Well, it’s been over a month since I last wrote anything, so I think it’s about time to crack down and stop wasting my time. Because everybody knows that writing on the internet about pop culture of the past is serious business.

Anyway, I think it appropriate that I finally write about one of my favorite horror movies of the 80s and of all time. (Actually, it’s one of the only horror movies I like and can take seriously, but that’s beside the point.) Now’s a great time to do so because not only is it Halloween season, but very recently, it saw a much-needed re-release on DVD to commemorate its 25th anniversary.

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If you couldn’t guess it from the above image, you’ve been living under a rock. I’m talking about Poltergeist, the movie that scared the living shit out of a whole generation of kids, including myself. I saw this movie when I was young and I’m telling you, it fucked me up. I had nightmares for nigh a month.

So how did I come to love a movie that I was terrified of? Because I forced myself to watch it in order to finally conquer that fear, and in doing so discovered that it’s a brilliant piece of cinema, and chock full of retro stuff to boot. It did leave an impression on me, though: I’m terrified of snow or dead air on a television to this day.

Back in the 80s, Steven Spielberg really had it going on. In 1981, he and George Lucas brought us Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1982, Poltergeist and ET were both on the big screen, and both would go on to become entrenched in popular culture. There’s that whole debate over whether or not he actually directed Poltergeist instead of the credited Tobe Hooper, but that doesn’t matter– whoever did it deserves a whole lot of props.

In my opinion, Poltergeist is probably the best haunted house movie ever for several reasons. One of them is that you can actually care about the Freeling family, something that doesn’t happen very often in the horror genre. Usually the victims in a horror flick are drunk, horny teenagers, and you want them to get their just desserts in the most violent and bizarre way possible.

The movie starts off with the national anthem, shots of the American flag and the Iwo Jima statue– Dad fell asleep watching TV and the station is signing off. The nerd in me has been trying to find out if that was a real signoff they used, or if it was just one they created for the film. I’ve had no luck.

Another unique touch about this opening scene is we are briefly introduced to the characters while they sleep as the family dog goes from room to room looking for something to munch on.

Five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) awakens. She wanders down to the TV and promptly starts talking to it. Sounds like a silly game an imaginative child would play, but clearly there’s something more to this. It’s a great hook.

Then we catch a glimpse into an ordinary day with the family. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is watching football with the guys and has a rather amusing (and technologically obsolete) conflict with his neighbor over their TVs. Most people would probably think, “Wait a second, this is a horror movie? There’s nothing scary or creepy about a bunch of guys drinking beer and watching the game!” In my opinion, that’s what’s so great about it– they use humor to lull you into a sense of security. Aspiring filmmakers take note.

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Another thing I love so much about this movie is that they actually spend time establishing the characters before shit starts getting crazy, while at the same time setting up the plot. There’s some great foreshadowing here, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Let’s just say that most people probably wouldn’t catch any of it until a second viewing.

Also, I think this movie was made especially to scare children. The creepy tree outside the bedroom window, the ugly clown doll, the thunderstorm, asking Mom to leave the closet light on– I think every kid went through that kind of stuff at bedtime. There’s a nice father-son bonding moment when Steve teaches Robbie (Oliver Robbins) to count between the lightning and the thunder to see if the storm is moving away or getting closer.

However, Robbie and Carol Anne end up in bed with Mom and Dad anyway. Once again, the TV is left on. How they can sleep through all that static is beyond me. But little Carol Anne wakes up suddenly and crawls down to the TV set– it’s “talking” to her again, except something much creepier happens this time. This is the famous “they’re heeeere” scene that I’m sure you’ve all seen parodied at least seventeen times.

After that, strange things start happening. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), pushes the chairs in at the kitchen table, goes away for just a few seconds, then goes back to see the chairs stacked on the table. It’s unsettling and an effective way to build some suspense.

It doesn’t take long for things to kick into high gear. That night, lightning starts striking again, but this ain’t your everyday storm. Suddenly, the creepy dead tree isn’t so dead anymore– in fact, it wants to have Robbie for a midnight snack. Diane, Steve, and teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) go out to save Robbie from a very painful and bizarre death. How would you react if someone told you, “My son died when he got eaten by a demonic tree”? You’d think, well, people have strange ways of dealing with grief…

Anyway, all this is just a distraction. What the “TV people” really want is Carol Anne. So while everyone is occupied, Carol Anne’s closet becomes a portal to another dimension and she gets sucked in.

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Personally, I think it took a lot of balls to do something like this. Usually a child– especially a cute little blonde girl –is the last character that would be harmed in a movie. Granted, Robbie is only mildly scuffed up after his encounter with the tree from Hell, but you know Carol Anne is in some serious trouble, even though it’s all left up to the imagination.

