Poltergeist (1982)
December 29, 2020 1:43 PM - Subscribe

A typical American family discovers there is more than meets the eye in their suburban home.

Wikipedia has lots of good info including an informative section on the controversy over who actually directed or had the most creative input the movie. I have read other examinations of the subject on the Web over the years, but Wiki has the most detailed, up-to-date info I could find.

Ebert notes in his three-star review: The movie takes place in Spielberg's favorite terrain, the American suburb (also the locale of parts of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Jaws" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial").

Poltergeist was the #1 horror movie of 1982 and was generally well received by critics at the time. It has since gone one to be considered a classic of its genre.

Vincent Canby [NYT] is positive, but he observes: The structure of the film is not perfect. It seems to have two endings. This isn't because there are two, but because the film's exorcism rite is so spectacular that one really isn't prepared for still another confrontation, which doesn't quite measure up to the first one.

Gene Siskel's review is negative: Aside from a deliciously frightening locking of a door and a surprising tug on a mother’s dress, the new terror film Poltergeist is without terror, thrills or entertainment value. In fact, the last half of the picture is a bunch of silly mumbo jumbo that combines the worst elements of The Exorcist and the pseudoscientific laugh riot, Beyond and Back.

Movies of the early eighties were pushing hard on the PG rating. Sheila Benson of the LA Times noted, "If ever a protest might be made of a PG rating, this would be the film."

Trailer [yt]

Poster's thoughts:
This movie has been a part of my mental movie landscape for a long time though I didn't appreciate it until I was much older. The Freelings are great as a family. The shot where Diane and Steven kiss in front of the closet door always gets me. The parapsychologists who show up are convincing in their roles as ghost hunters with their tech and jargon. Zelda Rubenstein as the house cleaner is just right. And a definite shout-out should go to James Karen as Teague, who as the land developer is appropriately slimy.

But the two who really sell the movie for me are JoBeth Williams as Diane and the little boy who plays Robbie. They both sell their fear with absolute conviction. Canby is right that the ending of the movie is not quite as great as the "exorcism," but Diane in the station wagon at the end begging her husband to hurry up... And Robbie in the backseat freaking out caps his own character arc in the movie. "The house is coming!"
posted by Fukiyama (21 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For whatever reason, the best scare in the movie, for me, is the least graphic. The scene in the kitchen when Diane leaves the table, walks into the kitchen, then turns around and the chairs are stacked on the table. It's a single shot and very quick. I think the short time involved is the key to the effectiveness of the scare. It's such a few seconds that passes that you just don't expect it. It's also a testament to the crew to have done the switch so quickly and perfectly.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:24 AM on December 30, 2020 [9 favorites]

My mom took a 6-yr old me to see this at the drive-in, located in the middle of Kansas. Think dark, really dark. Mom didn’t know what the word poltergeist means, but had to get out of the house. My baby sister had croup. So, she left my sister with my dad, and took me to this polter-something movie. Oh, and I should mention that I had a three foot tall Bozo doll at home.

I was terrified. My parents had to throw out my Bozo doll. I clung to my mother as she drove home through the dark country roads.

I’m still kinda freaked out. It was great.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 5:28 AM on December 30, 2020 [11 favorites]

The scene in the kitchen when Diane leaves the table ...
I think about that moment a lot. It was perfect.
posted by chill at 6:54 AM on December 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

I’ve seen this so many times over the years, and always enjoy it.

The chemistry between JoBeth and Craig was palpable. Loved their pot smoking scene in their bedroom, and also the scene where they went to talk to their neighbor and seemed crazy to him.

On rewatch recently I was struck by the scene with Dominique Dunne artfully flipping off the catcalling pool diggers on her way to school.
posted by edithkeeler at 7:10 AM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

After this movie my mom would say, "I am addressing the living?" sometimes when we wouldn't answer her right away.

And yeah! The pot smoking "Before. After. Before. After," and the daughter's flip off scene were very memorable. Also the worker reaching into the window to grab some food.. The family stuff is all very good, I guess it resonated with me, the family kind of deeply ironic and sarcastic towards each other, the contrast between like kind of disaffected parenting and the mother emerging as kind of the leader when the chips are really down.

