You are about to watch (or maybe rewatch) an extremely 1980s film. Now there are films that remind us of the time we watched them, like the upcoming Nightmare on Elm Street which has a very 80s feel. Poltergeist has a feeling of my childhood – towards the end of the film there’s a moment where Steve, the father, trips over a bike with yellow wheels that looked exactly, eerily like my bike as a kid; I had the same star wars sheets as Robbie, the same Darth Vader head over my bed; and the moment that hits me deepest, when Carol Anne rolls over late in the movie with a Luke Skywalker figure in her mouth. I spent most of my childhood doing the same thing.
But even more than this, even more than a lot of horror movies of the time, Poltergeist is really about the 1980s itself, about the clash of 1970s pessimism and 1980s optimism. It is a film made by two men, the listed director, Tobe Hooper, most famous for writing and directing Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and for all intents and purposes the real director of the film, Steven Spielberg, listed as a producer. I’ll let the internet movie database explain:
Spielberg had wanted to direct the film himself, but a clause in his contract stated that while still working on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Spielberg could not direct another film. Hooper, though, had developed the film with Spielberg, and if Spielberg had wanted to wrest the film away from Hooper, it would have caused a rift between the filmmakers.
So the film was a negotiation. Tobe Hooper was there functionally, but, as the actors related, Spielberg handled most of the creative decisions, and you can tell, this is really a Spielberg film. If aliens came down to earth and I had to explain to them using only one image of what a Spielberg film feels like, I would say this: a low angle camera pushing up on groups of people staring up at some sort of flashing light or spectacle, mouths open in awe, unable to speak because of some overwhelming spectacle. That is Spielberg in a nutshell and you’ll see it a lot in this film.
Speilberg was the great director of the 80s and he reflected the spirit better than anyone else. Poltergeist was released two years into Ronald Reagan’s presidency (you’ll note that Steve is very noticeably reading a book about Reagan, while smoking pot with his wife who loves dirty talk). In a great book on cinema in the 80s that I have always loved by Alan Nadel, Nadel describes the Regan era as a time of “pervasive optimism,” as a new morning in America. Regan was of course himself an actor and Nadel describes how Reagan spoke in cinematic terms (a longing for a mythical past that we could rebuild in the present) and how cinema in turn spoke in Reaganistic terms, Nadel writes that 80s films were filled with “a culture of people looking up, just as they do in movie theaters, physically and socially, taking their own measure, looking for ways to prove to themselves they have improved.”
Poltergeist is a film filled with spectacle of things to look at and marvel at, but it is also a Tobe Hooper film. In his Texas Chainsaw Massacre eight years earlier, America is a place rotting from the inside, decaying, fetid, capitalism has failed and the American family has become a funhouse mirror, distorted and cannibalistic. It is a film of the Watergate and Vietnam era, ambivalent about the American project and America’s place in the world. It is grim and dark and violent.
Films of the 80s often wrestled, even in some small way the lingering effect of those eras, with the dilemma of baby boom children, in their teens in the 60s and 70’s, raised in a more liberal time, now settling down into a more conservative, staid, predictable lives, with stories about whether their jobs were sucking their souls or whether the American dream of climbing the social ladder was ultimately worth it.
To my mind those more horrifying moments and the deeper critique are the Tobe Hooper moments, the 70s moments where the monsters of this film threaten to pull us down into dispair. I recall vividly watching this film with my mother and sister and the single scene I remember most as a kid is when the guy pulls the skin off of his own face (which for those of you who know me is probably no surprise). It is there in the central plot, a subtle jab at white flight from the cities in the 80s and suburban expansion. What if we are building our new American dream on the bones of others? What if the American dream of three children and a cute dog has something rotting underneath it? What if we fall back into that pit and the ghosts of the past, the skeletons of the past threaten to pull us under the waters of despair?
We saw that story played out in a film in this very cabin, Amityville Horror, but whereas that film wallows in anxiety, this film is the other side of the coin, and there is no question that the Spielberg side, the 80s side wins. Sure this film is scary but in the way The Haunted Mansion ride is scary at Disney Land. There are scares, but they are scares of childhood, of moving trees and spooky toys. The scares never overwhelm that his film is a joy to watch, filmed as if every shot matters. The opening scene where a wandering dog introduces all of the characters is clever and funny, and for every few moments when that the ghosts are truly scary, they are also awe inspiring, such a wonderful moment where Diane turns her back and the camera pans back to discover they have stacked chairs. Because I have seen my friends Charles and Greg act so often I have started to pay more attention to blocking and Poltergeist will often go for 15 20 seconds without cutting, letting us watch characters as they move around on the screen. Speilberg knows the joys of cinema, knows how shots work, how to put things at low angles. This is both an 80s film in its politics but also a nostalgia film about the way Hollywood, watching film (as people do in this film, stare at screens and watch ghosts on them) can transfix us and transport us to some other plane. One of the most memorable images that I take away from this film is a group of people gathered around a screen watching ghosts walk down the iconic set of stairs. The more pessimistic side of the film shows television as something we fall asleep in front of, the place where monsters come from, something to throw away at the very end. But to Speilberg the screen was a place of magic, of nostalgia, of community, of shared dreams.
So it is no surprise to me that I recognize the bedsheets or the star wars toys in this movie, because, as Nadel describes it, the 80s as a time of hyperconsumption, a time when we defined ourselves by the objects we owned, a time where the products in our home blurred the barrier between us and screen. The white middle class saw the same movies, bought the same products, lived in the same houses. (This is brought home, so to speak, in a great lap dissolve where one kitchen looks exactly like another kitchen.) We bought what we saw on screen because we bought the fantasies of cinema. To watch a film in the 80s was to buy that dream.
Oh and there is lots of stuff in this film about mothers and birth canals and iconography of female bodies and openings which you don’t need me to point out. You’ll see it. Like many other horror films the family unit is under threat here, but the family was safe in the 80s, it was a place of goodness, worth protecting. Even though the house may be destroyed in the end, the dream of the American family lived on.
Just a couple of stray thoughts: I love the stairs in this film, I love that an entire section of this film has people whispering. And I don’t mean to be clever but I’ll end with this: we are taught in this film that if you count the time between the lighting and the thunder that you’ll see the storm is actually moving away . . . and that is kind of what this film is for me, that we don’t have to worry about the 70s anymore, that storm is moving away. Stay in bed, look out the window, they’ll be something scary, but in the end it’ll all be okay.