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A classic by Steven Spielberg—and, of all things, it’s a horror film

Kirk Holland, Staff Writer

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With all horror films comes an expectation on the part of the audience, and that is that they be a showcase of material for teenagers and adults only. Typically, the rating for horror films ranges from R to X (now the NC-17 rating); however, occasionally there are films that break this mold. The quintessential example of that would be the classic supernatural horror film “Poltergeist”.

Released in 1982, we all know the story. We have already seen it several times before. To say that this film has resulted in a decades-spanning slew of rip-offs would be an understatement. This deems the forthcoming remake of this classic film about a family whose home is invaded by malevolent ghosts an utterly pointless endeavor. The original, made only a few years after the Amityville Horror hoopla in the late-1970s, serves as perhaps the best cinematic representation of that narrative premise: that a family’s house is haunted by supernatural beings and paranormal investigators are brought in to solve the conflict.

“Poltergeist” has an interesting production history. One of the most widely talked about topics in regards to the film since its release has been its creative credit. Watching the film, one can only wonder of credited producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg’s influence over the finished product. It would not be unusual for a viewer to be struck by a bolt of confusion upon seeing Tobe Hooper’s name up on the screen credited as the director. Hooper was at the time best-known (if known at all) for writing and directing the 1974 horror masterpiece “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and there couldn’t be a more incomparable film to “Poltergeist” than that. While both are horror films that are quite scary, Spielberg’s involvement in “Poltergeist” definitely represents the sharp contrast between the two. Not only that, it acts as proof of Spielberg having far more control over the film than the title credits would lead one to believe. It’s worth noting that in fact Steven Spielberg did in a sense direct “Poltergeist”. It looks and feels like a film by him, which reflects the successful filmmaker’s much more fervent ownership of the film.

At the time of the film’s production, because Spielberg was preparing “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, which was later released the same summer, a clause in his contract with Universal Studios prevented him from directing any other film. This significant piece of data perfectly explains all of the rumors and stories of Hooper and Spielberg working on set together. One could argue that Spielberg worked around the rules of Hollywood, using Hooper as a legal stand-in director for what was actually his project. Also, the film shares suspicious thematic similarities to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, the grandfather of all psychological/supernatural horror films which had been released only two years prior. Similar to how the Overlook Hotel was built on a Native American burial ground, one of the crucial unraveling plot points of “Poltergeist” is that the family’s home, along with its entire district, was built over a graveyard. And like how furniture and miscellaneous things within the Overlook Hotel move around in between the different cuts, one of the hidden intricacies of “The Shining” and its framework, chairs literally move around the family’s house in “Poltergeist” when the characters as well as the camera aren’t looking. It’s worth saying that Spielberg was good friends with Kubrick, who acted as his mentor in many respects. It’s much more likely that these particular details were melded into the film on the account of Spielberg than Hooper, who was essentially an excuse for Spielberg to make the film. Additionally, like the ‘70s pedophobia horror films “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” and even a play like “Macbeth”, it is believed by some to be cursed due to the premature deaths of several people associated with it.

Another interesting part of this film’s history is its rating. Again, horror films are commonly rated R, but “Poltergeist”, interestingly enough, was rated PG. One can see why; after all, it is a Spielberg film and it does feature a lot of the essential late-‘70s/early-‘80s Spielbergian filmic tropes. It centers on a suburban Californian middle-class nuclear family and, because the Spielberg connection couldn’t be more obvious, it is schmaltzy in an old-fashioned, family-friendly kind of way. That being said, it is well-regarded as one of the scariest films of all-time, and it is. For a Spielberg production, it is creepy as sin, to the point that one can see why it, along with other PG-rated films with violence and/or gore in them such as “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, “Clash of the Titans”, and “Gremlins”, warranted so many complaints to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Eventually, this case resulted in Spielberg, also the director of “Temple of Doom” and executive producer of “Gremlins”, suggesting a new intermediate rating between “PG” and “R”. This of course was the PG-13 rating, which now enjoys a great deal of derision from film fans and critics alike (not least from this reviewer). The “PG-13” rating was introduced in July 1984, with the advisory “Parents Are Strongly Cautioned to Give Special Guidance for Attendance of Children Under 13 – Some Material may be Inappropriate for Children Under 13”; in 1986, the wording was simplified.

The film’s combination of two rather contradictory aesthetics, the ludicrous childhood wonder of Steven Spielberg and the gore and brutality of Tobe Hooper makes it not only a bizarrely unique but a historically significant work of horror. It’s hard to believe that the same film features a scene of the little girl in the family burying a dead pet bird in a rather off-puttingly poignant manner and one where one of the paranormal investigators has a vision of his own face peeling and melting off.

In conclusion, a film of such a history, legacy, and iconography should not be exploited for economic gain in the form of a “remake”. A perfect treat for the Halloween season, one is best advised to rush out and see the original “Poltergeist” as soon as possible instead, before the potentially dreadful remake temporarily takes its place in the mainstream public consciousness. In an era where horror is practically dead, nothing is better than a classic film of such effective and memorable scares.

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A classic by Steven Spielberg—and, of all things, it’s a horror film