Well, I think I can spare us any words about the plot here. After all, if you’re reading this, you’ve most certainly seen the film.
For quite some time, I’ve never really given Poltergeist much of a
chance. Sure I’ve enjoyed it when I was a kid, but afterwards, a degree of
dislike for its approach to horror as a carnivalesque special effects
spectacular and a whole dollop of grumpy prejudice left me with a very cynical
view of it, or of what it turned into in my mind. As is rather too often the
case with me for comfort, I was wrong and unfair about Poltergeist.
Fortunately, a recent rewatch of the painfully bland remake did make me curious
about trying the original again, and watching it rather changed my mind.
Sure, I was right about Poltergeist in so far that it is indeed a
film very much rooted in spooking its audience with its special effects – some
of which still look brilliant to my eyes, some of which have dated as badly as
CGI from the year 2001 – but it goes about it the honest way, certainly throwing
something cool to look at on the screen every five minutes but also realizing
special effects – even great ones – are not the only thing you need to catch an
audience, and if you want to spook it for more than a few minutes, you’ll need
to build an emotional connection.
The Hooper/Spielberg (how much of this is actually directed by Hooper and how
much by the nominal producer Spielberg depends on whom you ask – at least some
of the lighting and the sense of humour feel very much like a product of Hooper
to me) film goes about creating this connection rather more subtly and rather
less saccharine than Spielberg of this era is generally given credit for. The
Freeling family is of course meant as an ideal identification foil for the
film’s presumed white upper middle-class 80s audience, but the filmmakers are
intelligent enough to realize that audiences might ask for representation but
when it comes down to it, they’ll actually empathize with specific characters
that are more than pure stand-ins for abstract notions quite a bit more.
Consequently, the film puts a heavy emphasis on the way particularly the parents
interact with one another, an - often quite funny – natural closeness that,
together with fine and highly sympathetic performances by Craig T. Nelson and
JoBeth Williams, presents the couple as the proverbial Good Parents, but also as
people with flaws and difficulties who bicker sometimes, roll up a joint (or
read up on Ronald Reagan) or make bad jokes in front of a mirror. In other
words, characters whose troubles an audience can be interested in not because
they are exactly like them (whatever that’d look), but because they feel like
actual people. Compare that to the remake that doesn’t even manage to get any
kind of personality out of Sam Rockwell.
Thusly prepared, the horrors of losing a child, encountering the supernatural
and losing quite a few of the outer determinants of the Freeling’s as members of
the upper middle-class during the course of the film, take on a much more
affecting face, what could be an empty special effects extravaganza turning into
a film that can actually touch you emotionally. Poltergeist’s
considerable impact is further strengthened by some fine supporting
performances. The child actors are merely okay (but they’re not horrible, with
is the only thing I really demand of acting children, because they are
children), but Beatrice Straight as parapsychologist Dr. Lesh sells some of the
more problematic exposition with a great impression of human warmth and dignity,
and Zelda Rubinstein is just perfect as Tangina, a character that’s a genuine
weirdo the film still – or even because of that - portrays with great warmth and
without any irony, leaving sceptical me very okay with a character I should hate
with all the energy of a hundred burning suns (compare with the insufferable
holier than thou Warrens in the similar in approach but to me completely
ineffective The Conjuring films).
That the film looks fantastic (the lighting often is just outright
beautiful), and that Hooper/Spielberg (Hooperberg? Spieler?) know how to pace a
movie perfectly hardly needs a mention.