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They're Here! Poltergeist Interview

Poltergeist-posterImage Credit: Everett CollectionWe’re here! It’s a week before Halloween, but the release of Paranormal Activity 2: Electric Boo!-galoo seemed like the perfect occasion to watch the 1982 ghosts-in-suburbia film Poltergeist. About a family being terrorized by a specter older than Arlen and scarier than Phil, the flick has given birth to endless quotable lines, childhood nightmares, and rumors of a curse. Directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, but kinda maybe really directed by 1941’s Steven Spielberg, it remains a classic of the genre and a good warning not to let your kids sit too close to the TV.
Darren Franich: The first 20 minutes are all slow-building suspense. There are dozens of perfect little details about family life, like the dad convincing the kids that the lightning isn’t so scary, or the wife smoking a joint while her husband reads a book about Ronald Reagan. Then these very subtle spooky things happen. Chairs move. A glass breaks. It feels like a movie powered by spooky suggestion — very Paranormal Activity-ish, in fact. And then a tree smashes through a window, grabs the young son, and tries to eat him. End of subtly terrifying portion of the film.
Keith Staskiewicz: To me it’s those tiny suburban details that make the movie: The Chewbacca poster, the potato chip bag under the pillow, the remote control dispute with the neighbor. I think it’s interesting that Spielberg had to choose between directing this and E.T. after he completed Raiders of the Lost Ark, because E.T. shares that god- and/or the devil-is-in-the-details philosophy. From the kids’ Halloween costumes to, again, the Star Wars memorabilia (thanks, Raiders producer George Lucas!), it adds up to really make you believe in this vision of childhood and family life. The only difference is that the invading force is befriending your children, not absconding with them into the TV.
DF: But also, in E.T., suburbia is a Calvin-and-Hobbesian wonderland. In Poltergeist, suburbia is built on the corpses of older generations; it’s just Hobbesian. Poltergeist feels like a pessimists’ inversion of a Spielberg movie. The force isn’t invading. It’s been there the whole time.

Look, kids, the ruins of the American Dream!

KS I don’t think it’s an inversion. More of a flip-side companion piece. Poltergeist just shows the darker side of things. The family is still the central unit, and is still really what is at the heart of the film, but it just turns out that the American Dream is built on a sea of corpses.
DF: That strikes me as a gigantic difference. But this brings up the Big Question about Poltergeist: Who actually directed this thing?
KS: I view it as a Spielberg movie. I like Tobe Hooper, and looking over his filmography, I was surprised to find that there’s actually a bunch of great stuff beyond Texas Chainsaw Massacre that I usually forget about, like The Funhouse and Salem’s Lot. But I just see Spielberg’s hands all over this movie.

Fun fact! The movie on TV is "A Guy Named Joe," the inspiration for Spielberg's worst movie, "Always."
DF: To me, Poltergeist is a Spielberg movie the way that A.I. is a Kubrick movie. The outline is there, but the particular treatment feels completely different, even purposefully oppositional.
KS: Except Kubrick wasn’t constantly on the set of A.I., unless he himself was a poltergeist. “Come play with us, Stevie!”
DF: If you’re telling me that this is a straight-up Spielberg movie, then you have to acknowledge that there are some things in the movie that feel utterly unlike pretty much anything else Spielberg has ever done. Like the coffins popping up out of the ground. Or the utter anarchy of the ending.
KS: I don’t see how the face-meltings and leg-chompings of Spielberg’s other movies are all that different from something like this.

"One minute! Just putting my face on!"
DF: Let’s just agree that Spielberg built a beautiful Spielberg-movie house, and then a strange presence invaded that house.
KS: And that presence was Tobe Hooper, under a sheet, with holes cut out for eyes. Upon rewatching, I feel comfortable dubbing this one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and at least part of that is due to the great special effects. Sure, the face-peeling scene looks a little fake, but that didn’t stop it from freaking the heck out of us. And almost everything else holds up tremendously well, even now. Combined with The Thing, it really makes you yearn for the practical effects of 1982 over CGI werewolves. I miss the good old days of muppets and slime. Why is everything so digitalized now? I hate modernity. Where’s my cane? Who changed the TV from Murder, She Wrote?

Theres more Poltergiest goings-on here.  It really is a great read.


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