Okay. Here’s the score. If you didn’t watch Poltergeist before, oh let’s say 1990, the movie probably doesn’t inspire much fear in you. According to today’s horror movie standards, where the tendency seems to be a perpetual competition of upping the shock value ante, Poltergeist seems about as horrific and menacing as a newborn puppy. The new batch of Goreheads will likely view the film’s iconic imagery with more sneers than shrieks. Granted, a lot of the film’s special effects are rather unconvincing in retrospect. Demonic clowns, malicious trees, and bedroom closets containing otherworldly whirlwinds are hardly the stuff modern nightmares are made of. These points beg the question: is Poltergeist truly a horror classic or is it just another dated piece of spooky schlock?
If you had the good fortune to see Poltergeist in the years before 1990, your experience was sure to have been very different from what I’ve described above. That clown probably did scare you and I’ll bet you asked your dad more than once to cut down the tree outside your bedroom window. You see, the images in Poltergeist have an almost archetypal resonance. Any kid with half an imagination has wondered if his house was haunted. And in a very real way, it is this childlike fear that the film taps into so deftly. It is apparent very early on that the filmmakers are not out to make the audience squirm by employing the usual blood and guts schtick. The images and monsters on the screen are as fantastic as the subject matter being treated. The images are meant to scare us, yes, but they’re almost meant to thrill us. It is this facet of the film that is often overlooked. The movie is meant to be fun.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about Poltergeist is that director Tobe Hooper (mastermind of a little known movie called Texas Chainsaw Massacre) compromised his artistic vision to work on a heavily funded, studio-backed project. Regardless of who the film officially credits as director, everything about Poltergeist screams that it was a project helmed by the film’s co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg. One characteristic shared by nearly every Spielberg film is the overwhelming sense that, no matter how dire a situation becomes, there is always hope. You can always spy a happy ending in the distance. That is what makes the partnership between Spielberg and Hooper that much stranger. The only scene that seems to reflect Hooper’s involvement is the one in which one of the parapsychologists imagines that he’s tearing apart his own face. Of course, this theory of Spielberg’s involvement is based on well-informed conjecture, but one can only imagine what the film would have been like if Hooper truly had total control . . .
Poltergeist has become a fixture in the horror canon. But beyond that, it has made an indelible mark on our cultural consciousness. Think of how many television shows and other media outlets have referenced the film or otherwise paid homage to it. While it is true that many of the more fantastic scenes in the film are hard for the modern audience to swallow, the film as a whole has aged amazingly well. Those who are now seeing the film for the first time may find some scenes laughable, but the overall quality of the film is impressive. Carol Anne’s conversation with the flickering television set remains one of the most unnerving and poignant moments in the history of the genre and (along with The Omen and The Shining) has altered our perception of children – they can be cherubic and cuddly, yes, but they can also be creepy as fuck. Poltergeist is part of a very elite group of horror films that transcend their limitations and challenge the rules of the genre. That is why no true horror fan worth his salt can go without watching this film. Poltergeist achieves what few other horror movies can – it seamlessly blends terror with a good-natured sense of mischief. And while it is not the most terrifying horror film you will ever see, I guarantee you it will be one of the most enjoyable.