Poltergeist (1982) ReviewJoe Shaffer
Amongst horror fans in the US, the PG-13 rating has become a red flag. For many horror fanatics, it serves as a sign that a movie bearing the rating will suffer from Hollywood-style "dumbing down" of a film in an attempt to reach a wider audience. It's gotten to the point that any film that receives a PG-13 rating, regardless of how effective it is, is automatically ridiculed and blamed for the "downfall" of horror. I beg to differ.
I'll warrant, many of the PG-13 horror flicks coming out these days suffer from a lack of imagination or originality or offer a weak narrative. They tend to rehash concepts from older, scarier films, borrow cliches ad nauseam, and seem to cram needless material that supposedly scores big with demographics relevant to the genre. In short, it isn't the PG-13 rating that's inherently at fault, but the filmmakers and studios who have forgotten that generating a horror film via committee isn't the wisest approach. In turn, I think that some of us have forgotten that horror movies don't need to have buckets of gore, tons of violence, or an opulence of swearing. Take Poltergeist, for instance, which does a fair job of defending the notion that effective horror films don't require R ratings.
Poltergeist is not so much a scarefest as it is a thrill ride. It introduces you to a cute family of five, the Freelings: complete with loveable parents, adorable kids, and a household pet, all of whom dwell within the perceived safety of suburbia. Not long after the film introduces the main entourage do we discover that supernatural forces are afoot. Ghostly phenomenon begins to manifest within their house, culminating with the disappearance of their younger daughter Carol Anne. The Freelings' only recourse is to seek the aid of paranormal experts in the hopes that they can assess the situation in the household and bring young Carol Anne Freeling back from the realm of the dead. The only snags are that the house is haunted beyond any of their expectations, and that one of its spectral tenants is a dreadful demonic force powerful enough to leave bite marks and even kill if necessary...
The movie bears a handful of the familiar trademarks of its producer, Steven Spielberg. We start off the affair with sweet Norman Rockwell-esque shots of humanity, we form a bond with the film's cast, and then we see the horror that befalls them and we can't help but root for them as they attempt to take their daughter back. At just the right moments, the movie shifts from peaceful early '80s America to tense sequences, in which the major character struggle against the antagonistic forces. Unlike ghost films prior to Poltergeist, these beings don't take the form of shadows, apparitions, or unseen agents. Rather, they move the very objects around them (hence the title), transforming an old tree into a wide-mouthed monster or a toy clown with spindly arms into a constricting menace, a scene that will have clown haters staining their underpants.
Part of what makes these scenes work is that the crew mostly used good old practical effects. Spielberg and company put to use loads of strobe lights, models, hand-built set pieces, and even fish tanks to the create realistic visual effects that blow many of our modern CG techniques out of the water. Visions of massive skeletal phantasms, enormous hellish throats where there should be closets, and carnivorous trees plague the Freelings, and they look like a natural part of the environment rather than individually animated stimuli. I won't go so far as to say that Poltergeist is as visually impressive as Carpenter's remake of The Thing, but it comes pretty damn close.
There are a few points where the visual effects don't quite measure up, namely scenes that utilize some stop motion animation. One scene that comes to mind involves the investigators peering into Carol Anne's room while a gamut of poltergeist activity plays out, from flying toys to automatically playing vinyl records. My main problem with this scene is that the chaotic swirl of flying miscellany looks and sounds silly, almost adorable. You almost forget that there's a grieving, desperate family looking for a little girl who's been spirited away.
Through it all, we see very few instances of subversive material that tend to be associated with horror films. Poltergeist's modus operandi isn't to shock its viewers with a wealth of horrific imagery (with the exception of one scene involving a man's face). It's more about delivering tension and thrills by providing its viewers with a relatable cast, bolstered by a tight script, and placing them in intense, dreadful situations.
So please, leave the PG-13 rating alone. It's not the rating itself that's creating weak films, it's filmmakers who are churning out average horror movies by compiling a list of popular material that tests well with certain categories, then clumsily writing hackneyed stories around them. Toss in banal filmmaking, laughable visual effects, and lazy cinematography, and you have pretty much everything that's wrong with modern American horror. Let's also not forget that there have been plenty of terrible horror flicks with either an R rating or even no rating at all* that have hit theaters and home video over the last few years. Movies like Poltergeist, and even Drag Me to Hell and Children Shouldn't Play with Death Things remind us that there's more to a horror movie than just a rating.
<[font size=1>*There was a time when the word "unrated" meant something: that controversial material that had to be omitted from a film in order to maintain an R rating was reinserted. Unrated films usually came out on video and were difficult to locate (e.g. Night of the Demons and its lipstick scene, which is deleted in the R rated version). Nowadays, "unrated" pretty much means "the studio added an extra minute of footage that's moderately violent or gory in an attempt to sucker you into buying the special unrated edition DVD or Blu-ray."
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