I didn’t think much to Poltergeist when I first saw it a few years back. I figured I’d simply arrived too late for its imagery and shock-tactics to have full impact. The fact it was awkwardly stuck between the two extremes of Spielberg and Hooper’s respective sensibilities didn’t help matters much either. It felt like a strangely anonymous product, despite the abundance of aesthetic personality – little more than a promise of charming 80s effects showcase which, granted, it did at least deliver on.
Coming back to it, however, I was struck by the family unit, how well cast they are and believable their neuroses seem. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams getting high and goofing around in their bedroom one evening is a wonderful scene, more progressive than you’d expect from Spielberg (has anyone ever taken drugs in one of his movies??) but also more heartwarming than you’d get were it strictly Hooper’s POV. The film is full of moments like that, actorly flourishes or just instances of alchemy that occur when you cast all the parts correctly and their personalities enhance one another. It’s funny, but some of the domestic scenes almost feel Altman-esque, probably due to the shaggy-dog nature of the faces on screen which in itself is a minor casting triumph. As a portrait of a family-unit within genre, this one really sits near the top of the pile.
Tracking the timeline, I also realised just how much supernatural spook imagery and horror gags originate from Poltergeist, a fact I overlooked the first time around. Just think how ingrained flickering TV static has become within the genre, as well as burial grounds and haunted closets/bedrooms. This even pre-dates Nightmare on Elm Street‘s room-on-a-gimble gag. While, yes, you can no doubt find earlier examples of all of the above, Poltergeist bottled it all in a really classy mainstream package with the budget required to really make it sing. This also nestles sweetly in Spielberg’s own gross-out phase – the melting dudes and endless blood splatter of Raiders and the heart-ripping, kid-whipping of Temple of Doom – meaning the shocks and sense of terror is pretty aggressive, which Hooper was the ideal vessel for.
This was a crucial revisit. Poltergeist has gone from being a movie I had little feeling for to being one I found a lot to love in. The clashing creative forces that I once saw as a negative I actually really appreciate now. Much more of a character study than I initially gave it credit for and a crucial genre touchstone that rightfully penetrated the pop-culture for a long time. Might go in for the sequels now because why not?
Watched on blu-ray