The stage where the family is like "playing" with the phenomenon is also so good. I don't think a modern movie could resist slathering on the sinister creeps alll the time. There's also a very particular 70s feeling of secular paranormal stuff that's not really the same as religious horror, or a spooky house ghost horror -- like it comes close to those things, but doesn't quite touch them. So it never really coheres, and much of the second half of the movie is a grab bag of horror elements that aren't really justified. But tbh that's pretty typical of horror. It's fun enough.
posted by fleacircus at 8:15 AM on December 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

new terror film Poltergeist is without terror

Umm, did you not notice the motherfucking clown?!? #scarredForLife
posted by kirkaracha at 9:07 AM on December 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Don.Kinsayder, I was also terrified by this as a child. I think I was four when it came on HBO and scared me out of my pajamas. It was the pool scene, in particular. I was fascinated with pools, and all these muddy skeletons came spewing out of that one -- and I was sure, for some reason, that one of them was wearing my dad's T-shirt, and that meant it was supposed to be my dad --

Well. To calm me down, Mom told me what she always did about movies -- it was just pretend, the skeletons weren't real. Come to find out, they were. Luckily, it would be decades before I found that out.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:33 AM on December 30, 2020 [8 favorites]

I also liked the funny bit toward the end when the older daughter asks where they're going to stay, and the dad tells her "The Holiday Inn" and the daughter kind of quietly says "Oh, I like that place" (or words to that effect) and the dad is all "whaaa..."
posted by Thorzdad at 10:40 AM on December 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

There are several people in this thread, myself included, who saw this movie as a toddler. My teenaged uncles took me with them to see it in the theater and while I remember the movie vividly I wasn't particularly scared by it - not old enough.

I wouldn't necessarily say I'm *afraid* of clowns since I saw it but I've never been quite comfortable around them.
posted by annathea at 10:46 AM on December 30, 2020

GIFS that should be household memes or text responses saved on your phone:
-Jobeth Williams jumping up and down and hooting for joy, out of focus in the kitchen backround
- getting out of the car WHAT IS HAPPENING!!!
posted by bartleby at 11:06 AM on December 30, 2020

Poltergeist is a movie I would love to see again for the first time. Like others have mentioned, it's a movie that's always been in my memories. When I first saw this movie, I was too young to be scared by it and not old enough to appreciate it.

Nowadays, Poltergeist is a comfort movie for me. It's an excellent slice of life from the time period I was born into. The house, the clothes, the characters, the relationships, Pizza Hut, its all there.
posted by Stuka at 11:06 AM on December 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

This was one od those movies that replayed endlessly on HBO. Maybe I just have fond memories of HBO in 1983 or so... but I've seen this film a dozen times. And in the theater, of course. This movie is a classic.

It's also been a joy this year to post the old reverend at anti-maskers on facebook.
posted by Catblack at 11:24 AM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was working at a movie theater when this came out. Wo got a lot of calls asking if we were showing Pottlerjist.

At the very end of the end credits, the music has completely faded out and there's the sound of children laughing. After we cleaned the auditorium after the initial (late-night) screening I walked out to the doorperson stand and then heard the laughter coming from a room I thought was empty. I walked back in and there was no one there. It was a bit unsettling even though I quickly figured out what was going on.

The technician deciding to make a steak and then peeling his face was a peak moment for my friends and me.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:16 AM on December 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

asking if we were showing Pottlerjist
Swedish Chef voice: Øh, nöes! Weev gotta da Påeltergöösts in da hæs!
posted by bartleby at 1:09 PM on December 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

And why do they even have that clown doll?
That's an aunt who's never invited to Christmas dinner again.
posted by bartleby at 3:18 PM on December 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's also been a joy this year to post the old reverend at anti-maskers on facebook.

Catblack, that's from the sequel, notorious both for Dominique Dunne's tragic death a few years previous preventing her from being in it, and for Julian Beck, co-founder of the Living Theatre, playing the preacher while being terminally ill with cancer. I tend to get the two mixed up as well; I thought that Will Sampson might have been in the first movie, but he was in the second. (Sampson was probably best known for playing the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

I liked the first movie well enough, although I wasn't as scared as I might have been had I seen it at a younger age; in particular, the face peeling scene that under_petticoat_rule mentioned probably would have given me nightmares. Their putting the TV out into the hallway at the end was a great visual joke.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:49 PM on December 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to add too that I saw this as a very young child (HBO was relatively new and only had so many movies!) and was also terrified by the pool scene as well as just the notion of being trapped in the TV.

I rewatched it several years ago, but couldn’t get through it - it was too triggering.

