FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Poltergeist (1982)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

The Freeling family live in a nice, quiet slice of new suburbia in a planned community called Cuesta Verde. Steven (Craig T.Nelson) is a real estate developer with the firm who built the community and who are now planning to build more homes alongside it, despite there being a graveyard in the way. Steven's wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) takes care of their three children, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). One night, Carol Anne wakes up and begins communicating with a TV set on static after the channel closes down for the night. Soon, a series of bizarre events occur around the house. The Freelings find it exciting at first, but when Carol Anne goes missing and Robbie is attacked by the tree in the back yard, the family realise what a nightmare they've found themselves in.

Haunted house movies aren't my favourite sub-genre in the horror catalogue, often used as a collection of familiar tropes rather than telling a convincing story of a home under threat. In recent years, there seems to have been a fair few of them, all with their own twist on the idea of hauntings or simply playing it straight but doing it well. I've liked some a lot (The Conjuring from last year's Shocktober for example) whilst others have squandered their potential (Insidious, I'm looking at you). Therefore, revisiting a classic of the genre seemed to be a must for this month and Poltergeist is the kind of film I used to hear discussed by my friends at school at an age when horror movies had been heavily restricted by my parents.

Often there's a balance that has to be found in haunted house films between the family at the heart of it and the ghostly shenanigans going on around them. The lines between who did what may have been blurred since the film's release, but having Steven Spielberg (a family-focused film-maker if ever there was one) and Tobe Hooper (master of horror) writing, producing and directing gets this balance right. The specific sequences designed to horrify you do exactly that, building up the creepy elements before moving into outright shock tactics to scare you. The big set piece of the tree taking Robbie and the closet sucking Carol Anne into it is practically perfect, taking bits of everyday life that are supposed to be safe and transforming them into something scary and threatening.

The family at the heart of it are all portrayed with excellence, particularly JoBeth Williams as a fierce mother determined to do whatever she can to protect her kids, even if it means jumping into a weird portal to another dimension closet. Her fight alongside Steven to keep their family together is the emotional heart of the movie and the film spends time with them before the paranormal stuff takes hold so we understand what they're fighting for. With the ghosts snatching Carol Anne, it also gives the family a reason to stay behind in a house that's tormenting them. 

There's also a great dig running through about the greed of corporate America and its willingness to exploit in order to promote their little slice of the American Dream. It opens with 'The Star Spangled Banner' playing after a channel signs off for the night, a rousing patriotic moment that gets increasingly more ironic as the film progresses. Corporate suit Lewis Teague brags about his achievements and in doing so, reveals to Steven that their house was built on an old cemetery too. It's a quite literal occurrence of a company bulldozing the past in order to put a high price on the future. Of course, the bodies in the graveyard, the souls not allowed their rest and trapped in the Freelings' house get the last laugh, rising out of the ground and destroying the house with them. 

It's easy to see why Poltergeist remains so influential and recommended in a day and age full of haunted house movies. Suburban hauntings are somehow that little bit worse than finding a creepy old period property and Poltergeist taps into that, centring the family and building our terror out of theirs.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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