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On the release of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist in 1982, Roger Ebert wrote, “This is the movie The Amityville Horror dreamed of being”. It is hard to disagree with Ebert’s simple statement. After all, Poltergeist has since become something of a cinematic bookmark. Here, Hooper and Spielberg gave birth to a new kind of supernatural horror, one that The Amityville Horror also tried but ultimately failed to capture; the all American suburban family, invaded by an unknown, unseeable presence. That is not to say Amityville was a bad film; it just didn’t spawn the change in the supernatural genre that Poltergeist heralded. Of course, it’s no wonder Poltergeist nails this family invasion dynamic, with Spielberg having also achieved this from a science fiction standpoint in Close Encounters some six years before.
However, the Poltergeist debate starts when exploring the two men at the heart of the project; Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. While watching Poltergeist, we naturally find ourselves asking whether this is a Hooper or a Spielberg film? In reality, Poltergeist is a mix of both, no matter who sat in the director’s chair on set, and that is the genius of its creation. Here, Hooper’s eye for classic horror meets Spielberg’s imagination and creativity. The result, a genre-defining supernatural horror that appealed to horror fans and family audiences alike. The final film even managing to achieve a controversial PG rating in the USA due to Spielberg’s name, only furthering its audience appeal.
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The resulting film is a scary, fun, and unexpected ghost train ride filled to the brim with our deepest childhood fears. Here, toys come alive, a paranormal beast hides in the closet, and a scary tree comes to life outside a bedroom window. In creating this atmosphere, Spielberg and Hooper play with the childhood fears that still reside at the back of our minds, creating a groundbreaking paranormal rollercoaster ride.
Look closely, and you will find echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Twilight Zone and The Changeling. All of which makes Poltergeist a fun jump-scare horror that carries nerve-shredding visuals. Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith’s terrifying yet tender score only further emphasises the childhood terror of the films key themes. Poltergeist gave birth to a whole new sub-genre of supernatural horror, one that continues today with movies such as The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity; its place as a genre-defining slice of horror undeniable and assured.
But, while I am here, I also want to mention Poltergeist II. While it may never have lived up to the original, it did provide us with one of the most chilling preachers ever seen on film; Kane (Julian Beck). And trust me, the film is worth revisiting just for Beck’s outstanding and terrifying performance alone.