Also what was with our parents and guardians being up for letting us see this though
posted by hijinx at 8:39 PM on December 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

They were literally upstairs rolling joints and Donald Ducking around in oversize football jerseys, owning homes in their early 30s. I do miss a Mom who would watch her teenage daughter colorfully and confidently telling construction workers to get fucked, and just nods and turns around with a 'good for her' smile.

Later, of course the film was fodder for a lot of people's fears about doing hallucinogens for the first time. "What if I go to pee, then start peeling my face off in the bathroom mirror?"

I don't know what folks are talking about above; I always felt like it was a shame that no sequels were ever made in this franchise, just like Highlander.
posted by bartleby at 10:01 PM on December 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was 14 when this came out and loved it (lifelong horror fan) my little sister, not so much.

you can walk up to her and say the word 'clown' and she'll jump out of her skin to this day.
posted by supermedusa at 2:03 PM on January 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just rewatched Poltergeist for the first time since I was a very small child. I remember two scenes scaring me as a kid : the swimming pool scene, and the one in the kitchen where Diane is showing off the house's telekinetic powers. The pool scene didn't scare me as an adult, but the kitchen scene absolutely did. I'm not entirely sure why the kitchen scene scared me so much as a kid. Probably something having to do with the juxtaposition of the kitchen — a warm, familiar, domestic place — with the paranormal, which is by definition scary and unfamiliar.

As an adult, the kitchen scene is scary for different reasons. Diane starts it off by saying to Steven, "I'll need you to think back to when we met, when you were openminded." This hints that maybe they were into the Human Potential Movement, especially since the movie sorta ambiguously takes place in California. Witness Diane's unbridled joy at being able to do TK for real, as opposed to whatever was promised at various woo-woo retreats the couple may have attended. Now contrast this with the horror that we all know is coming for that family. Diane has no idea what she's getting into, and that's scary as hell.

A few more notes on the rewatch :

* The Freelings take the whole thing rather nonchalantly, and absolutely do not act like real parents would if their child were missing. Where is the full-blown freakout? And they don't even call the police? My guess is if they did act like real parents would, this movie would be so heavy and disturbing as to not really be entertaining. At very least, not entertaining to children.

* Wow they really do put a lot of trust into these "Paranormal Investigators," don't they? One of whom takes frequent nips from a liquor flask?

* Kind of interesting for an 80s horror movie, the whole family is bought-in on the paranormal from the get-go. There's no extended period where the children have to convince the adults to believe. This is so uncommon for its era that it's almost a plot twist.

* Parts of the movie do drag a bit — namely, a number of effects-laden scenes where "scary things" happen, but don't really advance the plot. My guess? People used to be a lot more impressed by special effects.

* This is very much what happens when Stephen Spielberg makes a horror movie. It may be a horror, but it's very much a Stephen Spielberg movie. Even in the scary parts, you're never more than 50 feet from childlike awe and wonderment. Like when they look into the children's' room and see objects flying around, and a lamp assembles itself and turns on before their very eyes. And the music! Even when genuinely scary things are happening, something about the score tells you, "Don't worry, this may seem like a horror movie, but it's still an adventure movie at heart. Nothing truly bad will happen."

* Amusing touches of the political climate of the time. Even though they're potsmokers, Steven is seen reading a book called "Reagan : The Man, The President." Perhaps they're Reagan Democrats? Also, when Steven is showing off a house to some potential customers, he brags about their "very liberal construction standards." Is it just me or is that not really something to brag about?

On the whole, an enjoyable rewatch. I'm kinda curious what a child of the 2020s would think, seeing this for the first time. Would they be scared? Or would they be too distracted by things like wall phones and CRT TV sets?
posted by panama joe at 1:22 PM on January 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh! And here's another thing I definitely didn't notice as a kid. When Steven first visits the office of the paranormal investigators, they ask him for some basic information about his family. In this conversation, he gives his wife's age as 30 or 31, and his eldest daughter's age as 16. So this means one of three things :

1. His wife had his eldest daughter at 14 or 15(!)
2. His eldest daughter is either adopted or from a first marriage
3. They just kinda screwed up this detail when making the movie

#1 is pretty ghastly and not suited for a kid's movie. #3 is the most likely, but #2 is the most interesting. What is Dana's story, and where did she come from?
posted by panama joe at 10:13 PM on January 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

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