This summer marks the 30th anniversary of what is considered the greatest blockbuster season of all-time: summer, 1982. That year, the cinemas were loaded with genre-defining classics that are still shaping the worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and action to this day. In this retrospective series, 1982: The Greatest Year, Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America will take a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental time in nerd culture history.
Before I begin this review, I must make a solemn confession: I was born in 1987. Though this is in no way my fault (fuck you, Mom and Dad), I feel this should be acknowledged, as the cruel fates deigned me unable to experience the Summer of ’82 as I should have: wide-eyed, mouth agape, my horizons expanding in the silver cathedral that is the cinema (also, alive). As such, I can only relay my experiences of the films from that year as a child of the 1990’s; legally obligated to convey my opinions in 140 characters or less. Let that be known.
I can’t say for sure the exact age when I first saw Poltergeist, which probably means it was before I was 10. At that age, horror films were allowed, but only if approved by the local authorities (parents). The early Universal monsters were deemed acceptable, along with anything deemed tame enough for viewing. As a result, my conception of horror was a bit skewed. Monsters only existed in ancient castles or gothic mansions on the outskirts of Romanian villages, far away from the suburbs of western Massachusetts. I had no idea who Freddy, Jason or the other connoisseurs of gore were. Alfred Hitchcock was a man who my grandparents talked about when they complained how much better films were in their era. The terror was out there, in black and white and requiring a healthy suspension of disbelief. I lived here, safe and sound where no one could harm me. Within two short hours of viewing Poltergeist, that notion was shattered forever.
Two universal fears from two different stages of life run rampant through Poltergeist. It preys on our childhood fear of the dark, flipping our childhood logic on its head by stating that the places we thought would keep us safe from the monsters actually made us more vulnerable. It validated and amplified every common childhood fear about the dark. The things we thought would keep us safe from the monsters in the shadows, such as hiding under the covers, actually made us more vulnerable. Where the monsters of our imagination lurked in our peripheral vision, Poltergeist made them tangible (and well-lit), and terrible beyond our wildest dreams. The creepy tree outside the window DOES want to eat you. The clown doll is alive and has a vendetta. The closet isn’t just full of monsters, it’s a shrieking, fleshy portal into the very bowels of hell.
Being the anxiety-stricken ninny I was at that age (not much has changed), I should have set the VCR on fire after the first chair stacking, but strangely enough I felt compelled to continue. In defiance of common sense and a reactionary bladder, I pressed on.
Perseverance has its rewards. So much more than just a masterpiece of horror, Spielberg and Hooper created a biting satire of middle-class America — a disturbing moral fable and a touching tale of a family bond strengthened by loss and adversity, in ghost form. The latter is, in my opinion, the key to the film’s success. The more we care for the Freeling family, the more frightened we are when they are in danger. These people weren’t just dumb teenagers or a plot device to move us to the next jump scare, they felt like a real family, like they could have existed comfortably in a completely different film. They could have been my real next-door neighbors. Spielberg takes his time to let us know these characters, to become accustomed to their routines and idiosyncrasies. They have faults, but they’re not bad people. We’re drawn into their lives, we become endeared to them, emotionally invested in their lives.
A strong cast and Spielberg/Hooper’s humanistic direction drive this home. Like a lot of Spielbergian dads, Craig T. Nelson brings a wry sense of humor to the film, lumbering around in pajama pants and checking out his beer belly in the mirror (foreshadowing of The Incredibles?). JoBeth Williams is the audience surrogate of the film, her childlike curiosity at the strange occurrences turns quickly into mortal terror, as does ours. It’s a tough role, but she manages to make it feel completely natural. Heather O’ Rourke’s role of Carol Ann could have easily fallen into the ‘precocious child’ trap, but thankfully she manages to project a genuine sense of childlike naiveté, innocence that doesn’t cross into stupidity (I would have talked to the TV people too). Beatrice Straight brings a much-needed sense of gravitas and knowledgeability to the film as Dr. Lesh, her speech about the nature of the afterlife never failing to send chills down my spine. Simultaneously soothing and unsettling, it’s a scene that makes the film transcend its pulpy origins and lets you know you’re in the hands of a master.
However, special mention must be made to the actress who was seared into the public consciousness. Barreling into the film like a Twin Peaks extra on the wrong soundstage, Zelda Rubinstein’s psychic was Spielberg’s Yoda, a being of undefined power in a small package. I mean it in the best way when I say she could have come from another movie. Her mannerisms, otherworldly confidence, the voice, all seemed to suggest a grander, mysterious world of infinite possibility outside the walls of the Freeling home. With one well-timed comeback to Mr. Nelson, we know she’s the real deal. Everyone else in the film is new to the supernatural terrors, for her, it’s another day at the office.
This was something I had never seen in a horror film before. Characters I felt for as strongly as in a classical drama, scares that didn’t pull their punches and put well-established characters into real peril, special effects that felt as real as the back of my hand. I was hooked. As a (young) adult rewatching, I found that Poltergeist also worked on a completely different level. It is just as effective as an allegorical projection of the fears and anxieties of modern middle-class life, that a happy family can suddenly be torn apart by loss, that the things that truly matter can become swallowed up by a materialist lifestyle, or, most disturbingly, the deep fear that the compromises we make for social or financial gain might come back to bite us in the ass in the worst way possible. We see that the real villain – aside from murderous ghosts – is complacency, allowing the routines of suburban life and material comfort to become dulling agents.
One of the things I like best about early Spielberg (let’s not mince words, he’s the real creative force behind this film) was how easily he managed to ground outlandish concepts into ordinary scenarios, without losing his eye for the fantastic, a push and pull between the influences of the early Hollywood films that inspired him as a child, and the realism of his ‘70s contemporaries. The result is electrifying, a type of filmmaking that somehow creates a masterful control of pacing, timing and camerawork while still allowing the illusion of spontaneity. Like a virtuoso pianist, he takes something incredibly difficult and makes it look as natural as breathing. Filmmaking is a peculiar type of alchemy, and Spielberg was (and is still) peerless in his craft.