Haunted Until Only Quite Recently: The Slight Return of “Poltergeist”

Of all the films released in theatres in 1982 during the year of my 18th birthday, the one of which I am most ashamed of not seeing at that time is the original Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg version of Poltergeist. I have made up for it in spades since then. A viewing of Poltergeist is a pretty regular affair for me, whether by throwing in a disc, catching ⅔ of it on television by accident or, as I jumped at each chance to do it, seeing it four different times on actual movie screens both large and small over the years since its release.

But the first time I saw it, the following year, I was in an entirely comfortable setting, in a room full of my (still) closest friends at my pal Tony’s parents' house, during one of our regular movie marathon festivals that actually meant something back in the time when no one really owned very many prerecorded videocassettes personally. Let me explain… in the early '80s, while each of our homes had a VCR or two, the homeownership market for prerecorded VHS (and Beta) tapes was really just for techno-geeks who wanted to pay anywhere from $50 to well over $100 for an individual tape so they could play them while showing off their nascent home video theatres and sound systems.

For a movie marathon party for regular, non-wealthy kids just out of high school to work at the time, you had to rely on two things: 1) videotapes of things you recorded off television and cable, and 2) video rental stores. You could buy used videotapes at your local video store at the time, but they usually had beat up boxes, had pictures that were possibly quite jumpy, and often had one or two spots where you weren’t sure whether the tape was going to go all wonky inside the machine. You couldn’t walk into a store at that time and just buy a fresh, brand spanking new copy of Poltergeist to take home. The store owners would not have a huge display of $19.95 copies of the latest film released onto tape by Hollywood. This would happen soon enough, but not in 1982-1983.

Pricing of videotapes was largely set by the design of the rental market. If you wanted to own a new personal copy of a film, you could purchase it, but it was going to be at the price that the store paid for a copy (if you knew an avenue through which you could get it at the wholesale cost), but more than likely, if you really wanted a copy, you were going to be paying an even greater mark-up on that cost. Thus, not a lot of people wanted to pay well over $100 for a mere videotape (though the price I remember being quoted most of the time was $99.95). But, I digress…

We were basically poor kids, only a couple of us had regular jobs, most of the gang were going to college, and so money was tight. But we each had a video store membership. You could generally only rent (depending on the store) anywhere from 1-3 videotapes at a time in those days (two was the average, it seems). So, to pull off any sort of marathon, we each needed to pitch in. We were determined to hit as many genres as possible: comedy, thriller, action, sci-fi… even porn (the XXX film at this particular video marathon would be The Erotic Adventures of Candy). And while only a couple of us were full-on ragin' horror fans, most everyone in the gang liked ghost movies, and so Poltergeist stood up for the horror genre.

I am not sure how the original Poltergeist escaped a visit from me upon its theatrical release. I do remember the television commercials, which in retrospect, were pretty damned effective, in much the same way that the film continues to be. I know that I had wanted to see it, but just didn’t. It might have something to do with the fact it was released a week apart from Spielberg’s own E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, so maybe in those pre-employment, cash-poor days (in June 1982, I was still dependent on allowance), I opted for seeing a film directed by Mr. Spielberg rather than one simply produced and written by him. [Note: I am most definitely not a member of the “Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist” cabal.]

And so, there I was in a room full of my nearest and dearest pals, in the early days of the video revolution, watching movie after movie through a long Saturday afternoon and evening (which would eventually turn into a Sunday morning tableaux showing most of our crowd passed out and barely cognizant that someone was still changing tapes on the VCR). In the middle of the showing of films was Poltergeist. And I was watching it with vested interest. And I was... levitating?

That is the only word I can possibly use to describe the feeling from that evening. I don’t know if it was because I was kneeling through much of the film with my legs underneath me (in a way I couldn’t possibly sit now with the middle-aged knee problems), but it is likely I just couldn’t feel them any longer as I sat on the floor of Tony’s parents’ living room getting sucked into an otherworldly realm. Or was it the thrill I was receiving from the early Spielbergian chutzpah, before he came to rely too much on giving the audience what they expected, and was instead doing what he thought was exhilarating or entertaining? Or maybe I still thought the supernatural might be a real thing, and got caught up in the fervor with my friends. Or maybe I was just in the mood for a good time.

Whatever it was, I remember feeling as if I was squarely pitched about three to four inches above the carpet of the living room, and with every spook popping out of a closet or every tree branch grabbing a kid’s leg or every clown with an evil leer not being under the bed when expected (or every bra-less JoBeth Williams), I seemed to move about a quarter inch upward. The only other film where I can recall being so out of body was when I fought back urination for the last 133 minutes of the 153-minute Empire of the Sun (hey, maybe it is a Spielberg thing), digging my legs farther and farther underneath my theatre seat with all my might in order to not break my movie code, never mind my bladder. [Kids, when saddled with a ridiculous set of rules that do not allow you to leave a movie theatre during the running of a film for any reason short of natural disaster, always plan what you are drinking, and when you are drinking it, while preparing to see a film of any great length. At least Lawrence of Arabia -- which I have seen in a theatre six times -- has an intermission break…]

Apart from Dominique Dunne’s murder late in 1982, which made national news, the supposed “curse” of the film was really not a part of common film lore at the time we watched the film, as most of the elements that make up the curse had not occurred yet. But the film had so much up its sleeve that was, at the time, so unthinkable and out of left field, that the added threat of a curse was unnecessary. Even though Poltergeist is one of the few films that can truly be described with the title of being a “rollercoaster thrill ride,” I don’t remember coming back down to the floor for the run of it, possibly due to the ramped up anticipation of the next jolt of excitement. A steak crawling across a kitchen counter, a little girl conversing with people inside the television, someone’s face falling off in the mirror, coffins popping up in the front yard, skeletons in the swimming pool, a house folding in on itself, a rope going through a wall and coming out from the ceiling in another room, a giant closet vagina… a one-stop shop of fun and absurdity, but done with knowledge of how to get under one’s skin with the right amount of creepiness.

It would be the first of many, many viewings of Poltergeist for me, and it has stood (along with The Changeling, The Uninvited, The Haunting, The Innocents, The Legend of Hell House... I won't name them all, but perhaps a couple of others… oh, yeah… The Others) as one of the few haunted house/haunting movies that really worked for me. And because the film, at least as I see it, took the genre perhaps to the height of what could be done with such material at a summer movie, blockbuster level, I never considered the notion that someone would have the cojones to remake it over thirty years later. Well, having balls made out of brass doesn’t mean you aren’t a stupid idiot… it just means you have brass balls.


Here's a controversy not dealing with the curse or who the actual director of the film is; Dominique Dunne's character is pregnant, right? It seems obvious to me, with her introduced eating pickles and ice cream, reminiscing fondly about that particular Holiday Inn, getting dropped off later by some strange guy after what seemed to be a hot date. And then it's revealed that her mom was the same age when she got pregnant for the first time.

I mentioned this once before on a film discussion site and was roundly accused of misogyny and slut-shaming for pointing out what I thought was a humorous little subplot.
Rik Tod Johnson said…
So, your accusers were active participants in "slut-shamer-shaming"?

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