The Test of Time: Poltergeist (1982)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, and Heather O’Rourke 

Remakes are a funny thing. Generally, older fans hate them as we (yeah, I’m an older) see it as a pillage of our childhood…or something like that. But with the recent ROBOCOP reboot (my review here), I had a very, very mild epiphany: Any “remake” of a movie included in a franchise (meaning sequels were made) is fair game. Another movie means that it’s all about the continuation of the storyline (and profits). If said franchise eventually dies off and is placed in a hibernation chamber for a decade or two, then what choice does the studio have other than recasting and starting anew? The story (and profits) must continue. 

Why recycle this recycled conversation again? Well, ladies and gentleman, we have ourselves another remake with a new POLTERGEIST in the house. Is it good? No clue (though it does have Sam Rockwell), but what about the original Steven Spielberg production? Does it stand up against the Test of Time? 

Under the examination: POLTERGEIST.

The director's cut reveals it was the ghost of an Applebee's waiter all along.

THE STORY: Nice, seemingly perfect family the Freelings has been living in a new development (one where father Steve sells real estate) when strange WTF kind of things start to happen like chairs stacking themselves in the kitchen. Then, on a dark and stormy night, the giant tree outside their house tries to eat their son and the daughter Carol Anne disappears into another dimension via a light in her closet. Now she can only communicate through the boob tube. The family first brings in Dr. Lesh and her team of paranormal investigators to help, but when things get too nutty for them, they enlist the services of a little woman named Tangina, their last hope to rescue Carol Anne.  

Keep your head. Coach is back on TV!

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP:  Co-written/produced by Steven Spielberg (also produced by super powers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall) and directed by TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’s Tobe Hooper, POLTERGEIST is an interesting film, a rare horror entry that’s rated PG – of course, PG-13 didn’t exist yet – and plays for most ages, the way most Spielberg flicks do. It’s not a standard ghost or haunted house movie as it avoids most of the usual clichés that all horror fans know too well. It’s also one of the few horror productions that plays big, meaning the thing doesn’t feel like a small, simple story. Not epic by any means, but it feels larger than life. 

POLTERGEIST has great moments of both horror and humor. For the latter, there’s a lot of scenes to choose from like with the dueling remote controls (still funny even if it’s probably the most dated part of the production. No wait, that honor goes to the fact that TV channels used to go off air playing the Star Spangled Banner before turning to white static. It’ll be interesting to see if the remake does or does not utilize one of the most iconic parts of the movie. Maybe they’ll have the ghost of plasma TV.  Or great, simple character moments like the Freeling parents Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) relaxing in bed smoking weed while a thunderstorm develops outside and Steve does pushups in bed. It’s stupid, but still makes me laugh. But one of my favorite moments combines both horror and comedy making everything feel grounded. Thirty minutes in when Diane shows Steve the magic spot in the kitchen, an outlined place that projects objects forward. It’s not scary, it’s not horrific, but a real moment because what the hell would they really do? It’s a weird ass thing to happen. And how would you ask others about it? 

Worst kid's toy ever.

As for the horror, those moments tie in with the FX (discussed below), but they mostly still look fantastic with a good concoction of practical effects and animation. Rewatch the scene where Carol Anne gets sucked into her closet and later when the room comes alive. All those floating objects remain freaky. Or towards the end when a simple effect like darkening the room blue and shining a spot light through the closet looks hauntingly dandy. Or how about the piece of raw steak that turns to maggots or when the investigator dreams of ripping his face off. Those still look great. Hell, even that dumb, creepy ass clown that just stares at the Freeling boy while he sleeps is the stuff of nightmares. That’s where the real “horror” comes from. 

The cast all bring solid performances to POLTERGEIST. Nelson and Williams find a good balance between the stressed out father and the freaked out mom. Beatrice Straight (as Dr. Lesh) really pushes the gravity of the situation with her so-freakin-scared-she-can’t-drink-tea scene. Little Heather O’Rouke (who died at age 12) is quite good in a smaller role than you probably remember (kids almost always take me out of a movie).

Thanks to Southpark, I can only see Cartman now.

Then, of course, comes everyone’s favorite 4’ 3” woman who was probably a big Halloween costume hit in 82: scene thief Zelda Rubinstein. Sure, she’s a one-hit wonder as Tangina with those big ass dark glasses, but she makes the movie with that thick, squeaky Southern accent and sensible blue dress. She’s oddly powerful and captivating. Or how about the great Sonny Landham who asks the Poltergeist if it can bleed?! (Kidding, he’s one of the guys digging out the pool though.) 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Like any movie from 1982, POLTERGEIST is gonna play old. Sure, the clothes are 80’s kind of terrible, but the effects stand out as the oldest. I think so many people have grown used to CGI that when animation shows up it just dates the production (I’m looking at you, neighborhood tornado). Now I’m not claiming that makes it bad or that they should remaster the effects (please no), but for the modern audience shit does look old fashioned, especially when that tree tries to swallow the boy. 

Run! Smoke in the distance!

I joked about Sonny Landham’s small role, but somehow his scene, where he and his co-workers make catcalls at the Freeling’s teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne, who was horrifically murdered by her boyfriend in 1982), plays more dated than any other moment. It’s not just the clichéd harassment by construction workers, not just that they are after an obviously underage girl (though Dunn was 22), but it's Dana’s mom’s reaction: She gives them a grin and a slight eye roll. Seriously, could you imagine having construction workers after your teenage daughter, telling her how bad they want her, right in front of you? It’s the creepiest scene in POLTERGEIST. Times have changed. 

THE VERDICT: POLTERGEIST probably f*cked up a lot of kids in the 1980’s when it came to big ugly trees, static on TV, little Southern women and creepy blonde kids who say things like, “They’re here.” Other films that are far scarier and gorier than POLTERGEIST exist, but this isn’t that kinda movie. POLTERGEIST remains as close to a family horror movie that’s not aimed directly at kids as any movie will ever be. It reeks of prime Spielberg...and there isn’t anything wrong with that.




Everyone looks thrilled.



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