“Poltergeist” works as a horror film for the same reason “The Exorcist” works – Both movies toy with the unknown, as we watch a family torn apart by supernatural forces. They focus on the the parents, in “Poltergeist”‘s case Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), as they are helpless to stop beings from another plain of existence from stealing their children away from them.
The difference between the two films is that “The Exorcist” slowly built up the horror, as we watched Reagan deteariorate overtime as she was lost to the devil. The scares came from the tension and concept of a little girl being swallowed by the hell.
“Poltergeist” on the other hand executes its frights visually, leaving very little to the imagination. We see first hand what these ghosts are capable of, including bringing inanimate objects to life, from something as small as a toy clown to as big as a tree, manipulating people into thinking there are maggots in their food, to physically taking people into their realm.
“The Exorcist” makes you think about what this demon is capable of, while “Poltergiest” shows you exactly what they can do.
Neither approach is worse than the other, especially since both movies execute it so well. “Poltergiest” doesn’t take itself as seriously as “The Exorcist,” taking some time to crack jokes and have a bit of fun with the supernatural elements, but it works for the suburban environment and how desensitized the kids are to violence. One of my favorite little moments is when their daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), is staring at a fuzzy television, and Diane says she shouldn’t be watching that and turns the channel to a violent movie. She doesn’t care what her daughter watches, as long as it’s not “bad” for her.
Pop culture tainted by first viewing of “Poltergeist” a bit, since I knew most of the scenes before watching the film. Famous moments like the “They’re here” scene, or the fight against the tree, have been referenced in so many other movies and television shows that you feel like you’ve watched the film before you see it. As such, I didn’t find “Poltergeist” as scary as others might have. But that doesn’t deny how effective the scares are.
Overall, “Poltergeist” feels like “E.T.” crossed with “The Exorcist.” The scares come naturally and stick with you long after watching the film, but there’s a child-friendly atmosphere that makes it accessible to people of all ages. As such, this is a horror film that even people who don’t like scary movies can enjoy.
Final Grade: B+