The scene from Poltergeist that's stayed with me since I was a kid doesn't involve ghosts or gore. It's a goodnight exchange between a father and son. To help the boy sleep, the father lies next to him, easing his fear of the storm outside by counting the increasing seconds between the lightning and thunder, showing that the storm is moving away. Of course, a tree comes to life and grabs the boy during another storm later on, but it's all the more powerful after that quiet father-son moment — a mirror of normalcy broken by mystical mayhem.
The best horror films embed the otherworldly in the everyday, reminding viewers of the fragile humanity amid the horror. Like Steven Spielberg's other 1982 film, E.T., Poltergeist finds an ordinary American family united by an unearthly presence. (You should probably credit cowriter/producer Spielberg for the tender family drama and director Tobe Hooper for the uncompromising intensity of the supernatural sequences.)
Although it has some larger-than-life spectacles, the film's most stunning special effects make monsters out of mundane objects, giving the family's television set a ghostly glow and bringing the children's toys to lethal life.
While many are expecting the upcoming Poltergeist remake to add computer-generated chills, local horror directors hope it will maintain the original's human warmth.
Here's what a few of them had to say.
Scott Schirmer (the Bloomington-based writer-director of the award-winning slasher film, Found)
Schirmer: Poltergeist has been one of my touchstones ever since I caught it on cable back in the mid-'80s. I watch it at least once a year, and it never gets old for me. It's spooky, creepy and full of spectacle, but what really sets it apart — and what I try to learn from every time I watch it — is its humanity. Poltergeist portrays a very realistic, very identifiable American family. They're not perfect parents — they smoke weed and fight with their neighbors, but who doesn't? And when their little girl gets kidnapped by evil spirits, you really want to see them get her back because they're real people and you care about them. Most horror films don't achieve that level of character empathy, and that makes them more surface-level entertainment — good for gore or visceral thrills, but Poltergeist has heart, dammit! A large part of that heart comes from the performances of JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein.
Erdel: The most impressive aspect of the original Poltergeist is that it provided a genuine thrill ride of a ghost story while maintaining a PG rating. The film relies heavily on character, effects and atmosphere — and less on a body count or a gore factor — to deliver its chills. The prospect of a remake of Spielberg and Hooper's seminal move-the-headstones-but-leave-the-bodies opus seems inevitable. And like other remakes, it has as much possibility to be a success as it does a CGI-laden cash-grab. Whether it shows itself to be a blockbuster or a middling effort is irrelevant; the power of the original Poltergeist hasn't diminished, despite sequels, a television series and time. And there is no doubt that, with a film like this, the introduction of a remake will only serve to prove the original more vital.
Hull: Poltergeist is not only one of my favorite movies of all time, it's also a huge influence on me as a filmmaker. It's a perfect blend of horror and comedy — pure bliss from the opening moments to the very last scene. I've always wanted to tackle a ghost movie because of Poltergeist and obviously I'm not the only one. We wouldn't have the Insidious franchise or The Conjuring without it. Those movies wear Poltergeist on their sleeves so it makes perfect sense to do a reboot for the Jason Blumhouse/James Wan generation of horror fans. I'm all for it, and I have just one hope for this remake. I hope when the family pushes their television out of the hotel room in the final scene, the final shot is the TV turning back on to that iconic, ghostly white noise channel WHEN IT'S NOT PLUGGED IN! As that image flickered on my 9-year-old daughter's TV after her first viewing of the horror classic, she said, "It was cool, but it was scary! Can we watch it again?"
It was cool, it was scary and we can all watch it again.