Most horror movies want the audience to feel a familiarity with the events on-screen. The best way to get people feeling scared is if they can empathise with what is happening. This is why the first part of Poltergeist is spent establishing the Freeling family and creating as normal a group of American people as you can. It is done in a fantastic way, from the lovable bickering over the breakfast table through to the silly conversations before the parents go to bed. The horror works here because these people feel “normal.”
It also works because it is slowly developing rather than thrown straight into the biggest, obvious jump-scares. In fact, there is a charm to the beginning of the Poltergeist haunting as the Mom of the house, played by JoBeth Williams, starts to “play” with the ghost, including sliding her own daughter across the room.
This slow build means that when the haunting takes full hold of the house, it means so much more. Again, this is done subtly to start so that the bigger events matter. Chairs stacking themselves on their own is nothing when a tree breaks through the window and takes the only son. Of course, it is when their youngest daughter, played by Heather O’Rourke, goes missing that the film kicks into a higher gear.
This is when Poltergeist enters a scarier phase. Once the daughter has been taken, the events start to unfold upon the family and you can see the toll that these different elements are taking. The Mom starts to struggle to keep it together while the Dad, a great Craig T. Nelson, feels his scepticism melt away and his resolve to solve this grow. It is only the eldest daughter, Dominique Dunne, who seems surplus to requirements and wasted.
The movie also introduces some “ghostbusters.” This is where the film maintains it’s great thread of comedy throughout. The specialist are clearly out of their depth but add a great outside influence and propel the story forward. Once Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina is introduced, the events begin to reach a head and you find yourself on the edge of your seat as the mission to save the family’s daughter unfolds.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. The story seems to end and the problems seem to be solved. The mystery of the poltergeist is explained and the movie has a satisfying conclusion with just enough horror. Then the movie enters a finale which feels bolted-on. It comes out of nowhere and seems unnecessary. Some of the more iconic moments are included here but it is as if producers were worried that the film wasn’t scary enough and forced a more traditional horror ending to the movie, something the film was better for not adhering to.
It also suffers from age. There are some CGI requirements which don’t hold-up. The film is great when it plays within it’s technological remit but when it stretches the boundary, the seams begin to show. A scene involving an ever-growing cut on a face was fairly gross in 1982 but struggles from poor effects in 2018.
Overall, Poltergeist is a classic horror movie because it keeps the story and the spookiness simple. What begins as playful scares becomes something much more terrifying. It also benefits from a “normal” family to go with the strange events. With a great sense of humour throughout, Poltergeist is still a great, watchable horror movie.
Rating – 4
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