The 1982 horror classic that made kids afraid of toy clowns and television static certainly has made its way into popular culture. It has some of the most memorable lines in cinema, iconic imagery, and was even parodied in Family Guy. Poltergeist
is a movie that has a particular effect that results in most people knowing about the movie, even if they’ve never seen it.
However, despite the movie being considered a fantastic horror movie and a staple of 80s awesomeness, the question remains: does it still hold up? The concept of the horror movie has changed so radically since Poltergeist that the film may not have the same impact as it once did. Particularly with gore-fests like Saw and Hostel. I recently had the chance to see the original again on the big screen, and to my surprise, not only did this movie succeed as a horror movie, but it surpassed my expectations.
For those of you who don’t know, the film centers around a typical suburban family living in a newly developed neighborhood. They play games, watch TV, look forward to their new pool, and have all the bickering moments a regular family is expected to have. They just happen to live in a haunted house with a Poltergeist.
The movie has an awesome beginning with the late Heather O’Rourke sitting in front of the static of the living room TV. The white glow is the only light in the room as the little girl’s silhouette is front and center of the shot. This genuinely disturbing moment sets up the movie brilliantly, as the film’s terrifying atmosphere is built up through mood and setting. There are very few jump scares and most of the movie has a quiet build up through setting the scene. This way when a jump scare does happen, it’s all the more exciting.
The strength really comes from the family element. Craig T. Nelson, and Jobeth Williams look like they’re playing real parents, when their daughter is missing they both look horrible and disheveled. Nelson in particular has huge bags under his eyes and a five o’clock shower. And this sense of family doesn’t just extend to the parents, the other two children definitely fit the bill of a real family. This allows the audience to really connect with them, and fear for them.
The other characters that come in are also very memorable, but none exceed the awesomeness of Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina the medium. There’s just something so funny and bizarre about this tiny woman ghost hunter who’s a total bad ass command everyone with such aggression. She steals every scene she’s in and has some of the best lines ever. The whole camera could be on her, and the movie would be just as entertaining. The strength of the writing and the acting shows based entirely on how memorable these characters are, and how each one reacts to the unexplained.
Now, like all movies, Poltergeist isn’t perfect. As I said earlier, there aren’t a lot of jump scares, and there’s a few slow moments. This allows more mood to set in, but I’d be lying if I said that it was always done right. There are a few times when a jump scare would have been welcome to liven up the movie a bit. And while the practical effects are still amazing, the animated effects look cheap by today’s standard, and a don’t really do a good job setting the mood.
And there are some plot holes that don’t seem to make any sense. For example, when the construction workers start laying out the foundation, wouldn’t they have found some of the bodies? Also, how come only the little girl can hear the ghosts? Maybe the latter was answered in the sequel, but in this movie it’s really confusing about why she can hear the ghosts.
That being said, Poltergeist leaves a stronger impression than most of the more recent horror films. And that all comes from the family aspect. The audience cares so much about this family’s survival, because they show how much they care for each other.
Halloween is just around the corner, and this is definitely a movie to watch to get in the season.