The Magnificent Horror of Poltergeist (1982)

In the pantheon of 80s horror movies, Poltergeist is oft-overlooked.

At a time when gore-filled slashers were in vogue—thanks in part to the success of the Friday the 13th and Halloween film series—Poltergeist relied on a simple, Grimms’ Fairy Tales-esque plot to deliver its frights. Exploring universal themes of love, death, and greed, Poltergeist is the rare family-horror film that doesn’t pander explicitly to children.

In fact, some horror aficionados may be shocked to learn that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) initially branded Poltergeist with an R rating. Upon appeal by producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper, it was downgraded to a PG rating without any changes being made to the film. The PG-13 rating would not be used until two years later in 1984 for Red Dawn. In a strange twist of irony, the PG-13 rating was created due to the outrage Spielberg’s PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom generated; audiences felt like it was too mature for a PG rating, but not mature enough for an R rating. As it stands, Poltergeist is probably the only PG-rated film you’ll see where a man rips his own face apart, parents casually smoke pot, and children are put in actual harm’s way. The 80s were a different time, man.

Released on June 4, 1982, Poltergeist was an immediate box office success (to the tune of $76 million) and spawned two sequels, but it’s impact and popularity have waned in the inter-meaning years. This is in part due to the directorial controversy and high-profile deaths of cast members Dominique Dunn and Heather O’Rourke that surround the film, but also because Poltergeist’s storytelling formula has been repeated and parodied ad nauseam. Even if you’ve never seen Poltergeist before, you will most likely know its most famous lines and plot twists. “They’re here,” is practically synonymous with all things paranormal.

Poltergeist was initially conceived as a dark horror sequel to Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind called Night Skies. When Night Skies was eventually scrapped, the material developed at the time was used in both Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Tobe Hooper is also the director behind the infamous 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—one of the best and most influential movies of all time. When Spielberg initially approached him to direct Poltergeist, Hooper suggested combining the sci-fi elements from Night Skies with a ghost story. While Spielberg was shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, they collaborated via mail and developed the first treatment of Poltergeist. At that time time, however, it was known as Night Time—an obvious reference to the abandoned Night Skies.

Set in the fictional Orange County, California suburb of Cuesta Verde, Poltergeist follows the Freeling family’s experience with the paranormal and their eventual quest to rescue Carol Anne—the youngest Freeling sibling—from a different “sphere of consciousness” that’s inhabited by ghosts and a dark presence that’s simply referred to as “the beast.” In essence, Carol Anne has been sucked into the television and they can only communicate with her when the channel is set to static. Parapsychologists are called in to investigate the phenomena, but they eventually turn to the aid of a spiritual medium, Tangina, for guidance in rescuing Carol Anne. With Tangina’s assistance, the Freelings are able to rescue Carol Anne and the house is declared “clean” of all spirits. But just as soon as they thought their troubles were behind them, the spirits are back with a vengeance; the Freeling household is swallowed into nothingness and they flee Cuesta Verde in their station wagon.

Word to the wise: don’t build your house on top of ancient Indian burial ground; and, if you do, be sure to move the headstones and the bodies when you relocate the cemetery.

The cast of Poltergeist was made up of relative unknowns and, since audiences weren’t familiar with these actors, it lent the film an extra layer of authenticity—you didn’t have any preconceived notions of them as performers. Craig T. Nelson, who plays the Reagan-loving patriarch Steve Freeling, would find later success on the television series Coach and most recently as the voice of Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles film series, but audiences weren’t familiar with him in 1982. The cast of the 2015 remake of Poltergeist featured Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt. If you compare the 1982 and 2015 versions of Poltergeist, you’ll see why this extra layer of authenticity is important in making the story more engrossing and believable.

The score of Poltergeist was written by veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith. If you don’t know Goldsmith’s name, you’ve definitely heard his work before; Goldsmith is the composer behind Star Trek, The Omen, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Patton, Hoosiers, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Rudy, L.A. Confidential, and The Mummy, to name a few of his most notable compositions. In Poltergeist, Goldsmith seems to be channeling Elmer Bernstein’s famous score from To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s poignant and dramatic without venturing into cheesiness—it’s something that other 80s movies of this ilk had a hard time with. Cough, cough, Ladyhawke, cough, cough.

Special effects for Poltergeist were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) under the direction of Visual Effects Supervisor, Richard Edlund (Ghostbusters; The Empire Strikes Back; Big Trouble in Little China). At a time when practical effects were standard, the visual effects sequences in Poltergeist have aged remarkably well. Notably, however, a scene in which objects fly around the children’s bedroom will play as hokey and unrealistic to modern audiences.

Since the beginning of the 2010s, we’ve been in the midst of a horror renaissance and the genre continues to grow in popularity. The influence of Poltergeist can be seen throughout The ConjuringInsidious, and Paranormal Activity film series. While its fingerprints loom large, Poltergeist has never been topped in the family-horror subgenre. If you’ve never seen it or even if it’s been a while, I would recommend watching Poltergeist—which is currently streaming on Netflix—to see how a simple, straight-forward story from 1982 still packs an emotional and moral wallop.

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