Poltergeist: An American Critique
Dir. Tobe Hooper (1982)
A young family deals with the fallout from underhanded business deals that disrespect a Native American burial ground. Their house pays the price.
Perhaps one of the greatest and most socially critical horror movies of all time, Poltergeist is today best known as a "cursed movie," in which two of its young stars were gone far too soon. Heather O'Rourke, who plays the young girl, Carol Anne, who is sucked into the ghost dimension, died shortly after her performance in the trilogy of intestinal stenosis and sepsis. Dominique Dunne, who plays her older sister Dana, became the victim of one of Hollywood's most brutally famous murders since the Tate/La Bianca killings by the Manson Family. Her father turned her death into a rallying cry for which he fought for victims of violent crime, most notably during the O.J. Simpson trial. All of that is just added to the impact of this crucially important American horror film, helmed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg.
The Freelings are an upwardly mobile upper-middle class family who have recently bought a home in a new development, where all the homes look alike across the sprawling hills of California. Of course, we come to learn, these homes are built upon an ancient Native American burial ground, and the Freeling family, whose patriarch is responsible for the placement of the new development, pays the price in a brutally accurate critique on the consumerism of 80's culture. Also, the film is scary as fuck.
What's so great about Poltergeist, as a viewer, is how relatable it is for people who grew up in or around the 80's. Who didn't have a tree outside their window that terrified them as a kid, or the family dog who stole as much food as possible while being the constant presence in their childhood lives? Poltergeist is a slice of Americana in the same way that Jaws is: the young Freeling boy reads Captain America comics beneath his Star Wars comforter, with an Alien poster on his wall and an LA Rams helmet on his desk, while his sister feeds the goldfish beside her bed. The stuffy, yuppie parents smoke weed in their bedroom, locked away from their children and reading books about Reagan. Hooper critiques this all as if he writes for the New York TImes instead of makes horror movies, which gives Poltergeist a feeling of being a product of its time, yet still being applicable today. We're no longer in the 80's, but we're still Americans after all, warts and all.
Poltergeist features some great, though dated, effects, and it's clearly an 80's blockbuster with Hollywood-style special effects. It's an extremely effective blend of horror and action/adventure, two distinctly American genres that Hooper harnesses expertly. Zelda Rubenstein, with her performance as the seer/psychic/exorcist Tangina, becomes a horror icon and was always extremely creepy despite being probably the only actually good person in the movie. Also, she's terrible at her job, as we find out very shortly after she declares, "this house is clean."
Like fuck it is, Tangina. Like fuck it is.
The symbolic rebirth near the close of the film can be seen as the essential lesson of 80's capitalism: we had to go through this to get to that. By rebuking the materialism of the decade, we can move on to deal with the real demons that haunt our country. The ill-gained wealth is a symptom, not the cause, because the cause is the livelihoods that we've built on the backs of the indigenous people. It's an illness that, as a country, we're only beginning to address now, forty years after this film was made. The skeletons of the past are, quite literally, the skeletons of the past. We've moved the cemetery, but we've left the bodies. If we don't address them, it will tear our house down.
On a side note, as I write this there is a tremendous debate in film cultures about film ratings brought about by the people discomforted by Dr. Strange's second film. I've often seen mentioned how The Ring, one of the scariest films in modern memory, was rated PG-13. Folks, Poltergeist was rated motherfucking PG. Save me your cries of damaged children and lost nights sleep. In the 80s, children without their parents could go see a double feature of Gremlins and Poltergeist. Fuck absolutely all of that.
Who this movie is for: Literally everyone, it says so right there in the rating; Classic American film/horror lovers; Deep thinkers who want to critique Capitalism and the American system of wealth
Bottom line: It's an all-time classic and Tobe Hooper's second-best movie behind TCM. Poltergeist is scary, important, and a thinly-veiled attack on the consumerism culture of the 80's that we casually see roaring back to life today. Watch this one in the dark with your family, I promise no one will have nightmares. Disclaimer: The Horror Revolution, and Rev Horror specifically, make no such claim and may not be held liable for sleepless nights or crying children.