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Poltergeist (1982): The Ultimate Family-Friendly Horror Film

Poltergeist remakeWe’re just a few days away from the theatrical release of Poltergeist, a big screen remake that we somehow managed to avoid for a whole lot longer than most. Whereas Tobe Hooper directed and Steven Spielberg produced the original, this time around Gil Kenan (Monster House) directed while Sam Raimi produced, lending the film a good deal of sight-unseen credibility.

But there’s also already a big ole strike against the Poltergeist remake, at least in the eyes of many fans – the ones, mostly, who hate all remakes before they even see them. Not only is this remake rated PG-13, but star Sam Rockwell recently came out and said that it’s a sort of kid-friendly adventure movie, which needless to say didn’t sit well with those who like their horror to be anything but.

The confusing thing about this particular gripe is that Rockwell’s comments didn’t just describe the remake, but as far as I’m concerned, they also adequately describe the original film. Created two years before the Spielberg-influenced advent of the PG-13 rating, the original Poltergeist landed in theaters with a PG rating attached to it, essentially meaning that kids should watch with their parents.

And make no mistake, the original Poltergeist was very much a family-friendly horror film, serving as the ultimate ‘gateway drug’ for budding horror fans. So why then are those fans, who are now adults, so upset that this year’s remake looks to do for the kids of today what the original did for many of us, over 30 years ago? Well, you’d have to chalk that up to fans doing what fans do best: hating things they love.

One of my favorite scenes in Poltergeist is very early in the film, when Diane Freeling (played by JoBeth Williams) first realizes that something strange is going on in her house. She notices that furniture is moving around on its own and even comes to find out that there’s a mysterious supernatural force in the kitchen. But she’s not scared. Like a kid in a candy shop, she’s downright excited.

In a subsequent scene we see just how thrilled Diane is about the discovery in her home, as she excitedly shows her husband the power of the house – encouraging him to feel what it’s like to be pushed around by a ghost. It’s this childlike sense of wonder that Diane initially has about the paranormal activity that sums up, to me, what Poltergeist is intended to be for the audience.

Of course, it’s not long before Diane’s excitement turns to sheer horror, when her daughter Carol Anne is seemingly abducted by the very same force that she had previously been so amused by. And once things kick into high gear, there’s no denying that Poltergeist gets pretty damn scary – at least for kids who are as terrified by creepy-looking trees and clown dolls as little Robbie Freeling is.

But there’s a safeness to the terror present in Poltergeist, and that’s due in large part to the involvement of Steven Spielberg – who, according to legend, directed much of the film. There’s perhaps no filmmaker in history who understands children better than Spielberg, and it’s clear that with Poltergeist he set out to make a film that was tailor made for precisely the sort of families represented by the fictional Freelings.

Much like Diane’s initial reaction to the paranormal goings on, Poltergeist is loaded with imagination and childlike wonderment, as Spielberg understands that there are few things more fun than being scared. From a sentient tree to a massive ghost monster, a sinister clown doll to a little woman with a funny voice, Poltergeist represents the horror genre at its most creative, and more importantly, at its most fun.

If there’s any scene from the film that could be seen as not-so-family-friendly, it would of course have to be the one wherein paranormal investigator Marty hallucinates that he rips his entire face clean off – exposing his skull underneath. It sounds horrifying, to be sure, but the moment is so silly and intentionally unrealistic that the image quite frankly wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of a Goosebumps book.

By the end of Poltergeist, the Freelings escape with their lives, and Carol Anne is returned to the loving arms of her parents. Though their home is sucked into another dimension, it’s a happy ending, and Spielberg/Hooper don’t bother to hint that the nightmare isn’t over. Because Poltergeist isn’t that movie. Like an amusement park thrill ride, it eventually ends, and nobody is harmed for having taken part in it.

And that’s precisely how I’d describe Poltergeist: it’s a cinematic thrill ride of the sinister variety, traveling down some dark paths but ultimately imparting fun rather than terror. Roger Ebert wrote in his 1982 review of the film that Poltergeist was a “shocking special-effects sound-and-light show,” and the beauty of it all is that none of that magic has been sucked out of the film in the past three decades.

Though I’ll be the first to criticize the Poltergeist remake if it fails to bring anything new to the table or capture even an ounce of the magic that was bottled back in 1982, I can’t help but go into the film with a certain sense of excitement. Gateway horror is something that needs to make a return to the big screen, and if Poltergeist 2015 can be that movie for even one kid out there, then it will have done its job.

So as I always like to say, reserve your judgment until you actually see the movie. And if you’re looking for something to criticize about the remake of a PG movie, you might want to set your sights on something other than the fact that it’s not rated R. Poltergeist simply isn’t the movie you’re looking for, if you’re looking for blood, boobs and boundary-pushing subject matter.

But anyone who’s ever seen the original film should already know that.

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If you don't get enough of me here on Halloween Love, you can also find me on Dread Central, iHorror and Shock Till You Drop. Contact me via john@halloweenlove.com.
  • uniquename72

    “the original Poltergeist landed in theaters with a PG rating attached to it, essentially meaning that kids should watch with their parents.”

    I assume you weren’t alive in ’82, or you wouldn’t believe this. Hell, One Dark Night was PG, and it was not AT ALL for kids (and would certainly be R today, even without changes). It was a different time, when PG meant, “There’s nothing gratuitously sexual or violent here.” And after you left the theater, you could go have a cigarette in McDonalds.

    The world didn’t revolve around children at that time the way it does now, is what I’m saying.

    Also, the face-ripping-off scene wasn’t “silly and intentionally unrealistic” at the time, just as King Kong wasn’t in its time (or the obvious wax face in Raiders). In fact, Spielberg spent so much money to get a realistic model for that scene that he wouldn’t let the actor destroy it — those hands tearing at the face are Spielberg’s own.

    You’re not necessarily wrong about this movie — since neither of us have seen it there’s no way to know — but your grasp of fairly recent history leaves a bit to be desired.

    PS – Poltergeist has already been remade recently. They called it Insidious, and it sucked.

  • John Squires

    “It was a different time” is really just a nice way of saying “we’ve become way too sensitive, as a society.” I’m not denying that the face-ripping scene wouldn’t fly in a PG/PG-13 movie nowadays, so yes the times have indeed changed, but there’s certainly nothing about Poltergeist that’s not kid or family-friendly – either then or now. I’ll stand by that assessment.

    Also, for the record, when I say “Intentionally unrealistic” I don’t mean that the effect was purposely made to look poor, but rather that it’s a moment that clearly isn’t grounded in reality. It’s cartoonish gore, rather than a realistic depiction of violence that a parent would want to shield their child from.

  • John Squires

    On the subject of Insidious, that movie was for sure heavily inspired by Poltergeist, though I can’t agree that it “sucked.”