Directed by Tobe Hooper
Poltergeist is an enjoyable watch filled with likeable, well drawn characters acting sensibly in pursuit of clear motivations. The story is well paced, compelling and full of interesting twists and turns that make it an unpredictable watch. It’s shot well, acted well and written well. It has a sort of baseline of quality in every aspect of production. Which is probably to be expected of a Stephen Speilberg film, even when he is bad he is mostly good.
It’s undeniably a good film, but is it a good horror film?
Basically, is it scary?
But then I don’t think it is trying to be.
Don’t get me wrong, Poltergeist is clearly set in the horror genre and it deals explicitly with the supernatural . It even has some genuinely horrific imagery and some creepy moments, all of which have become iconic such as the guy tearing off his face, the static filling the TV screen, the tree crashing through the window. But outside of these moments it just doesn’t feel much like a horror film.
For example, there is very little tension at any point in the film. Outside of the climax and the first tree attack nobody is ever in any danger in Poltergeist nor is any looming or approaching danger implied. We get all kinds of supernatural shenanigans happening but they aren’t presented as frightening or dangerous just inexplicable. They’re just there.
Stylistically it doesn’t feel like a horror film either. The stuff with the static TV screen filling the frame is creepy, the way the guy tearing off his face is framed is fantastically macabre but outside of that it is all filmed in a very flat style. Contrast this film with The Orphanage (which has almost the exact same plot). In The Orphanage, similarly, there were few explicit threats to our protagonist but there was a pervading sense of tension created purely through the way the camera moved, constantly reinforcing that there was an unknowable presence watching the protagonist. In the costuming, in the set design, in the sound design The Orphanage was ramping up the tension and the sense of unease even when what was happening onscreen wasn’t particularly dangerous of scary.
Poltergeist is almost the exact opposite. The subject matter should be terrifying but the style isn’t there to make it so.
Speilberg though has always had a very unobtrusive style. He rarely moves the camera except to follow the action of a scene and when he does move it he frames the shot to try and disguise this. His aim is to hide the camera, to remove his style from the film as much as possible and let the story do the talking.
This is, of course, a perfectly valid way of shooting a film and it’s great for Drama but genre requires a different approach. And it’s not like Stephen Spielberg doesn’t know this either. In Duel, in Jaws and to a lesser extent in Jurassic Park Spielberg has demonstrated his ability to scare the audience.
And I say Speilberg by the way, despite the fact that he is credited as the producer and horror auteur Tobe Hooper is the official director on this film. That’s because this could not feel more like an 80’s Spielberg film if it had E.T. in it. If you gave this film to somebody without telling them the creators and they were any kind of film fan they would recognise Speilberg’s fingerprints all over it. Various reports have discussed how much creative control Speilberg had on the project but by all accounts Hooper hated working with him and felt limited by the restrictions his boss imposed. There are some moments in the film that feel like a Tobe Hooper movie i.e. anything scary in this but they feel like they’ve escaped from a different film entirely.
Another issue with the lack of scares is how explicit the supernatural threat is. As I said in my review of The Orphanage, horror lives in the gap between the possible and the impossible, the normal and the paranormal. The world has to feel real with just one or two things off, otherwise you aren’t dealing with a horror, you’re dealing with fantasy. By making the supernatural elements so obvious and so obviously impossible as early as he does in the film Spielberg puts up a big flashing sign saying, “this isn’t real” that lets the audience relax and watch the film rather than being caught up in the tension.
Is it a good horror film? Absolutely not. No, this is a drama. In terms of tone it most closely resembles Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ostensibly a Sci-Fi film Close Encounters is really a drama about the effect of obsession on a family. How one man’s need to do something can drive his wife and kids away from him and how he can recognise that he’s ruining his life but still feel the need to pursue his dreams.
Poltergeist is a drama about parents, about the fear of losing a child and how the loss of a child can impact the individual parents, their relationship with each other and their relationship with the outside world. It’s about how an evil force that was present in the home all along can steal a parent from a loving father that only wanted to give his kid’s the best.
Huh….I guess we don’t have to wonder how Spielberg felt about his ex-wife do we? Between Poltergeist and Close Encounters I think we have the full story of his divorce from his side.
Unlike Close Encounters though, Poltergeist just doesn’t delve deep into enough its themes to make up for the bait and switch. For an audience expecting a good horror story it is tame and not scary. For an audience interested in working through the themes symbolically it just isn’t meaty enough.
So yeah, baseline competent with some iconic moments but overall a disposable piece of fluff that you can happily skip.