Poltergeist (1982)

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*. I did not like this movie at all in 1982. Seeing it again over thirty years later I liked it a lot less.
*. That doesn’t put it strongly enough. This is a terrible movie: a total failure in every department that is often comically bad. How anyone can claim to like it today is beyond me, and yet it continues to be quite highly rated.
*. Controversy still surrounds who was responsible. Tobe Hooper got the directing credit but it seems to have been a Spielberg film all the way through (he wrote and produced it and apparently was in charge on set). It certainly looks like a Spielberg movie, and not a bit like anything Hooper might have done.
*. We begin in suburban Spielberg, U.S.A., where life is the usual lovable domestic chaos. Rascally kids playing with their toys. Bickering neighbours. Could anything bad ever happen here? Yes, this is supposed to be a scary movie and we can be sure we’re about to hear things going bump in the night, but as Kim Newman observes, “Poltergeist may be the only successful, non-spoof horror film in which nobody gets killed.”
*. In fact, not only does no one get killed, no one even gets hurt. The worst thing that happens to people is that they get “slimed” like the kids on the children’s TV program You Can’t Do That on Television. That’s the Disney level of horror we’re at.
*. Apparently Spielberg borrowed from his own childhood fears when writing the script. He was afraid of trees at his window and scary-looking dolls. Which just goes to show that even as a child he had no imagination.
*. I think Oliver Robins as Robbie may be the most irritating child performance I have ever had to watch. He is either in adorable-tyke mode (reading his comic books in bed, sleeping with his baseball cap on, teasing his older sister at the breakfast table) or else screaming, screaming, screaming for his mommy. I wanted to see him die a horrible death.
*. But then all of the acting is bad. Just look at the way the Mr. and Mrs. Freeling cast meaningful glances at each other when Tangina tells them about the perils they must face to save their daughter. It’s like watching a high-school drama class.
*. The script is abysmal. Listen to the scene where Beatrice Straight’s Dr. Lesh (a psychologist who apparently knows everything about what happens to us after we die) tries to explain death and the (non-denominational) afterlife to Robbie. Why, he ‘members when his grandpa died, and he didn’t see no soul! And . . . and . . . he knows ghosts can be mean because he got beat up in school once and the bullies took his lunch money! But not to worry chil’, because “Some people believe that when people die, there’s a wonderful light, As bright as the sun. But it doesn’t hurt to look into it. All the answers to all the questions that you ever want to know are inside that light. And when you walk to it, you become a part of it forever.”
*. It got to the point where I was just laughing and screaming along with the characters. “Mommy!” “Don’t hurt my babies!” “You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why?! Why?!?!” And perhaps my favourite, Dana arriving just in time to see the house disintegrating and screaming out “What’s happening?!?! Daddy!!”
*. What else is crap? Everything. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is way too big and played too loud. The special effects look like shit: cheap animation, lots of flashing lights, and a ridiculous scene of a fake plastic face being torn apart.

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*. I felt so completely disenchanted I began wondering about irrelevant story points. Like how, if Diane is 32, she has a daughter who is 16 (and in fact the actress playing the daughter, Dominique Dunne, was 22, only 11 years younger than JoBeth Williams). I mean, sure it’s possible, but still a bit surprising. I also wondered (another idle musing) if young people today know what’s going on when they see a television station signing off for the night. Are there stations that still sign off for the night? Or why, in such a huge house owned by such an affluent family, the two youngest kids share a room. And a boy and a girl at that! That seemed really weird to me. Or, finally, if your clown doll freaks you out that much, why would you set it up at the foot of your bed and not stick it in the fucking closet?
*. It just goes on and on, without making any sense at all or being convincing for a minute. They put in the foundations for that whole development without disturbing any of the graves? Why is the Freeling home the only one affected? Do the ghosts count for anything, or is the Beast calling all the shots?
*. As I say, I just had to laugh. Look at how awkwardly JoBeth Williams falls into the hole that’s been dug out for the swimming pool and then has to roll herself down into the water. It isn’t a bit convincing. And then she has to roll all the way back down again when she fails to climb out!
*. Throw in the usual clichés (the guy who doesn’t realize the danger he’s in because he’s listening to music with headphones on; the guy who fumbles with his car keys when he’s trying to get away) and you just have an appalling piece of filmmaking. As I say, terrible in every department. Just a year earlier a much better movie, The Entity, had been made out of similar material. It’s still a movie that has the power to shock. Poltergeist is only good for a laugh.

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2 thoughts on “Poltergeist (1982)

  1. Tom Moody

    I saw it in a packed theatre in its initial run and the audience was captivated by all the scares. I was there for Tobe Hooper and thought the movie was pretty good, if only I could subtract the obvious Spielberg suburbanisms like feeding the dog pancakes under the table. Your criticisms of all the implausibilities are valid; the only one that *really* bugged me while I was watching it had to do with “the light” that you mentioned. At different points in the movie characters were yelling “go towards The Light” and later “stay away from The LIght.” I still don’t know if it was good or bad.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Wow. Just reading over my notes here again and it looks like I really hated this. I don’t remember disliking it this much back in the ’80s, but I know I didn’t like it then either.

      Thirty-six years ago! Damn, I’m old.

      Reply

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