It’s HEEE-ERRRR! The Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia, that is! And with a special switcheroo treat—or trick, depending on your point of view!
So, yeah: for reasons both too complicated and too boring to get into, it turns out I totally lied in the last post’s epilogue about what the MRGN is covering next, and uh, also forgot to update the last post to tell you that. Sorry? I love you?
But nevertheless, I hope you will forgive me, and also still join me for my very nostalgic and eminently Halloween-season-appropriate review of My First Horror Flick, 1982’s Poltergeist!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
As a general rule, my sisters and I went largely unexposed to the horror genre as children. This was mostly because my mother was adamantly and vociferously opposed to letting us see such things, and in the pre-Internet-and-streaming-TV era, she had a lot more control over what we did and did not see than I think a lot of modern-day parents enjoy. Which meant I did not see most of the big horror classics of the 70s and 80s until I was in college or later, and had to rely on Disney animal harm movies for my childhood trauma quota instead. Yay?
That said, that does not mean I managed to see no horror films as a child. One notable exception, already covered on the MRGN, was 1976’s Carrie, but there was one other major one we saw even before that one. And I (and Sister Liz) saw it because for all her protectiveness, there was one childhood phenomenon which my mother was more or less powerless to control—the 80s equivalent of hacking the safe search lock on your Netflix account, as it were—and that phenomenon was, of course, The Slumber Party.
Specifically, we are talking about the slumber party so many of us have uncomfortably attended: the one for the birthday of that particular school… eh, we’ll go with “friend”. You know the one: the party for the girl who was just a tiiiny bit too cool for you; who you uneasily suspected gave you an invitation more because she was pressured to do so than because she actually wanted you there; and whose house was sufficiently nicer than yours that you were sort of afraid to touch anything.
And whose contempt you will never, ever, ever live down, because your FREAKIN’ LITTLE SISTER threw a screaming fit over not getting to go, and your mother, to your unending horror, actually convinced Cool Girl’s parents to let her go with you, instead of doing what any sane person would do and telling your little sister Are You Crazy Of Course You Can’t Go. God, Mom.
ME: Seriously, did she just completely forget what it is like to be a pre-teen girl? I ask you.
LIZ: And you know, I can’t even remember now why I wanted to go so badly.
ME: Because you were determined to be the BANE OF MY EXISTENCE.
LIZ: …well, that was definitely a plus, yeah.
KATE, aka Was Too Young To Be Involved In This Particular Debacle: [laughs uproariously in the background]
ME: Shut it, infant.
LIZ: Besides, it’s not like I didn’t pay for it.
True. Because, oh, she did.
Turns out that Cool Girl’s parents were themselves sufficiently cool (at least in the eyes of pre-teen girls) that they had no problem letting said pre-teen girls watch anything they wanted during their daughter’s slumber party—even when one member of said slumber party came with a decidedly not-even-close-to-pre-teen annoying younger sister attached. The more fools they.
LIZ: No kidding. They learned their lesson when I tried to crawl into bed with them because I was so frickin’ terrified the oak tree outside would try to eat me.
Yeah, so it turns out a movie focused kind of completely specifically on supernatural child endangerment is not the best movie to show to children! WHO KNEW.
LIZ: AND THEN, they wouldn’t let me sleep in the bed with them! And they put me on the floor instead! Right between where the evil fucking clown was gonna come out from under the bed to strangle me –
– and the closet that was going to CONSUME MY SOUL.
LIZ: SCARRED. FOR LIFE.
Suffice it to say, both Liz and I were utterly petrified at our first inadvertent exposure to A Scary Movie, namely Poltergeist. And as such, it would be difficult to say that we had a lot of nostalgic love for the movie, but you can definitely assert that we both remembered it very, very vividly. (Kate doesn’t remember exactly when she saw it, but agrees that whenever that was, it was similarly traumatizing.)
None of us, though, had seen the movie in a good long while, so it was with great interest that we cued it up to see how it had stood the test of time.
The verdict? Well.
The first Poltergeist was, and is, a really, really good movie, y’all.
I was surprised by that, honestly. I had really expected that my childhood memories of how viscerally affecting the film was would prove to be exaggerated. But in fact I think, and my sisters agree, that we were even more strongly affected by Poltergeist as adults than we were as kids—and we were pretty darn strongly affected by it as kids.
Mind you, we were not as baldly frightened by it as we were as children, but in some ways the story was even more upsetting and tension-generating to us now than it was then. And that’s because of what I said earlier: this movie is essentially about one woman’s battle to save her children from a house that wants to eat them, more or less literally. Which is pretty scary to a child, but is about a hundred times scarier to a mom. Or, as it were, a mom and two fiercely protective aunts who are not down with your child-endangering shit, thank you.
In that sense, and all other considerations aside, I have to say that JoBeth Williams’ performance in this movie was nothing short of spectacular, as far as we were concerned. I am actually affronted that she was not nominated for any major acting awards for her performance here, because of course all major Hollywood institutions should wholly agree with my opinions on these kinds of things.
