Poltergeist is a very rare breed of film. It is a horror film that manages to be both a well made piece of intelligent cinema, and intensely scary. Very few horror films manage this, but the ones that do are legendary. We all know the names: The Shining, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser. Poltergeist's success comes in it's willingness to let things build without letting us know what's coming or when.
The plot is concerned with the Freeling family, a nuclear family living in a planned community. The film takes it's time establish characters and, more importantly their disconnect. The kids are acting out, the parents aren't really connected and no one is talking to each other. But, very quickly, that becomes irrelevant as things are moving on their own, the youngest daughter is hearing voices and the TV isn't working right. And that's when things get weird.
I want to stress the part about the movie being scary before I move on, especially since it's not a cheap or subjective scare. Cheap scares are when something leaps out at you in the instant the music screeches (for a study in this and almost nothing else, go watch Drag Me to Hell). Subjective scares are, hm how to put this? How about this: It terrifies me. Scares me to DEATH. At some point in my life it stopped being simply a movie and became more of an endurance test and that's because clowns TERRIFY me. That's a subjective scare, something that appeals to one of the larger phobias.
Poltergeist doesn't go that route. Instead it's terror is built about it's slow building tension and visuals. Extreme tonal shifts that might otherwise be considered a flaw are worked in it's benefit as it quickly becomes clear that NO scene is safe from a ghost or a monster suddenly popping in to tear up the scenery, keeping you overly tense even in the more peaceful or happy scenes.
The acting succeeds across the board, especially in the fantastic performance given by the little girl, keeping an innocent quality about her, even as she endures horrors. Both the parents are doing excellent jobs, despite the fact that we can see their arc coming from a mile away, as is the professor they initially call in for help. But the unquestioned star is Zelda Rubinstein as the medium called in for a Hail Mary pass to fix all the nonsense. She had the toughest job, as the grounding in the spiritual and supernatural nonsense as well as what amounts to a mix of hero and mentor, and she rises to the occasion admirably.
The camera work and lighting are excellent, combined with an exceptional sound guy, working hard to make the simple buzz of static into a creepy calling card for it's faceless villain. Lighting works wonders, casting simple shadows and lighting up eyes in creepy ways, to add to that slow building tension I spoke of. And the cameraman, who does an extremely good job throughout, more than justifies his entire salary in a single hallway shot near the end. You'll know it when you see it.
If the film has a failing it's in the special effects department. Maybe it's because it came out in 1982, the same year as the horrifyingly perfect special effects featured in The Thing, but with the exception of the creepiest tree in the world (and yes I'm counting the ones from Evil Dead) the special effects never really pull it together. Much of it consists of simple skeletons or around-the-house objects and a couple of the ghosts/specters look actively fake.
Before I conclude, I'd like to address a quick pair of points. Firstly I feel Poltergeist is a textbook example of a movie in which sequels cannot work. The film's arc consists of the slow buildup from bad to worse to worst, and once you've gotten to worst the first time, everything else just feels like stalling. Incidentally, this is why Paranormal Activity 2 didn't work.
Secondly, no retrospective review of Poltergeist would be complete without a commentary on the director controversy. The big how-to-do consisted of the fact that at the time of film, Steven Spielberg was directing E.T. and, for reasons that escape me, not allowed to direct a second film at the same time. So he produced Poltergeist and got Tobe Hooper, best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to direct. The thing is, a lot of people feel that Tobe Hooper was director in a name only and the Spielberg was the one calling all the shots. And having seen it again with this in mind...yeah I gotta agree. Thematically and stylistically it feels a lot more like Spielberg than Hooper and the metaphors and 'point' are much more in line with Spielberg.
Overall, I can't say that a lot of modern horror buffs, growing up on Saw and Hostel are going to like Poltergeist but then, I can't say I like Saw or Hostel. What I can say is that it's intelligent, well made and interesting even while it retains it's scariness. If you're anything of a movie buff, much less a fan of intellectual horror, you should probably see it.
Next on Second Age Reviews: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he would like to let you all know that he... Can't Sleep. Clown'll Eat Me. Can't Sleep. Clown'll Eat Me.