“Poltergeist” scared the hell out of me as a kid. I didn’t see it in the theater, but I did see it at a friends house. He was a horror fan, and I wasn’t quite into the genre yet. He felt this would be a good movie to start with, and so popped it in. I have to say that the scene where the investigator rips his face off was probably the most horrific thing I’d seen in a movie at that point.
After watching the movie again this year, my wife turned to me and said, “You know, this isn’t really a horror film. It’s a family drama”. This reminded me of the second time I saw the film with my buddy back in the late 80’s. We didn’t like it because it wasn’t like “Creepshow” or “Nightmare on Elm Street”. And that is what most people think of when they think Horror. Well that and the countless “Saw” films that seem to be plaguing us.
Truth is, lots of things can be considered horror. I’ve covered a few opinions in this blog (including Stephen King’s look at the genre in “Dance Macabre”), but for me “Poltergeist” works with one of the most effective types of horror – the fear of the unknown.
The reason the movie still works and rises above some of its dated special effects is because of two key elements. The family is introduced in a way that makes them very familiar. They remind you of your neighbors or yourself. In fact the trailer goes out of its way to say how normal the house in “Poltergeist” is. “A normal town, with a normal neighborhood, and a normal house… except for one detail”. This normalcy does two things. It makes the family relatable and it shows that these aren’t super heroes, just average folks. Contrast this to “The Haunting” where the house is a towering mansion, or even “Dracula” where the heroes at least have Van Helsing and his key knowledge. Here, the family is on their own facing something they can not explain.
And that is the other key to “Poltergeist”, the forces at work in the house are powerful and unknowable. You can’t reason with them, because you can’t communicate with them. Some don’t seem to want to do more than move things around the house, and others seem bent on taking Carol Anne into their world. Logic is thrown out the window and there seems to be only two options – fight the unknown or run away. And the Freeling family would have run away if Carol Anne hadn’t gotten sucked into that brilliant vortex.
To add to the horror you’ve got the two forces summoned to combat it: science and magic. The ghost researchers are obviously the scientific weapon. They come in and try to figure out why’s and how’s. They feel logic and documentation can solve this mystery. Quickly they are assaulted at all sides and the weakest of their number is driven away from the house (after he hallucinates that he tears his own face off – I’d run away too). This unknown force can not be quantified and the researchers end up doing little more than catching some great evidence on tape. But they realize that they are overmatched and turn toward magic.
Enter Tangina, the short and shrill psychic who’s able to contact Carol Anne and even figure out where in the house the portals to the other world are. At first Tangina seems to be the solution and it makes sense: use magic to fight the unknown. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of man.
Notice one key thing – Tangina does not go into the portal herself and rescue Carol Anne. She’s prepared to do it, but instead it is the mother, Diane, who enters the unknown world and comes back with her daughter. This works with the main theme of the film, of facing the unknown. The family, who we have become connected to must face the danger by themselves and even if they have help of science and magic, they must make the sacrifices and take the risks.
Well it all turns out well, with Carol Anne being rescued and the worst of the horror just giving Diane a streak of white hair. Tangina even declares the house “clean”. But the movie isn’t done yet. In a final defiance – the forces go right back attempting to take Carol Anne again. Magic was not effective. The researchers are gone, so even the reassurance of science is nowhere to be found. Even dad is far away - just mom and the kids and house full of malicious forces. The horrors are unleashed one on top of the other and things go bad very quickly. But it is the family that fights and escapes. Notice that all the members of the family show up by the end of the film, even the teenage daughter who was staying with a friend manages to show up just as the house is destroying itself in it’s unknowable fury.
The last image ties the knot. The family is together, exhausted and shaken, but together. They check into a motel room and push the television out of the room in a moment of dark irony. As the credits roll, Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into a lullaby, ironic and maybe over cute. But stay till the end when the demonic giggling kicks in. Nice ending.
“Poltergeist” has a lot of great things going for it. Personally I wouldn’t have shown as much of the ghosts ands the powers as they did in the film. Horror of the unknown works better when it’s intangible. And since it’s the effects that are dated, these things could have been avoided with a less “in your face” approach to the story (See the 1963 version of “The Haunting” for a good example). But aside from that its power lies in the set up and in the execution of the story. A family drama? Sure it is. The family as a whole faces the forces of the unknown and survives. But the horror of the unknown is the other key. “Poltergeist” wouldn’t be as effective without either part.
What do you think of “Poltergeist”, solid horror film or over-rated special effects movie? Would you call “Poltergeist” a horror film or does it straddle a line? Do you have a favorite haunted house film?