A less chaotic state: 1982’s Poltergeist

Photo courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The original Poltergeist is kind of dull. It’s not overtly scary by today’s standards, until the end at least. However, the Steven Spielberg written, produced and possibly directed film has a strong family focus. Where a lot of recent horror movies had been about a group of shitty teenagers in an obviously haunted house, Poltergeist moved to an average suburban home and plagued a splintering but otherwise normal family.

The Freelings, father Steven (Craig T. Nelson), mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) and elementary-aged son Robbie (Oliver Robins) and daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) live quietly in the first homes in the suburb Steven helped build. They don’t talk or listen to each other, and the early scenes go out of their way to show the family’s disconnect and general careless attitude toward each other. All that changes when Carol Anne literally vanishes into the TV. The Freelings begin to live in fear as they must share their home with an infestation of paranormal beings, and call in all manner of investigators to cleanse the house and return their daughter to the plane of the living.

It was scary because it attacked viewers at home, where they hadn’t been before, raising questions about who your children are really listening to on TV and whether or not you’re really safe in your own home and legitimizing the idea that there really is a monster in your closet and/or under the bed.  It became one of the most widely recognized scary movies of all time, even though it’s not that scary.

Why re-watch it?

Because even though the remake is coming out tomorrow, the original may as well have come out yesterday.

Hollywood is a copycat industry, and horror movies take that to an extreme. They’d proven time and time again during the 1970s to be low-risk high-reward investments, and it came to a head in 1978 with John Carpenter’s Halloween, which turned $300,000-$325,000 into $70 million. This film kicked off the Golden Age of slashers, which saw 100 slasher movies released between 1978 and 1984, including the original Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Until viewers got tired of them, horror as a genre was completely focused on churning these movies out while the sun shined. There were some notable exceptions — The Shining (1980) and The Thing (1982), two of the greatest horror movies ever made, came out during this time period, but for the most part, studios had a tried, true equation that they could drop a little money into and get a lot of money out of every few months.

In the 21st century, we can still see this pattern everywhere — Marvel movies are a pristine example outside of horror. Within the genre, remake fever hit horror just as hard as it hit everything else, and Paranormal Activity popularized found footage and took the return-on-investment to heights the Golden Age slashers didn’t dream of.

MFW someone says Insidious or The Conjuring were good or scary movies.

Despite being popular at the time, Poltergeist didn’t get the endless barrage of clones most horror movies get. Two abysmally received sequels, and that was it. That’s not any kind of problem. Movies do not need to have a bottomless pit of imitators to validate them. Poltergeist was made in 1982, it existed there, and that was fine.

Then James Wan and Jason Blum ruined everything.

What’s its relevance today?

The Wan/Blum horror empire started in 2007 with Paranormal Activity, which Blum helped produce, but the Wan directed Insidious soon took over as the duo’s flagship in 2010. It and its sequel as well as The Conjuring, all directed by Wan, as well as the Wan-produced Annabelle, are pretty exact clones of Poltergeist. Children getting sucked into another world, subtextual punishment for inattentive parents, creepy dolls, the Ghostbusters coming in and explaining everything — all the elements are there, some of them even becoming the basis for films instead of parts of them. There are even reports of The Conjuring set being haunted, something common among horror movies, including Poltergeist. 

Though neither Wan nor Blum are involved in the Poltergeist remake, they are the reason its formula has, 30 years later, become prominent for really the first time, and they are the reason it’s being remade. The film itself will probably be terrible and the original really isn’t all that entertaining, but if you want to know where all the modern horror tropes came from, Poltergeist is the answer.

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1 Response to A less chaotic state: 1982’s Poltergeist

  1. jsebastian says:

    Great article, wonderful blog as well!

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