Poltergeist (1982) — Are you a static fanatic?

“Would ya’ll mind hangin’ back? You’re jammin’ my frequencies.”

Sue’s rating: They’re here!

Sue’s review: When I watched Poltergeist back in 1983 (yes we had cable in ’83, no it wasn’t installed by Fred Flintstone) it was possibly the second “scary” movie I’d ever seen. It could have been the first actually, because it’s hard to believe that my parents would have let a six-year-old watch a bunch of motorcycle gangsters killing themselves off so that they could come back enjoy an eternal crime spree. Maybe I dreamed that. I hope so. But I know I watched Poltergeist, and I’m sure I managed to fall asleep again.

By 1993.

So when Halloween began creeping up and Justin gently encouraged us (with the cat o’ nine tails dangling casually from his benevolent hand) to review something scary and/or horror-ish for the holiday, I figured it was time to revisit this trauma from my youth. And when the post office didn’t lose it in shipping, the die was truly cast.

I scheduled a Monday to be the day I’d sit down and watch it. In broad daylight, of course. So when Monday morning rolled around, I settled myself down by the computer, took DVD in hand and said bravely to myself, “Golly, the drain in the kitchen sink sure is running slow!” Many hours, two trips to the hardware store and one frantic phone call later, I was the proud owner of a drain snake, a pipe wrench and a bottle of Liquid Drano. The movie remained unwatched for the day, but that drain now runs fast and free like wild horses on the Mongolian steppes.

Tuesday didn’t work out either.

But Wednesday, I couldn’t put it off any longer. So I watched it, with one hand on the pause button, and the other feverishly stuffing comfort food (vis a vis: “popcorn”) into my face as a cheap and tasty sedative.

In retrospect, Poltergeist wasn’t that bad, but it still freaked the living be-whatsis out of me. I have to face facts. This just isn’t my genre.

In a nutshell: A nice but slightly dysfunctional family of five lives in nice cookie-cutter home in nice cookie-cutter subdivision. Because they don’t know enough to turn the television off at night, the five-year-old daughter starts a friendly relationship with the voices in the post-programming static. (Yes, there was such a thing back in the olden times.)

Soon the family dog jumps on board too, but no one else is particularly amused — particularly the son who is not only afraid of his demonic clown doll and thunderstorms, but also suffers from an extreme form of middle-child syndrome — wherein if, say, a possessed tree decides to tear him out of the house and chew on his torso, his parents will flip out and frantically search for his sister, leaving him a virtual limp rag of sap, blood, terror and despair without so much as a kleenex to blow his nose into. Not to mention the fact that the evil tree was apparently a smokescreen because the flippin’ ghosts (like his flippin’ parents) were more interested in his flippin’ kid sister anyway! It’s rough to be the middle child.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Yes, the house is haunted — apparently by a virtual stadium-load of disenfranchised furniture moving souls along with “the beast”, one major mother of paranormal ‘tude. It isn’t long before little Carol Anne (our five-year-old static fanatic) gets sucked into the spirit dimension via her bedroom closet and only then (because they are very slow learners — which is a very good argument against smoking weed) do the parents actually seek outside help.

The ‘help’, three academics with cameras and sound recorders are just a bit overwhelmed what with objects flying here and there and more spectral galloping around than Rincewind in the Dungeon Dimensions. After a night of weirdness not seen since a very blitzed Dumbo experienced pink elephants on parade, they themselves go for ‘help’, and come back with a midget lady with the voice of a toddler and the gonads of a bull moose. She’s kind of like Yoda in oversized glasses really.

Then things really get weird. Trust me.

The strength of Poltergeist, the special effects of which have long since gone past the state-of-the-art expiration date, isn’t so much the story or the acting, or even the fluffy family dog. The strength is in the way it hooks into and feeds off of so many standard childhood terrors. It’s a virtual potpourri of bed-wetting trigger points. This isn’t guys in hockey masks, or blood spurting zombie mayhem. This is about the scary things from your childhood imagination made real and multiplied by a gazillion. It’s that stupid doll that stares at you until you have to throw something over it to break the impasse. It’s that old tree that looms eerily outside your bedroom window. This is about thunderstorms and dogs that bark at nothing.

[Incidentally, my greyhound occasionally does the hair standing on end, snarling and barking at invisible entities thing. This doesn’t bother me as much as it should, because while he won’t hit high alert over absolute strangers, he does go ballistic whenever I walk him past a concrete raccoon in the neighbor’s front yard. I can only assume that my house is being haunted by a spectral plastic flamingo, or possibly a rogue phantom garden gnome. Just thought I’d mention.]

In any case, Poltergeist sort of loses its punch is when the “beast” actually appears. Bigger frights come from suspense and things unseen — at least as far as I’m concerned. However, the rest of the spookiness and the ending make up for that in spades. But easily, (though unintentionally) the creepiest thing about watching this movie now is knowing that two of the three family children died untimely deaths in real life. Brrrr. That’s just weird.

Didja notice?

  • The movie starts with the U.S. National Anthem. Are we supposed to stand up or what? How did they handle that in the theaters? And is it just me, or is that one of the surrealistic ways to begin a horror movie EVER?
  • Seriously weird staircase they’ve got there. And not very space saving, either.
  • A very interesting anti-drinking campaign – running remote controlled cars in front of the drinker’s bicycle.
  • Mom is 32 and their oldest is 16? Really?
  • Darth Vader poster!
  • Mommy and Daddy toke? How did I (Sue) miss that in ‘83?
  • Nothing says “I’ll protect you from the demonic doll” like your very own Chewbacca jacket!
  • Book sighting: “Reagan – The Man The President”. Reagan was elected in 1980. Poltergeist was released in ‘82.
  • What kind of sick idiot gives a kid a possessed looking clown doll?
  • Do you think all of this could have been prevented if they’d ever just TURNED OFF THE TV WHEN THEY WERE DONE WATCHING IT?
  • Dr. Casey. King of the lens cap.
  • Cool! Cheetos in the old packaging!
  • Okay, I know I’ve said that I want my steak rare enough to moo and crawl off the plate, but this is just so wrong.
  • Note To Self: Never insist that the kids push their kitchen chairs in. Ignorance is bliss.
  • Grey hair. You get it from your kids. And demonic spirits.
  • Parenting Tip 1: Never let your kid catch you dangling a beloved (deceased) pet over the toilet. Besides, canary today, $300 plumbing bill tomorrow. Also, don’t bury a dead pet where the in-ground swimming pool is slated to be dug.
  • Parenting Tip 2: Don’t tell your kid that their goldfish will grow into a shark. No matter how much they’re overfeeding them.
  • Parenting Tip 3: If your kids a.) sleep walk, b.) are terrified of thunderstorms, the time to get stoned is NOT just after you put them to bed while thunder is rumbling in the distance.
  • Parenting Tip 4: Do not use your own children as guinea pigs while experimenting with the paranormal.
  • Parenting Tip 5: Do not invest in trees that eat small children.
  • Parenting Tip 6: Wicker headboards are too flimsy for poltergeist resistance. Try wrought iron for a more secure bedroom decor!
  • Parenting Tip 7: Children who have been half-digested by trees, should not be left alone immediately afterwards. It just isn’t nice.

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