The reboot of Poltergeist hits theaters on Friday. The reviews for Monster House director Gil Kenan’s latest haunted home movie are less than enthusiastic, with only a 49 percent positive Rotten Tomatoes rating as of Friday morning. Some of that antipathy might be explained by fond memories of the original 1982 film, which was directed by Tobe Hooper (with, rumor has it, assistance from writer/producer Steven Spielberg).
That film spent a full half-hour building up the audience’s attachment to the sweet suburban Freeling family before unleashing the furious wrath of the angry spirits living in the secret graveyard beneath their new house. Under the influence of the bitter lost souls, trees became murderous, closets turned into vortexes of death, and television sets were even more dangerous than usual. Poltergeist would prove to be one of the best horror movies of the ‘80s, thanks to both its story and the terrifying special effects from Industrial Light & Magic.
This being the early 1980s, there were no major computer generated visual effects (those would come two years later), but that’s probably to this film’s advantage. Early CGI often looks dated, but the practical effects — those crafted by hand and shot with camera tricks — in Poltergeist really do hold up for the most part.
We’ve gone ahead and singled out the seven special effects that still scare the crap out of us, even 33 years later.
Call it the anti-Groot: On the first of many awful nights at the Freeling residence, little Star Wars super-fan and comic book aficionado Robbie (Oliver Robins) is woken up when a possessed tree busts its arm-like branch through his window. He’s helpless as the evil tree grows fingers and snatches him right out of his bed and pulls him straight out of his own bedroom.
It gets worse: The tree didn’t just want to ruin Robbie’s slumber. It tries to eat the kid by shoving him into the open mouth that suddenly appears in its trunk. Robbie’s dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson) eventually saves him from the murderous plant, but we’re guessing the kid will never, ever play in a treehouse again. And despite his love of comic books, he probably never became a Guardians of the Galaxy fan.
While Robbie is trying to avoid being turned into fertilizer, his little sister Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) struggles against an even scarier supernatural force: her closet. Out of nowhere, the door opens and a bright light emits from what seems to be an endless void, which then begins sucking the little girl out of her bed with the force of a tornado.
The scares come courtesy of the excellent special-effects work, but they’re also psychologically jarring. If kids can’t be safe at home in their beds, where can they be safe?
Skeletons in the Closet
Later in the film, with the help of some parapsychologists and a spiritual medium, the family launches a rescue mission to bring Carol Anne back from whatever dimension she was brought to by the angry ghosts. Steve is at the top of a dimension-spanning pulley system, working the rope so that they can pull their daughter back from the beyond. What he finds, however, is a lot less cute.
The Miracle of Life
Using some old-fashioned tools and a few incantations, Diane (JoBeth Williams), the family matriarch, heads off into the forbidden zone. When she brings little Carol Anne back to our earthly realm, the pair is covered in some sort of afterbirth jelly, making it look like they were pushed out of a giant evil womb. Just look at Carol Anne’s face — the actors were not pleased to be smeared in that stuff.
The Fears of a Clown
There have been countless evil clown films since Poltergeist, but personally, I’ll never be inoculated against the terror of those grinning demons. Throughout the film, Robbie tosses blankets and jackets on the stuffed clown at bedtime (why he doesn’t just take it out of his room is a mystery). Near the end, the nasty circus reject proves his suspicions right with a sneak attack.
The idea of being choked by a clown doll beneath my own bed is just far too much to handle, even now. Obviously, this scene really connected, because the new Poltergeist film has a demented clown on one of its posters. I guess it is more universally scary than a tree.
Just when the Freeling family thought they were safe, the evil spirits come raging back for an all-out rampage — one that begins with this invisible violation of a resting Diane.
Not only are the ghosts vengeful and set on making the humans who built on their graves miserable. They are also perverts. And perversion is never not creepy, just another reason why this Poltergeist stands the test of time.