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.