She Watch Channel Zero: On Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist is an odd mix: a horror with an unwavering commitment to comedy; a film that gives time to childish elements of terror–ghosts, storms, clowns–but also deals with child abduction.

Meet the Freelings: Steven and Diane; and their kids Dana, 16; Robbie, 8; and Carol Ann, 5. We first meet them in the wee hours–Steven sleeps in front of a TV as a channel goes off air. The screen fills with static. Carol Ann walks in and stares at the screen. Later in the film she’ll do this again, which ushers in the arrival of spirits into the Freeling household. Another time she’ll watch the Freeling’s second TV from inches away. Diane tells her, ” “You’ll ruin your eyes”, but only changes the channel, allowing her to stand there. As I hadn’t seen Poltergeist in years, I wondered ‘Is this an allegory of the power TV has over the average American household?’. The answer was no.

Star Wars is all over Poltergeist. Robbie and Carol Ann share a room which is decorated with evidence of that period’s pop culture–posters featuring Magic Johnson, Alien, 1980’s Superbowl. Everywhere else there is Star Wars merchandise: a Darth Vader lamp, a Luke Skywalker action figure, an Episode IV poster, a Yoda doll. As Diane makes a bed the camera focuses on C3PO on the duvet cover. Star Wars was defining pop culture when Poltergeist was filmed, but the sheer amount of stuff is just distracting, almost as if producer Steven Spielberg was trying to help his chum George Lucas sell a few more dolls.

There’s little point in me wading too far into the well-travelled waters of the ‘who directed Poltergeist?’ debate. Officially, Spielberg produced and Tobe Hooper directed, but comments from cast members and lil’ Stevie himself suggest that The Berg spent a lot of time behind the camera. I’m not fluent enough in cinema to add anything to this argument. All I know is that, when I see Poltergeist’s idyllic neighbourhood, kids playing tricks on adults, and zany labourers, I see Spielberg’s fingerprints. Flashing blue lights and wind remind me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. None of this necessarily means that directorial duties were taking from Hooper’s hands.

That canary’s dead. Carol Ann has what is presumably her first brush with death, as Tweety (another pop culture reference) goes into the ground. Within days, spirits will invade the house. Coincidence? The writers of the upcoming Poltergeist remake should consider having a giant spectral canary terrorise the Freelings.

The use of sound is impressive. Freaky whispers from the TV, footsteps as Carol Ann is chased by the evil, her voice fading in and out, the way silence bookends a door slamming or a scream. The visual effects, however, are less impressive. It’s easy to criticise, especially looking back through a long lens from 2013. Maybe in 1982 the visuals looked respectable. But the sound is so good, the film didn’t need to rely on its visuals as much it did. When I see a ghostly floating form–a huge skull, a torn face, a tentacled monster–I can’t help but think that, when it came to visuals, less could’ve been more.

As the form evil takes in Poltergeist varies, its powers and goals seem to vary too.

I’ll cop out a little here: while watching the film I was taking notes, I was half-asleep, and I’m not a clever man. But I’m still confident in saying there are some narratively-muddled points. So the Freeling’s house is built on a Native American burial ground. Just their house by the looks of things; when trouble happens, their neighbours are seemingly unaffected. So, if the trouble starts and ends at just that one house, why does an approaching storm signal an attack? If the evil is after Carol Ann, why does it attack Robbie? As a distraction?

Later in the film, a parapsychologist take food from a fridge. He sees a steak move, maggots crawl over a chicken wing. He rushes to the bathroom, where he peels his face off. Surprise, it was a hallucination (try to ignore the obvious questions here: who takes a steak out with their bare hands and places it onto a counter? Was that his steak or the Freelings?). The thing to consider is, if the evil can mess with minds, wouldn’t that power be better used on the Freelings, and not just messing with some poor dude in a kitchen.

The evil wants Carol Ann so it can manipulate the other spirits. Why? To do what?

I’m criticising Poltergeist for these things, but only gently. These scenes are enjoyable to watch, I’m glad to have them, even if they break the film’s internal logic. I know a horror film from the 80s probably isn’t where I should be looking for consistency.

