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This Scene Almost Earned ‘Poltergeist’ an R Rating

Poltergeist Face Peel

It is common knowledge now that Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, which celebrates its 35th anniversary today, almost single-handedly brought about the advent of the PG-13 rating. With the “help” of later-released violent PG-rated films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, the Motion Picture Association of America decided that there needed to be another rating in between a PG and an R. There had to be films that weren’t restricted to teenagers but still too intense for younger children. After all, watching a man peel off his own face isn’t exactly family-friendly material.

It’s safe to assume that nearly everyone reading this has seen Poltergeist, but if you haven’t be warned that spoilers will follow.

Poltergeist has several terrifying scenes peppered throughout its 114-minute runtime, but the most memorable of which is the sequence in which Marty (Martin Casella) hallucinates peeling his face off in the mirror (fun fact: the hands peeling off his face belong to none other than Steven Spielberg himself).

I remember seeing Poltergeist for the first time back when I was about 11 or 12. My dad rented it for me from Blockbuster and I distinctly remember seeing the words “with face peeling scene” in the description on the back of the box. Of course, I didn’t really understand what that meant, but I (and my father) figured it was fine. Little did I know that this is what I would be in for.

As you can imagine, this scene was fairly traumatizing for me, a child who had never seen a truly gory horror film at that point (I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies until I was 15 or so). But I’m okay now so it’s all good. In all honesty though, how did this manage to get by with a PG rating? Hooper and Spielberg appealed the R rating, that’s how. It’s unclear just what went on in that meeting, but the face peeling scene had to be the main point of contention between the MPAA and the filmmakers. My guess? Spielberg and Hooper used the argument that because the face peeling wasn’t actually real it shouldn’t be taken so seriously. The sequence is, after all, merely a hallucination. It was just a trick played on Marty by the titular villain, and that somehow makes it less intense in the context of the film. Of course I have no idea if that was the argument that Spielberg and Hooper posed (and it’s not even that convincing), but it would make sense. It’s no different than Sin City getting an R rating because the majority of blood in the film isn’t red (the more red blood featured in a film, the more likely it is to get a harsher rating). Nevertheless, Spielberg and Hooper won the appeal and Poltergeist was granted a PG rating.

It should come as no surprise that TV screenings left out a few of the more graphic images presented in the film, the most notable of which was the face-peeling scene (they also cut out the maggots crawling out of the steak for some reason). I can only assume that this was the same cut that was in the “safe” VHS version of Poltergeist that Blockbuster was renting out, but suffice it to say that I’m very happy my dad grabbed the unedited one. You can see the difference in the clip below.

It doesn’t exactly have the same effect as the uncut version but, for the most part, it still gets the job done. Hooper and Spielberg must have known that they may run into trouble with the uncut scene though. After all, why film an alternate scene at all? They filmed this alternate take to use in case they had to remove the scene entirely. At least it still managed to get used so filming it wasn’t a total waste.

Which version of Poltergeist did you see first (if you’ve seen both of them)? Do you remember the first time you saw the famous face peeling scene? Share your memories in the comments below and help celebrate Poltergeist‘s 35th anniversary! Also, enjoy Family Guy‘s rather funny homage to Poltergeist, which puts a nice little spin on the face peeling scene.



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COMMENTS

20 Comments
  • Aaron King

    Hard to believe this movie is 35 years old. It holds up beautifully.

  • zombie84_41

    I loved the face peeling scene it was intense as a kid. Same with Temple of doom. I remember The Company Of Wolves and Dawn Of The Dead as a kid those fucked with me took me 8 tries to finally fall in love with DOTD after that I became a gore hound lol needed more so I got Zombi and well the rest is history. Its sad that PG-13 films aren’t like they used to be but as of late they are making a comeback. Look at the recent Kong film IDK how they managed to get away with a PG-13 rating in that flick lol.

    • Lol. I’m trying to imagine seeing The Company of Wolves as a kid. Not sure I could’ve dealt.

      • zombie84_41

        yeah dude I seen alot of crazy shit as a kid i remember the first horror movie that scared me was friday the 13th when jason popped out of the lake i hid under my friends bed and was crying lol, .

        • The first film to petrify me was Troll 2, so…um…yours is better. 🙂

          • zombie84_41

            LOL Troll 2 is so funny but ya that scene with them turning into vegies was pretty dope for me as kid. LOL I was scared of everything as kid. Chucky freaked me out too I remember there was an AD in the TV GUIDE and I ripped it out and was like you can’t get me now chucky. Tremors scared me too, and Alien, earthquakes even though NY doesn’t get many. Children of the corn freaked me out too, and leprechaun. So basically everything I love now as an adult LOL. But I did love Killer Klowns as kid still love that movie, and the blob the 80s one. And me and my mom always stayed up and watch tales from the crypt. Sadly there isn’t anything scary these days anymore. I hope it comes at night will be freaky and scary. Ummm the day after that nuke movie freaked me out as and adult now.

  • KennyThaKilla

    I loved this scene as a kid, but it is really one of the worst cutaway-cutback scenes in cinema. The scene itself is nice and gory, but it’s completely obvious that what we’re seeing in the mirror when the camera cuts back is not Marty. Looks nothing like him. Nice attempt, but they should have called in a better FX team to get that head right.

  • Vader the White

    I first saw this film when I was in elementary school. Summer vacation had just begun…in fact, it very easily could have been Poltergeist’s 20th anniversary. Anyway, this scene scared the hell out of me. Still does. And this is coming from a guy who laughed at the heart scene in Temple of Doom when he was a very small child!

  • Creepshow

    First off, lets give props to the PG movies that had BOOBS in them.

    Second, who raids someone’s fridge like that? The dude shoves a chicken leg in his mouth, then decides that he’s gonna cook someone else’s steak (in a fucking trying pan).

    Third, who chucks an unwrapped steak directly on the countertop? (let alone someone else’s countertop, eww)

    Forth, it’s good to hear from ya, Trace.

  • Meatwad

    The POLTERGEIST ‘face peeling’ scene was one of my first interductions to gory horror at 10 years old. I threw up right in theater and had to leave.

    • Creepshow

      God bless everyone who toughed it out, while smelling your vomit.

      • Meatwad

        Could be worse. Another time , later on as I got older, I sprayed people across from me on a crowded bus with vomit. Hehe,… sorry.

  • Brando

    That’s a nice face pilaf!

  • Fred Hopkins

    I’m going to have to come out and say I never knew there was not a version without the face peeling scene. Every one I have seen has had it in it.

  • DarkBree

    I saw it again last night, I had no idea today was the anniversary.

  • Aaron Johnson

    Even as a kid I thought the face peeling scene was fake-looking. The maggot part grossed me out. The part that always got to me was all of the dead bodies crashing up through the floor when they were trying to get away. And when she slid into the pool with the corpses.

  • marklola12 .

    that scene always looked total fake and crap even back then

  • i.am.pain.®™

    first time seeing this was on vhs with my best friend. i was 7 or 8.
    i was really into horror films and special fx and horror make-ups.
    the scene didnt scare me becuz it looked so fake.
    but we dug it all the same.

  • All these years later after watching all manner of sick horror, that scene still makes me flinch every time. It’s just how every time it cuts to the sink you think it’s all over, then more comes off, haha. It’s pretty tacky to watch now, but still really effective.

    The Family Guy version is probably my favourite scene out of the whole of that show too. Creases me every time

  • Bryant Low

    I saw the full uncut version when I was 8. I think the scene with Jobeth Williams rolling on the walls in nothing more than T-shirt and panties left more of an indelible mark on my psyche than the face-peeling one…

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