Nevertheless, I shall note that Poltergeist passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and it is unquestionably the female characters who are the driving force behind its plot, which is lovely. Craig T. Nelson provides some awesome comic relief, and plays the Alpha dad role admirably, but there can be no doubt that it is his wife who is the protagonist of this movie, and most of the other female roles (Beatrice Straight as paranormal investigator Dr. Lesh, Zelda Rubenstein as the diminutive psychic Tangina Barrons, and Heather O’Rourke as tiny and adorable evil-magnet Carol Anne) who are the primary catalysts behind the story.
Even the obligatory gratuitous and extended underwear scene could not diminish my appreciation of this truth.
Kate comments that as a whole the movie holds up splendidly. It portrays the Freelings as a completely believable family unit, one that instantly gains our sympathy and with whom we deeply identify throughout the film. The emotional resonance, the comedic moments, and of course the suspense and horror are all masterfully done.
There were a lot of rumors circulating at the time that while technically Steven Spielberg only wrote and produced the movie, in reality he was the director as well, in all but billing credit, and I believe it easily. Not only does the directing style have that unmistakable polish I have long since associated with Spielberg even in his early years, but c’mon. If you had Steven freakin’ Spielberg standing behind you and making “suggestions” about how to direct a thing, even back in 1982, would you seriously claim that you would have ignored him?
Whichever the case, the film just works, even to a modern eye, or so I contend. Even the special effects, with a few exceptions, have aged remarkably well.
Of course, not all of them did. I’m not gonna embed the infamous “face peeling” scene in this post (though it’s here if you want to watch it), but however much this scene scared the crap out of me as a child, its overwhelming fakeness is a lot more eye-rolling nowadays than it is scary.
LIZ: Wow, you know, I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually seen the face peeling scene? Every other time I covered my eyes rather than watch it.
KATE: Yeah, you probably should’ve just kept on doing that.
Other than that scene, though, it still looks great. Even the shot of the house swallowing itself up at the end is still impressive:
Poltergeist, of course, has had a number of sequels and knockoffs over the years, and apparently it was remade entirely just last year. I know I saw Poltergeist II, and I might possibly have seen the third one too, but I remember little to nothing about them, and I’m honestly not really all that interested either way. Even once I was allowed to watch it, horror has never really been my bag, and my fondness for movies like Carrie and the original Poltergeist really represent the exceptions that prove the rule. Mostly because I feel like both those movies (along with a select few others) rather transcended their genre anyway.
Poltergeist certainly qualifies as a scary movie (and how, if you saw it as young as Liz did), but it’s just as much a paranormal ghost story and a family drama as it is a horror flick, and that, I think, elevates it a step above most of the others of its ilk.
And now, random things!
ME: And this is why everyone my age finds static creepy.
KATE: It’s so funny, but I’m not even sure you could get static on a modern TV anymore.
(You can, but it’s surprisingly difficult. I am bemused to think that Poltergeist is probably now one of those films whose primitive in-movie technology must be explained to younger audiences. Yes, young whippersnapper, there was a time when TV channels played the national anthem at you and went off the air after a certain hour, instead of filling the wee hours with endless infomercials about how you should buy this combination hookah and coffee-maker, also makes julienned fries! Crazy.)
ME: I am completely sure I had no idea whatsoever as a kid that Jo Beth Williams is totally smoking pot in this scene.
LIZ: I also love how it’s a shorthand for she’s open to the idea of psychic phenomena and her Reagan-biography-reading husband totally is not. No political subtext there, Steven, no sirree.
KATE: SCARIEST. TREE. EVER.
LIZ: Am I the only one who learned about the counting lightning thing from this movie?
ME & KATE: Nope!
KATE: Holy shit her hickies, hahaha!
ME: OMG I never noticed that before! Probably because I wouldn’t have had a clue what they were, but hey.
(I wondered about bringing up the tragic deaths of both Dominque Dunne, pictured above, and Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne, but I’m pretty sure everyone has heard about that, and the conspiracy theories attached thereto. If you haven’t, Google will provide. I’ll just say, it was a damn shame, on both counts.)
KATE: Okay, but, I really don’t see how you could install plumbing and shit under the house if there were all these coffins right there.
ME: Stop applying logic to things, Kate.
LIZ: No, but something like this actually happened in the French Quarter a couple of years ago! It could totally happen!
ME: Sure, in New Orleans that’s practically required to happen. But fake California suburbs do not have the swagger for that jelly, if you ask me.
ME: Sisters who horn in on slumber parties uninvited do not get to roll their eyes at me.
…Instead, they apparently get to lob sofa cushions at my head. Sigh. No respect, y’all.
But anyway! My point is, Poltergeist is an even better (and, in many ways, scarier) movie than we remembered it to be. So if you are putting together a queue of classic horror flicks to while away this Halloween weekend, it would definitely behoove you to put it on the list. It’s childhood trauma-tested, MRGN-approved!
And thus we end, as nearly always, with my Nostalgia Love to Reality 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
Nostalgia: 6, owing to trauma
Reality: 9, owing to trauma
And that’s the post, kids! Have a lovely and safe Halloween, and the MRGN will be back in two weeks with our originally scheduled ridiculousness of Red Sonja! Huzzah!