too soon and is over-emphasised. Between the comedy and the revolt of the tree the film needed something disturbing but modest. The premature terror and the heightened action ensure the scene is a little flat. The emphasis on action adventure is maintained in subsequent incidents. It not only mitigates the horror but also weakens credibility. The father of the threatened family works as an estate agent. He tells a potential customer that the houses are sturdily built. We have realised that the one he lives in must be. A tree invades the bedroom, and furniture is hurled around rooms, but the next morning the house appears to be unmarked. Sound insulation in these homes is also a strong feature because none of the neighbours hear the wreckage.
The ghost hunters or parapsychologists include two women. In the pauses between the action set pieces the family and parapsychologists talk and bond. In scenes reminiscent of Rio Bravo the female ghost hunters explain death and the after life and what might be happening there. The explanations are familiar but that can be tolerated. The actors who play the female ghost hunters with explanations are impressive. Beatrice Straight is good at being serious and nervous, and Zelda Rubinstein is marvellous and different. Unfortunately they have to explain the afterlife to the family as if they are describing the Land of Oz to Dorothy. These scenes are weak, and at least one of them is unnecessary. Black actor Richard Lawson has a thankless task as Ryan who operates the equipment of the parapsychologists. His important and possibly Freudian moment is when he catches two tennis balls. The film belongs to Rubinstein. The actor was four foot three inches tall, and in the film her height, odd old-fashioned clothes and manner imply a singular existence and identity. Rubinstein has strength and she confirms that superior willpower can also exist in the neglected and ignored. The most interesting moment in the film does not occur in the Indian Jones style duels against the monsters. More interesting are the reactions of Rubinstein to what she sees. She is focussed and determined but also someone who needs purpose, drama and a contest for self-esteem. The parapsychological is the world in which this vain woman reigns and expects to triumph. Rubinstein affects a marvellous and aloof Southern matriarchal tone. At one point the room is blasted from the light of the after-life, and Rubinstein stands alone. Her body and shadow resist the light. Rubinstein presses herself against a wall and grits her teeth. She prepares to be tested. Her curiosity and will have conquered evil forces in the past, and the conviction in her face is evidence that they will again. Spielberg is good with light. This simple shot is his finest moment in the film.
The young son has a Star Wars poster in his bedroom. Many have assumed that this was a nod by Spielberg to his mate and Star Wars producer George Lucas. There is, though, another link between the two films. Star Wars requires a rebellious son who has been abandoned and wants action. In Poltergeist the children are abandoned to the television and the monsters it may contain. The father will have to take action or at least support the newly born warrior mother. Poltergeist begins with the Stars and Stripes anthem but nobody listens because the family are all exhausted from being compliant Americans and from watching too much television. They lie on bed asleep, TVs still turned on, while the more alert pet dog wanders the house. The complaint about American fathers was made often by Spielberg and his generation. The original Fright Night is a horror movie that has similar concerns. American society and community are undermined by parental responsibility being handed over to a machine. Remote male adults are not entitled to respect. They drink beer, watch football in another room and behave like idiots. The children laugh when they make an adult father fall from his bike at the beginning of the film. Steve Freeling is forced to be a hero who fights for his family but, like the daft neighbour, he also stumbles over the bike of his son. At the end of the film conformist suburbia has been abandoned and the father and mother will have to form a real and independent family. They will live up to the promise in the Freeling family name. This new journey will begin with a short stay in a hotel room, and conversation in their new intimate surroundings will be important for the family. The film ends when Steve dumps the TV in the hotel corridor. Steve may collide with the bikes of children but he has assumed the role of a real and heroic father. His responsibility is no longer abdicated to television and technology. Unable to be tempted by the easy money of real estate profits and to be diverted by adolescent males Steve Freeling will attempt to raise his children and prepare his son for masculinity. There will be difficulties ahead. We remember the collision with the bicycle and notice that behind Steve there is a hotel sign that says the entertainment for the evening will be provided by Dr Fantasy.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available soon this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.