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 was notably more restrictive, but even the strictest of censors can make a misstep or two.  And so for once, I have Mom to blame for a stretch of recurring nightmares that occurred 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 taken in by the aura of 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 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.  Mom was excited to see it, and so was I.

Poltergeist is not directed by Spielberg.  It’s directed by Tobe Hooper, who also directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I wouldn’t see that film until college, but it still sounded a little more intimidating than E.T.   Still, Poltergeist had all the makings of a Spielberg production, and was hyped as such.  The movie was also rated ‘PG’ – if it were rated ‘R’, doubtful Mom would have been as eager to share the Poltergeist experience with her 8 and 7 year-old kids.

Poltergeist parallels 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, cheesy ’80s moments – family patriarch Steve Freeling plays remote control wars with his neighbor.  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 dives headfirst into creepiness at 00:00, as the family TV blurts out the national anthem while now-antiquated colored bars signal 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.

Poltergeist retains its glossy Spielberg qualities that defined the 1980s, its various vintage product placements (Darth Vader collectors case, Matchbox cars, Atari 2600 video game cartridges) enough to warm any ’80s-era kid’s heart.  The actors are left mostly to react and stare, mouth agape, at pre-CGI special effects.  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 ‘Melting Face’ scene, incidentally, was jarring for sure, but after seeing Belloq and the Nazis’ faces melt at the end of Raiders a couple of years earlier, I was somehow well prepared for this.  Thank you, Mister Spielberg.

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 was also my first exposure to drug use in a movie.  “What’s in that cigar box, Mom?  Why is that lady rolling her cigarette?  Do you think that tree that came to life harshed that lady’s buzz?”  These are all questions I may or may not have asked my mother.

The ‘Tree Tries To Eat Robbie’ scene, in particular, spooked my sister and I most of all.  While I don’t have any sort of aversion to clowns – I enjoy the circus, I love Mr. Bungle’s first album – I find that girls, in particular, are not big clown fans, my sister included.  Robbie’s clown doll in Poltergeist is a real doozy, with its perennial insane smile, not to mention the fact that it 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 feels dated – 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.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score (was John Williams on holiday?) is also classically overdone ’80s bombast, which means breathtaking in spots, overbearing in others.  And there is, of course, a crawling steak.

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, “They’re heeee-eeeeere”.  Speaking of the plot, 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.  Spooky.

What bothers me most about Poltergeist is its “horror movie logic,” where characters make terrible, illogical decisions for the sake of driving the story and the scares – 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, my house is already wayyy in my rearview mirror.  The Freelings are gluttons for punishment, and there’s no real motive for them to stick around beautiful Cuesta Verde – Home of suburban football Sundays, random tornadoes, mobile meat, and desecrated burial grounds! – once Carol Anne comes out of the closet.

My Poltergeist nightmares didn’t last, but it’s still a fun watch, and even more fun because I got to watch crawling steak and melting faces, for once, with my Mom.

-Ron Scalzo

Follow Ron Scalzo on Twitter @BaldFreakMusic


NEXT MONTH:  Overstaying my welcome at the Overlook Hotel.