Poltergeist (1982) movie poster

(1982) director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 10/01/2011

With October upon us, I began my annual horror film selections for the month of Halloween with one of the most effective scary movies ever made.  I’d been thinking of showing Poltergeist to the kids for a couple of years, but definitely thought they (or at least Clara) was too young for it until now.  Actually, some may still question my showing Poltergeist to a 10 year old and a 7 year old, but really, it only has one scene of “gore”.  It has some scary images, for sure, but the reason that it’s so damn scary is because it is well-crafted.  It builds tension, heightens fear and drama.  In fact, it’s a testament to how you can make a way scary movie at a PG or PG-13 level and lose nothing of its effect.

I told the kids ahead of time that it was going to be very scary.  Sometimes when I tell them stuff like that, they often shrug off what I think was scary.  But I let them know, or at least tried to let them know what they were in for.

It scared the bejesus out of them.

I well recall the summer of 1982, me being 13 or so, seeing Poltergeist on the big screen.  It scared me then.

Over the years, it’s become a bit of an archetype for me, and culturally, many of its moments have become part of our collective psyche.  The last time that I watched it, I guess about 10 or more years ago, I was duly impressed with the film’s efficacy.  I guess it’s long been questioned the amount of director Tobe Hooper that is in the film as opposed to the amount of producer Steven Spielberg.  It has to be said, from mise en scene to the acting style of JoBeth Williams or the children, this film is pretty pure Spielberg and probably Spielberg at his best.

It’s a classically middle American family, in a suburb of suburbs in Anywheresville, CA.  In fact, there is even some critique perhaps of urban sprawl in the name of suburbia.  I mean, we’re not only raping the countryside here, we’re digging up the dead.  I feel that I hardly need to re-cap the narrative here.  Spielberg/Hooper deftly draw the family from the earliest scenes, setting them up as recognizable types (ourselves for instance), setting them ripe for peril.  One of Spielberg’s common themes, child endangerment, is off the charts here.

What’s interesting this time around for me are the elements of change from this early 1980’s setting.  Clara and Felix wondered why the film opened with the National Anthem.  I had to explain that in the days before cable television, that channels went off at night, and often closed with that tune and images of America before turning to “snow,” such a critical element of the film, the snowy television evoking the evil spirits.  It’s now an anachronism.   I think even at the time that I was well aware, and envious, of the young boy’s Star Wars stuff.  He had a lot of toys and posters that I had, but even more.  Of course, that is less anachronistic other than the fact that all that stuff is now “vintage”.

The scene that evoked the greatest gasp of fright was the one in which the clown has moved from his spot on the chair and Robby looks first under one side of his bed, then the other side of his bed, and rises, relieved not to have found him beneath, only to be grabbed from behind by the evil clown.  I’m not exactly sure where evil clowns became a theme of horror for people, but I’m willing to guess that after that scene, many a child (or adult) suddenly developed a particular horror of the garish, cheery-eerie characters.

Scary movies are a pleasure.  There is joy in getting wound up, feeling your adrenaline shoot through you, your heart racing.  And I have to say, it’s been fun watching such a thing with the kids.  I actually think that I am quite discerning about what I show them, not simply in taste (I certainly take pride in the breadth of the stuff that we watch together) but in that I don’t watch wholly inappropriate stuff with them.  I was recalling that my mother did take me and my sister to see Alien (1979) in the theater.  I’ve always remembered it as my first R-rated movie.  I was 10.  That would have made my sister 6 or 7, depending what part of the year that was.  She was dragged along.

I’m not using the potentially questionable choices of my mother to validate my own practices, only to say that I make my choices with forethought.  And most importantly, I try to make for discussion of any and all that we see together.

The kids were joking that the next movie that we should watch should be about pink bunnies and rainbows.  But it’s October, so we’re not done yet.

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