CS Soapbox: Poltergeist is the Best Halloween Film Ever Made!
Every year after a long night — read: an hour or so — of trick or treating, my family sits down to enjoy a long-running tradition: Poltergeist. That’s right, once we’ve collected our treats and sorted out the good stuff from the endless barrage of Sweet Tarts and Tootsie Rolls that line the bottom of our pillowcases, the Ames clan kicks back to watch Steven Spielberg’s/Tobe Hooper’s 1982 horror classic.
Forget the Texas Chainsaws and the myriad of Freddies and mask-wearing psychos, Poltergeist stands as the best damned Halloween movie ever assembled.
Actually, before we get into all of that, here’s a little background about Poltergeist (1982) just in case you genuinely think I’m talking about that horrible 2015 remake: Set in a California suburb, the plot focuses on a family whose home is invaded by malevolent ghosts that abduct their younger daughter, and the family’s attempts to bring her back into the real world. The film stars JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein.
Cinephiles know all too well the circumstances regarding Poltergeist. The film was released during “the summer of Spielberg,” so named because the Beard had two big-time flicks coming out within a week of one another — Poltergeist and another little flick called E.T. While the latter went on to astronomical success, including Oscars, box office records, etc., Poltergeist still managed to enjoy a lucrative box office run to the tune of $121.7 million worldwide against a $10.7 million budget. Critics praised the film as one of the year’s best and continue to praise it as a horror classic.
Since its release, a long-running debate has focused on whether Spielberg or Hooper directed the film. Due to a clause in his contract that forbade him from directing another film at the same time as E.T., Spielberg allegedly passed the reins off to Hooper having been impressed with his work on 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Here’s the thing: while not as polished as most of his work, Poltergeist (which was also co-written by the Beard) is 90% a Steven Spielberg film. There are certain, ah, graphic elements not in line with some of Spielberg’s more family friendly sensibilities, but one need only look at Hooper’s filmography to conclude that his pull on the project was minimal at best. If Hooper did direct the film, one would think he’d have a lot more projects thrown his way, especially with the most powerful man in Hollywood standing in his corner. Instead, Hooper went on to direct Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 … and a bunch of other B-movies that can best be described as “films with cult followings.”
Whereas Spielberg went on to direct The Terminal … and a lot of other box office hits. To that I say, case closed.
Ok, now onto the nitty gritty. Here are all the reasons why I think Poltergeist is the best Halloween film ever.
THE SCARE FACTOR
When I say we gather to watch Poltergeist, I mean everyone in my family gathers to watch Poltergeist. Including the pint-sized kids still dressed as Elsa and Rapunzel. That’s because, aside from a random bit in which a guy claws the flesh off his face … and maybe that killer doll bit, Poltergeist is relatively tame by today’s standards. Not too scary, but scary enough to warrant a hesitant glance at a dark closet. The film shows you plenty but leaves the unnecessary excess just out of sight. Plus, despite a number of precarious situations, including near-death by pool skeletons, near-death by giant closet tentacle and near-death by killer clown, no one actually dies in the film. And even the big scares feel more like something out of Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones than The Exorcist. In other words, parents seeking something other than Bette Midler and Debbie Reynolds on Halloween should give Poltergeist a whirl.
THE GHOST FACTOR
Halloween once belonged to ghosts, ghouls and witches before slasher and demented demon flicks took over. A majority of decorations owe themselves more to John Carpenter than anything resembling a spook, specter or ghost, which is precisely why Poltergeist stands out amongst its October siblings: the film is actually about ghosts; a number of which make onscreen appearances, including a demon dog, a mysterious Beast rendered as a giant skull and a large group of spirits with enough fashion sense to don wardrobe-matching hats in the 80s. There’s even an eerie scene midway through the movie where paranormal investigator Dr. Lesh discusses the very nature of a ghost; and later, we’re treated to a haunting speech about the Beast delivered by the aforementioned Tangina that still gives me goosebumps. As ghost stories go, Poltergeist ranks among the best.
THE FAMILY FACTOR
At its core, Poltergeist tells the story of a family who realizes they watch TV far too much. In an early scene, we see Carol Anne sitting two inches from a television set staring at static. Her mom says the static will ruin the child’s eyes and switches the device to a violent film. So caught up with consumerism are the Freelings that mom and dad barely notice the overtly sexual lifestyle of their teen daughter who comes home brandishing hickies all over her neck and makes casual remarks about a hotel she spent the night at with a boy. They don’t seem to mind that their son’s toy clown is designed to create nightmares; and Diane even laments how much she’ll miss their home in spite of everything they just went through (a sentiment that leads to them spending one last night in their haunted house so they can pack up their treasures). It’s only when they completely shed themselves of all their material items and quite literally cast out the TV set (in one of the best closing gags of any film) are the Freelings finally free of their pesky ghosts (the putrid sequels notwithstanding), which makes for one helluva relatable message in this technologically-driven modern age.
As a side, JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are fantastic portraying two rather relatable parents living in 80s suburbia. He’s an aspiring real estate agent who spends his nights pretending to read books about Ronald Reagan; and she’s a spunky liberal housewife who smokes weed and dances like a cheerleader when her daughter inexplicably floats across the room. As stated, the heart of the film lies in the pair’s sudden awakening to the simple things in life and each actor does a fantastic job relaying the bewilderment, horror and shock that likely comes when dealing with a haunted house.
THE ZELDA FACTOR
I’ve seen Zelda Rubinstein in exactly four movies: Poltergeist, Sixteen Candles, Teen Witch and one of the other Poltergeist movies … the one with the mirrors. Her filmography leaves a lot to be desired — but who cares? This lady gives the performance of a lifetime in Poltergeist as Tangina, the spirit doctor who cleanses houses of demons and beckons spirits to “come to the light.” She’s the original Ghostbuster. Now, I’m not sure how good she is. I mean, Carol Anne was ultimately saved (mostly by her mom), except the house Tangina claimed “was clean” ended up actually turning into a got-darned spirit orgy. Plus, considering her much vaunted powers of telepathy, it’s odd the old gal couldn’t discern the hundreds of tombstones lying beneath the Freeling home.
At any rate, the character remains a horror icon for the ages, what with her southern draw, diminutive frame and overarching presence. She’s like the Yoda of ghost hunters. One look at Tangina and you can instantly sense that the tables have suddenly turned.
THE WOW FACTOR
Yeah, yeah, Poltergeist has its share of shotty special FX — the whole tornado/tree sequence was never convincing — but for a film made in the early 80s it still packs a punch. As Spielberg had done with Jaws and would later do with Jurassic Park, Poltergeist starts slowly and builds towards a wild finale that uncorks every trick in the book to summon beautifully rendered spirits from beyond the grave. By the time the Freelings get in their car and drive away from the supernatural calamities, while their home collapses into some sort of otherworldly vortex — during which I always expect David Alan Grier to suddenly appear and scream, “Fine! Take it!” — you can finally sit back and relax … and then prepare for the same mind-blowing experience a year later.
When it comes to Halloween, Poltergeist is king!