Film Reviews

Why Poltergeist Is My Favorite Horror Movie

This October…well, if you’ve been with us this long you know the spiel by now. Juli and I shared the duties of watching at least one horror movie a day all month. Here are the end I finally get to my favorite. 

This all started with Brian Collins. For over six years, the horror fanatic turned blogger watched a horror movie a day, wrote about it, and somehow didn’t go insane in the process. Ever since then, fans just like him have tried similar, if nowhere near as ambitious stunts. Six years is a bit much to maintain a steady diet of a horror movie a day, but plenty can take on that kind of challenge for a single month, particularly once October rolls around.

So, sad to say, this 31 Days of Halloween horror movie a day marathon we’ve been doing this month is far from unique. Collins is so aware of this phenomenon he commented on it in the introduction to Horror Movie a Day; The Book, arguing far too many of his imitators exclusively cover the classics and their personal favorites. That’s been on my mind all month. It’s why I sought out lesser-known Hammer (Hands of the Ripper) and giallo (The Perfume of the Lady in Black) efforts, prioritized movies I’d somehow missed over the years (Matinee and Return of the Living Dead proved to be my favorite of the bunch), and dropped in on some brand new 2018 releases (Halloween, The Apostle, Summer of 84).

But today is Halloween. This is when I most want to simply hang out with friends and watch my favorite scary movies. Back in the cable TV heyday, this is when I would stay up late watching a Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street marathon. Now, in the streaming age, I can program any kind of marathon I want to or delve into my own Blu-Ray collection or digital library. And there’s one movie I will for sure have to include in any such marathon: Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s haunted house classic, Poltergeist.

It’s one of my favorite horror movies of all time.

Let me count the reasons I love it:

It has believably human parents and kids

JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson, who clearly love their kids but still have a sex life, like to get high every now and again, and are not totally perfect. JoBeth Williams, for example, has the most infectiously excited reaction to the furniture suddenly moving around in her kitchen with no logical explanation. Granted, she should have been worried, not excited, but that’s also what makes the parents so wonderfully flawed.

Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Ann sits in front of the TV entranced just like my niece does today in front of anything that has YouTube on it. On second thought, if any of those screens start literally reaching out to grab her we clearly didn’t pay attention to all the signs.

The kids, meanwhile, fight like most kids fight, are scared of the things most kids are scared of, and react rather appropriately when their happy lives are upended.

It lets us get to know the characters before viewing them at their worst

Before the bedroom closet sucks in Carol Anne like a vacuum cleaner and Robbie meets the meanest Ent ever, Poltergeist is a perfectly Spielbergian depiction of romanticized suburbia, a close cousin to Spielberg’s own (and concurrently produced) E.T. in that way. Cuesta Verde, the planned California community the Freeling family calls home, is a place where men gather to watch football, boys climb trees, friends race remote control cars in the street, and dead pet birds are buried in the backyard for the benefit of little girls clearly dealing with death for the first time. All the houses look the same.

It’s not hard to imagine Elliott’s family living a couple blocks over. Except whereas the suburbia of E.T. masks failed marriages and turned into the hiding spot for a metaphorical father figure, Cuesta Verde…well, there’s bones in them thar hills.

We don’t know that until the very end, though. Before the supernatural kicks in, we’re just more or less hanging out with the Freeling family for half an hour, and there’s an endearing spunkiness to them. Oldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), for example, doesn’t take shit from the construction workers ogling her even though she’s only 16. This opening focus on the Freelings gives the film its emotional center, as we see them at their most normal and are horrified to see them torn down so thoroughly by the time paranormal investigators meet them after Carol Anne goes bye-bye.

It is so unbelievably Spielbergian sentimental one minute…

And so unmistakably Tobe Hooper gnarly the next

Yet somehow manages to mix those two extremes perfectly.

Two words: Zelda Rubinstein.

Because of her, there is now and forever will be only one proper way to pronounce the name Carol Anne.

It’s wickedly cynical about capitalism.

The best horror is never just about the supernatural or homicidal happenings on screen. There’s often a larger meaning underneath it all or some kind of social commentary. For Poltergeist, that means the none-too-subtle reveal that houses built on literal graveyards aren’t going to fare well. The human villain of the film is a shady man from the real estate industry (James Karen, who sadly passed away last week) who merely moved headstones and not the actual coffins when relocating a cemetery which was in the way of a new housing development. His actions are what lead to the haunting from the supernatural villains. It serves as an effective commentary on the cost of economic expansion and transformation of American cities. Plus, it gives us this iconic moment:

It’s the type of film where you notice something new each time you watch it.

“There’s Diane, my wife, she’s 31…or 32. I’m sorry. And my oldest daughter Dana is 16.”

For example, when you do the math Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams’ characters must have been 15 or 16 when they had Dana. Never noticed that until a re-watch of the film.

The special effects, for the most part, still hold up.

There is so much juicy lore behind it.

Behind the scenes trivia and gossip might not matter to some, but for me, it can add to a film’s mystique. With Poltergeist, where do you even start? How about the old chestnut about whether Spielberg, Hollywood’s all-time best director, secretly directed this as the darker, horror movie alternative to the other movie he was officially directing at the time, E.T.? Or what about whether a cost-cutting move to use real skeletons in this scene…

It was cheaper to import real skeletons from India than to have them manufactured

Led to the entire franchise being cursed by its own vengeful ghosts sending Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne to early graves and pushing Will Sampson and Julian Beck out the door sooner they would have clearly liked? That Sampson, who plays a Native American healer in Poltergeist II and was actually a healer himself, reportedly attempted to cleanse the set shortly before his death only adds to the legend.