Hooray for evil. When the spirits arrive in the Freeling house (which Carol Ann signals by saying “They’re here” really creepily, in a way no kid would), Diane sees them as a positive. She becomes obsessed with their ability to move people and objects invisibly through the house. She finds an awe and reverence for them that continues throughout the film. Even when Carol Ann is in limbo, Diane–oddly–can still see beauty in the spirits, looking on them as akin to angels. Steven follows the more understandable route when his daughter disappears, lapsing into depression and negativity. Diane’s response might seem real-world unrealistic, but at least it’s consistent.

Think of all the horror films you’ve seen since Poltergeist’s release. Serial killers? That’s been done. Possession? Yep. Evil spirits? Seen that. Supernatural child abduction? Not so much. Poltergeist still seems original, a horror film that spends a lot of time concerned with a child being taken away from her parents, and how her family deal with that. They still live in the same house (in case Carol Ann returns), surrounded by reminders of their daughter, hoping one day they might just find her curled up on their living room floor.

The parapsychologists who’ve come to help the Freelings know they’re in over their heads, so the break out the big guns. Okay, one tiny, but forceful, gun. Tangina, a brilliantly-named short medium arrives, instantly becoming the heart of the film. The writers love her–she gets all the best lines. The camera loves her, dwelling on her in close-up, staying there while she causes all sorts of framing issues (because of her height other characters have to kneel or sit down or stand in the background so the camera can fit them all into shot). She arrives late in the film, but immediately takes over. Tangina explains to the Freelings about the spirits. A simple exposition scene becomes totally engaging, her whispery voice, Southern accent and odd look enhancing the supernatural atmosphere.

Once Tangina hatches her Carol Ann rescue plan–which involves tennis balls and ropes and child discipline–she alternates brilliantly from a quiet, discomforting tone to bellowing and powerful. She tells Steven to be cross-dimensionally stern with Carol Ann, “Be angry with her, you’ll never see her again”. The rescue begins. And here, amid the drama, strobe lights and tension, Poltergeist still feels the need to go comedic. Tangina tells Diane she can’t cross into limbo to rescue Carol Ann as she’s never done it before. “Neither have you”, Diane replies. Tangina gives a comic pause. Now’s the time for a wee joke, really?

It’s odd thing how Poltergeist alternates between horror and comedy. Oddly, neither seems to affect the other. The comedy doesn’t detract from the scares and vice-versa. The film manages a balancing act that few others have successfully achieved.

The solution to rescuing Carol Ann is vague. After specifically telling her not to go towards the light, Diane has to tell her the opposite. But then only to go near it, not in. And then Diane and Tangina stop for a talk while Diane’s daughter is chased by a monster across purgatory.

Interlude: I can’t shake this idea of an alternate ending. Tangina’s plan to rescue Carol Ann involves only her. She returns to the Freeling’s living room, clearly pleased with herself. “I’ve done it”, she says, as the Freelings look at her joyously. “The Beast can harm her no longer. She’s safe in heaven now”. Then Diane explains that Carol Ann wasn’t actually dead. Awkward.

Diane returns from limbo with Carol Ann. Tangina gives the all-clear, the house is free from the evil’s grasp. Days later, the Freelings are ready to move house. Steven and Dana go out. Robbie and Carol Ann are both back in that same room where all the horrific events happened. Carol Ann doesn’t remember much of the ordeal. Poor Robbie, on the other hand, presumably remembers all. Both are about to have one last sleep (the kid equivalent of cinema’s One Last Job, the one that never goes well). Rob’s got a freaky clown doll that now comes to life. It chokes Robbie as the closet door bursts open. The evil in there is now a Sarlacc-type monster, trying to swallow the kids. Simultaneously, it throws Diane up the walls of the bathroom. Steven returns as the native American bodies still buried beneath the house start to pop out of the ground,

Randy Dana returns from her date to see her family house start to glow and collapse. As always, Poltergeist has time for a joke: Dana steps out of a Trans-Am with a hickie on her neck.

The Freelings escape. Their house is sucked into another dimension (maybe the evil can live in it). They check in to a hotel room. The first thing Steven does is move the room’s TV outside. The credits roll.

That last moment with the TV is a nice one, a light, comedic touch, typical of this film’s deliberately alternating tone.

Poltergeist is now over 30 years old. It holds up well. Some of its effects look like more like something from Ghostbusters than a horror now, but as a whole, the film is still creepy and unsettling. It’s original, fun, and well worth watching again.

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