In an interesting twist, it’s Steve that starts falling apart and Diane remains relatively collected. Most people would have the mom go nuts and the dad be stoic.

Another one of my favorite things about this film is the late Beatrice Straight’s performance as Dr. Lesh, who brings her colleagues Marty and Ryan to the Freeling home to investigate the disturbances. This woman deserved an Oscar for her work here. There’s a fantastic scene where she’s explaining some theories about the spiritual world to Robbie; I’m glued to the screen every time.

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Pretty soon, lots of weird paranormal shit is going on. I’m surprised by how well the effects hold up. Well, except for one scene. Yeah, you probably already know what I’m going to say, but shut up and listen anyway.

The spirits decide to seriously fuck with Marty’s head. There’s a crawling, maggoty steak– which is a cool effect, not to mention a weak spot of mine they capitalized on pretty well. Maggots give me a wicked case of the jibblies.

But then…he hallucinates clawing his own face off. All the way down to the bone. Probably sounds scary and cool to some of you, and it might have been in 1982, but it looks cheesy now and I actually think it’s pretty unnecessary in the first place. I mean, for God’s sake, this movie is rated PG. Only in the 80s could you rip a guy’s face off and still get a PG rating. But I guess they felt that since this is a horror movie, they needed some blood. Or something. That’s one of two gripes I have with the film, the other of which I’ll get to in due time.

Realizing that this is way out of her league, Dr. Lesh goes to seek outside help. While she’s gone, Steve’s boss, Mr. Teague, comes over to check on things, since Steve hasn’t been going to work. Here’s where we find out that Mr. Teague is a son of a– I mean, here’s where we find out the ghostly history of the housing addition where they live.

The Freeling’s help comes from a little lady named Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein). Don’t judge her by her small size– this woman is pure concentrated psychic. I don’t know about anybody else, but when I was a child, this character was one of the scariest parts of the movie to me. However, I think she’s kind of fascinating now. Maybe that’s just the captivating performance by Zelda Rubinstein, though.

Tangina’s got a plan which they soon put into action. A little earlier in the movie, Robbie theorized that they could tie a rope around him and he could go in and get Carol Anne back. Well, they took that to heart. Diane goes through the closet portal with a rope tied around her waist, and manages to get her baby back. Tangina delivers another line that would become famous, and it seems like all is well.

However, Steve decides that now would be a good time to pack their shit and get out, and that’s exactly what they do.

Here’s my other gripe with the film: the ending. I don’t understand why Steve left them in that house alone, nor do I understand why Diane decided to take a bath and leave the kids unsupervised. Maybe they were just really trusting and believed the house really was cleansed? I dunno, but I sure as hell wouldn’t have stayed there.

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I have mixed feelings about the false ending and subsequent climax– it is scary and there are some cool shots and special effects. The scariest part of the movie is here: Robbie vs. that damn creepy-ass clown. I mean, look at that thing. Who the hell would buy that for their kid?!

I realize that it might not have packed as much of a punch if they hadn’t done it this way, but it seems sort of tacked-on. Though I do love how the movie ends with Steve pushing the TV out of their hotel room and slamming the door; I thought that was a nice touch. And I do like this one shot of Diane running down what seems like an endless hallway to get her kids. Then there’s the famous swimming pool scene. And don’t forget the part where the whole house gets sucked into the spectral vortex.

Another nice touch that I almost forgot to mention is the score. It’s brilliant work from the late Jerry Goldsmith. At times it’s beautiful and moving, and at times it’s eerie and foreboding. It really adds something invaluable to the film, and it should have won an Oscar, but I think the honor went to John Williams that year for ET.

This movie has long deserved a better DVD release than it got, and you’d better believe that I’m buying the new one as soon as I get some money. I’ll be sure to make a follow-up post once I do get it. Anyway, the old release works fine if you just want to watch the movie, and I scored my copy for around ten bucks, which I can’t complain about. But the transfer is pretty grainy and there are no special features except for a theatrical trailer, which is ludicrous for something so high-profile.

How did such a gem get relegated to bargain bin status in the first place? Personally, I blame the sequels, which are widely regarded as total shit. I mean, the only way you can get Poltergeist III is if you buy II, so that’s a red flag right there. I kinda wish they hadn’t released those on DVD at all; maybe then people could forget they existed.

Also, I think the supposed “Poltergeist Curse” has tarnished the movie’s reputation somewhat. As most of you know, Heather O’Rourke died at a tender age before filming wrapped on the third movie. Dominique Dunne was murdered shortly after the premiere of the first movie. You can read more about it on Wikipedia if you so desire. I just think it’s people being overly superstitious, myself, even though the whole thing freaked me out as a child.

If you made it through this entire post, I love you.

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