Now, do I believe in the curse? No. Just a run of unfortunate coincidences. The demon which claimed adorable, young Heather O’Rourke’s life was simply Crohn’s disease combined with medical incompetence. However, it’s fun to think about.

Do I believe Spielberg shadow-directed over Hooper since DGA rules forbid him from officially directing? The DGA actually looked into it at the time of production and ruled to the contrary, giving Hooper sole credit as director. However, by all accounts, Spielberg was instrumental in the casting process, storyboarding, and editing. He wanted to make a horror/sci-fi movie about a family besieged by aliens, but Melissa Mathison talked him out of it and turned the kernel of his original idea into E.T. With Hooper’s help, some of the leftover ideas from the project Spielberg had been calling Night Skies were repurposed for Poltergeist. The finished film certainly seems to have more in common with Spielberg’s filmography than Hooper’s.

It is properly scary

Hold on. Sorry. Need a moment here. Damn that clown still freaks me out. Actually, that leads to my next point:

It’s what scared me the most as a kid.

As The Simpsons once joked, once we reach a certain age the scariest campfire story you can hear has nothing to do with a killer in the woods or a family of cannibals in Texas but instead the terrifying realization of how much it’s going to cost to send your kids to college. So, while there may be technically better-made films watched later in life it’s hard to ever replicate the purity of the thing which scared when you didn’t know any better about the true terrors of life.

Fewer have been better pointing its horror with a laser-like focus directly at children than Poltergeist. As Juno’s Diablo Cody told People, Poltergeist was actually her first horror film, viewed when she was only 7, “I was allowed to see it because it was PG. The rating guidelines have changed now, but there is a man tearing his face off in that. It’s this violent, visceral film that played on everything that children like: TV and toys. It was sadistic.”

More than just that playing on a child’s love for TV and toys, Poltergiest turns a misshapen tree, a scary but ultimately harmless facet of nature, into a threatening entity which transforms into a monster and reaches into the seemingly safe space of a kid’s bedroom to snatch him away. Plus, kids are classically scared of the thing under the bed and the monster in the closet. In Poltergeist there is indeed something under the bed to be scared of, and the freakin’ closet tries to suck the kids into another dimension. Plus, there is no real concrete resolution. Craig T. Nelson and company escape to a hotel room, but the poltergeists and demons are not really vanquished, at least not until the inevitable sequels came along to over-explain the horror.

And it never really gets old because as you grow older you simply transition from identifying with the kids to identifying with the parents.

Kid’s POV: Scary clown, scary clown, scary clown, and what the hell is up with that tree out the window?!? Seriously!

Parent’s POV: Losing a child? Every parent’s worst nightmare. Carol Anne can still be heard screaming for help but only through the television? Oh, what fresh new hell is this?!?

Where do you stand on Poltergeist? Disagree with me? Think it feels too dated now with all of its 80 signifiers (Reagan book, snowy TV screen, Star Wars sheets)? Never liked it in the first place? Or love it even more than I do? And what’s your favorite scary movie and why? Let me know in the comments.

Here’s What Else We Watched This October:



    1. There’s a lot of weirdness attached to Dominique Dunne in that movie. Most obviously, there’s the tragic event of her actual death 5 months to the day after the release of the movie (btw, looking that up just now I learned Dunne died literally the day I was born). But, in the actual film she’s always eating something for some reason for like the first 9 minutes, she’s hit on by construction workers even though she’s only 16 and her mom watches it all and has a “boys will be boys” attitude followed by “but my little girl can take herself” proud face. Then, yeah, she’s just gone from the film for large stretches of the story with minimal explanation.

      Watching it again made it more obvious to me that this was clearly a movie made by a bunch of guys who didn’t really know what to do with a teenage girl in the story so they sort of filtered everything through Craig T. Nelson’s concerned dad point of view, portraying Dunne’s character as a typical 16-year-old who wants to talk to her friends on the phone long after she’s been told to stop and would rather be with friends than with family. She might as well not even be in the film, really, but I think that upsets the perfect family with a perfect house and three kids Americana profile they wanted.

      1. I know, it’s weird. Everyone always focuses on her iconic “What is happening?!?” scream and doesn’t really notice the hickey. I will say that Tobe Hooper never had a daughter and at that point Spielberg’s first daughter was nearly a decade away from entering his life. I don’t know anything about the film’s other screenwriters, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, but based on Hooper and Spielberg’s own experiences to that point the impression I get is they didn’t really know how to write nor portray a teenage girl character, at least not one defined by her encounter with Leatherface (in Hooper’s case). So, they just made Dana a bit of a cliched, boy crazy 16-year-old but kind of kept in on the down-lo.

  1. I love this movie to pieces—not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite movie, period. That sentimental Spielbergian clip (where Dr. Lesh is explaining “some people believe…”) stuck with my young psyche and upended any Catechism instruction I received about the supposed afterlife. Zelda’s lecture on “The Beast” was even more impressive. What gets me now is how much these imperfect parents love their kids (and each other). We see realistic displays of concern (awkwardly asking the neighbors about disturbances while getting bitten by mosquitoes) as well as of true anxiety about losing each other (the appropriately lengthy time spent hugging and kissing before Diane enters the closet to retrieve Carol Anne). I think as a kid raised by embattled parents, I very much idealized the adult Freelings. The extents to which they would search for and save their children was always palpable to me. I still watch this movie for therapeutic purposes!

    1. Agreed on all fronts. Beautifully put on your part and so glad the movie has meant so much to you. For my part, I wasn’t raised by embattled parents, but I am a child of divorce. So, I also indulged a bit in idolizing the Freelings. Although, if I’m honest, I did that with sitcoms families of the era as well. However, in the horror space there remains something so pleasantly unique about the Freelings.

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