Posted on May 27, 2015

Poltergeist (1982 and 2015): Guilt and the American Dream

Dawn Keetley

In anticipation of the remake of Poltergeist, directed by Gil Kenan, produced by Sam Raimi, and released on May 22, 2015, I re-watched the original Poltergeist from 1982, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper. It’s not the best horror film ever made, by any means, but it has a certain compelling power—and I realized on re-watching it, that the film’s power comes in large part from the fundamental innocence of the Freeling family, who become the target of the dead’s fury. The Freelings are also guilty, though—and it is this paradoxical co-existence of innocence and guilt in this paradigmatic middle-class suburban family that drives the film.

Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) sells real estate—specifically the houses in the development in which he and his family live, Cuesta Verde, nestled somewhere in the California hills. Virtually every shot of the planned community includes those hills, swelling (for now) on every side of it. While the hills obviously add to the beauty of the development, they are also being slowly eroded by it. The film makes sure we’re always aware that idyllic suburban living comes with a cost.

Fig. 1, Poltergeist, the developmentResponsible for 42% of the house sales in the Cuesta Verde development, Steven is directly implicated in exacting that cost, as he realizes when his boss takes him to the top of an unspoiled hill and offers him a house in the next phase of their development. Steven briefly, almost distractedly, wonders aloud if the people who live down in the valley will like houses scarring the hillside, filling their view. And then there’s the cemetery they’ve had to move. “It’s not like it’s an ancient tribal burial ground,” his boss reassures him. “It’s just people.” Of course we soon find out that the company left those people behind, moving only the headstones. You need natural beauty for the American dream, but you also need to keep the costs down.

At the end, when the Freelings have to flee their house, and Diane (JoBeth Williams) says, in despair, “We worked so hard for this,” she’s right. They did work hard for their perfect suburban home. But they’re also guilty—thoroughly implicated in destroying that natural beauty at the same time they enjoy it, as well as implicated in desecrating the dead. And while they retain their innocence (which the film lovingly wants to make clear), they are also punished for their guilt, by the revenge of nature (the tree) and the angry return of the dead.

Fig. 2, Poltergeist, the tree2Fig. 3, Poltergeist, Diane and skullsLike so many Americans who work hard to achieve a dream that always comes with a price, the Freelings are both innocent and guilty. It’s the force of that tension—of opposites intractably bound together, undiluted, the inevitable state of many Americans—that gives the 1982 Poltergeist its meaning.

All that is gone from the 2015 Poltergeist. All of it. Eric and Amy Bowen (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) are moving with their three children into a development that’s supposed to represent their downward mobility: Eric’s been laid off and Amy stays home with kids and is writing a novel. (My immediate thoughts about this scenario: their downwardly-mobile house where door knobs come off in their hands—a common occurrence in my house—is nicer than where I live; and how can they afford any house when neither of them has an income? Who gave them a mortgage?) The community is meant to look tired, rather shoddy—and every shot shows only crowded houses, no nature except for a fenced-in green square in the middle of the development. All available land seems to have been used up long ago.

Fig. 4, Poltergeist 15, houseSo there’s no American dream here (apparently). If there ever was, it disappeared for the Bowens before the film began. And, most importantly, the Bowens aren’t implicated in the events that churn along just as they did in the original Poltergeist (the vengeful tree, the restless dead). There’s no sense that they’re paying the price for what they’ve done (their realtor conveniently forgot to tell them anything about the cemetery under their house), and they don’t really care about the loss of a house that was clearly never nice enough for them in the first place. There’s no meaning, then, behind what happens in the film—and so much less reason for the viewer to care.

On the plus side, there are some scary scenes in the new Poltergeist, improvements on the original (which, let’s face it, was never very scary). Everyone’s seen the clown, even if you haven’t seen the film—and it’s scarier. The hands pressed on the TV in response to Maddy’s (Kenndi Clements) hands are creepy. There are chilling shots of the dead, both reaching out of the closet and writhing in the alternate world where Maddy’s brother Griffin (Kyle Catlett) goes to bring her back home (in a scene clearly borrowed from and actually better than a similar scene in Insidious).

Fig. 5, Poltergeist 15, handsBut then there are the gratuitous scenes (notably one involving a power drill) clearly included because this film was (for some reason) made in 3-D. And then the “exorcist”—Carrigan Burke, played utterly woodenly by Jared Harris—can’t hold a candle to the strange otherworldliness Zelda Rubinstein exuded as Tangina.

The pointlessness of Harris’s performance epitomizes the pointlessness of the film overall, which sacrifices for a few eerie scenes the power of anything resembling a meaningful narrative—or any meaning at all.

Grade: C+

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