By Ron Scalzo

M ost of the films recounted in the A Dozen Movies… series involve experiences with my father, who often went to great lengths to expose me to scary fare that he thought I would enjoy, even if my young imagination was often unprepared for the shock of marauding beasties, chest-bursting aliens, and aquatic killers.  My mother notably showed more temperance, but even the strictest of censors can take a misstep or two.  And so for once, I have my mother to blame for a stretch of recurring nightmares that happened after she sat down with me to watch Poltergeist.

It’s not Mom’s fault, really – she couldn’t pre-screen every film she had my younger sister and I watch (although knowing Mom, she probably gave it her best effort), and it was with Poltergeist that she, like the rest of the human race, was deceived by the aura of Hollywood’s Golden Boy, Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg was at an apex, having given the world three true-blue blockbusters in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  My family had already seen Jaws multiple times and we memorably went to go see Raiders in theaters when I was 6, one of my first true memories of the movie going experience.  While none of these were traditional family fare, things changed in 1982, when E.T. was released.  Mom took us and we all loved it, as did most of God and outer space-fearing Americans.  Poltergeist was released on video the next year, and due to the latest Spielberg hype, Mom was excited to see it, as was I.

Poltergeist is directed by Tobe Hooper, who at that time was best known for directing the disturbing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which, thanks to Mom’s temperance, I did not see until college), but the film had all the makings of a Spielberg production (Spielberg produced the film and was notoriously credited by many of the actors and crew as being the principal director even though he is not officially credited as such).  What surely sealed the deal was that the movie was rated ‘PG’ – if it were rated ‘R’, it’s doubtful Mom would have been as eager to share the Poltergeist experience with her 8 and 7 year-old kids.

Poltergeist parallels the much more family-friendly E.T. in many ways – relatively unknown lead actors, adorable kid actors (three per family), a suburban California setting, and the faithful family dog involved in supernatural shenanigans.  There are lighthearted moments (Craig T. Nelson plays remote control wars with his neighbor, E.T. gets drunk and his psychic connection to Elliot causes a mass frog exodus) amongst the drama.  But unlike in E.T., we’re never emotionally attached to anyone or anything in Poltergeist.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t introduce the Freeling family in a traditional way.  Rather than mimic the opening of a Family Ties episode around the ol’ breakfast table, Poltergeist gets into the creepiness at 00:00, as the family TV blurts out the national anthem while those antiquated colored bars signaled the end of a pre-cable TV’s evening broadcast (ahhh memories of only 5 available channels!).  Little Carol Anne starts making friends with ‘The TV People’ and the rest of the family descends the steps amidst weird lights and sound effects.  Director Hooper supposedly filmed the scene backwards, having the actors ascend the steps in reverse from bottom to top, to create a more surreal experience.

Like most Spielberg movies, you can’t help but admire the “glossy” quality of the film, its various vintage product placements (Darth Vader collectors case, Matchbox cars, Atari 2600 video game cartridges) enough to warm any 1980s-raised heart.  The actors are underwhelming, but when half of the film involves them staring mouth agape at some top-of-the-line pre-CGI special effect, the best you can hope for is a lean slice of ham now and then (Jobeth Williams as Mom Freeling serves up plenty).  Zelda Rubenstein is most notable as Tangina Barrons, the soothsayer who helps to rescue little Carol Anne from the clutches of ‘The Beast’ within the walls of the Freeling house.  Zelda steals the movie during her 15 minutes of screen time (“this house is cleeeeeannn”) while Beatrice Straight sets records for world’s largest forehead in a horror movie, hugest eyeglasses, and best reaction shots.  Her arrival as the hapless Dr. Lesh, along with her assistants Ryan (aka ‘Billy Dee Williams in a Freddy Krueger sweater’) and Marty (aka ‘The Melting Face Guy’), finally sets the spooks into high gear.  The scene where Marty hallucinates that his face is coming off is jarring for an 8 year-old for sure, but after seeing Belloq and the Nazis’ faces melt at the end of Raiders a couple of years earlier, I was well prepared for this.

Poltergeist is also notable for an early scene in which the Freeling grownups enjoy some quality smoke in their bedroom before being interrupted by young Robbie and his ‘there’s a tree outside my window that wants to eat me’ issues.  I remember my mother trying to gently explain what was happening in this scene to her young brood.  “Mommy, why is Jobeth Williams rolling a cigarette in bed for no particular reason?  What’s in that cigar box?” Watching the film now, I wonder if that tree coming to life outside her son’s window harshed Jobeth’s buzz at all.

That was the scene, in particular, that spooked my sister and I most of all, and we certainly hadn’t just toked up.  While I don’t have any sort of aversion to clowns – I enjoy the circus and love Mr. Bungle’s first album – I find that girls, in particular, are not big clown fans, my sister Paula included.  Robbie’s clown doll in Poltergeist is a real doozy, with his perennial insane smile, not to mention the fact that he ultimately tries to strangle Robbie during the film’s climax.  Keeping insane clown dolls on a chair next to your bed is never a good idea.

30 years later, Poltergeist isn’t really that scary – the lighting effects used to depict ghosts in the house’s closet and on the staircase were revolutionary then, primitive looking now.  The tornado that disposes of Robbie’s rival tree is terribly fake looking, and it’s the filmmakers’ expert use of sound and cinematography that save scenes that are otherwise mundane.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score (was John Williams on holiday?) is classic “’80s Spielberg,” which means breathtaking in spots, overbearing in others.  And there is a crawling steak.  That’s right.

The late Heather O’Rourke, as Carol Anne, is barely in the film even if the plot revolves around her abduction and she speaks the film’s classic tagline.  Speaking of the plot, no one seems to mind that the film borrows heavily from “Little Girl Lost,” a subpar Twilight Zone episode written by Richard Matheson (who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s first film, Duel, a decade later).

Of course, what bothers me most about Poltergeist is its “horror movie logic,” where the characters make terrible, illogical decisions for the sake of driving the story and the scares – dude, if a tree comes to life outside my window or my clown tries to strangle me in my bedroom or I have to call a Munchkin in to rescue my kid from the closet, I am already way outta this house, I’m not waiting around to get raped by my Hydrangea bushes.  The Freelings are gluttons for punishment, and there’s no real motive for architect Ryan to keep kowtowing to greasy boss James Karen (of Return of the Living Dead fame and also Pathmark’s television pitchman!) instead of getting the hell out of Dodge, or in Poltergeist’s case, beautiful Cuesta Verde, home of suburban football Sundays, random tornadoes, mobile meat, and desecrated burial grounds. 

They’re heeeeeeerrrreeeee!

-Ron Scalzo

-Art by Rick Parker

Follow Ron Scalzo on Twitter @BaldFreakMusic and follow Rick Parker on Twitter @rickparkerart


NEXT MONTH:  Overstaying my welcome at the Overlook Hotel.