Written and produced by Steven Spielberg but directed by Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist is the story of the Freeling family whose house is possessed by – get this – a poltergeist.
This is really a film of two halves, the first much more interesting than the second. The film opens to the sound of The Star-Spangled Banner accompanying images of television screens. From the start, the film is commenting on the American obsession with television. This is horror cinema using the imagery of television before the likes of Videodrome and Ring.
Unlike most television, this first half is very watchable. I recently complained about modern horror having no sense of humour, so it’s nice to see a horror film with such a lightness of touch. The characters seem more amused than unsettled by the moving furniture, a response with which I sympathise as that’s probably how I’d react; not with screams of fear but with general bemusement. They also cotton on to what’s happening almost immediately which is refreshing – if it were made now there’d be two hours of people insisting that the floating furniture and demonic tree was “just the house settling.”
But as well as being funny, Poltergeist isn’t afraid to scare the living daylights out of children. This is a PG rated horror movie, along the same lines as Gremlins, also produced by Spielberg. It shares that combination of horror, comedy and satire, making it fun for all the family. There’s even a lovely dog and more Star Wars merchandise than you can shake a lightsaber at.
The second half, however, is altogether less remarkable. It loses momentum and descends into familiarity and histrionics, accompanied by loud and uninspired music which just doesn’t seem to stop. It also ditches the interesting subtext about television and opts for a more generic riff on ancient burial grounds. It’s not helped by the dated looking special effects, which will no doubt be updated in next year’s remake – notable only for a cast which includes the brilliant Sam Rockwell and Jared Harris from Mad Men.
So before that comes unwelcomely along, catch the 1982 family classic while it’s on iPlayer. Despite its lacklustre second half, Poltergeist is still a good entry point into horror for children. And it’s still scarier than Insidious.
Poltergeist is on iPlayer until 26 October.