Whenever a movie critic confesses to not having seen a classic, people react as if he should be strapped down like Alex in A Clockwork Orange until such an unforgivable oversight can be corrected. And probably slapped around a little too.
Thing is, there are kind of a lot of movies, and those jerks keep making more of them. How are we supposed to catch up? I mean, I love horror movies. I watch them all the time. But until recently, I'd never seen one of the biggest: 1982's Poltergeist.
Craig T. Nelson and wife JoBeth Williams have the perfect home: sweet kids, a pretty house, a quiet neighborhood. But their young daughter Heather O'Rourke is hearing voices -- and soon enough, those spirits steal her away to another dimension, where she may be lost forever.
Poltergeist has quite the pedigree. Steven Spielberg wrote the story. Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed. Of course, Hooper also directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a crime so severe the punishment hasn't even been invented yet (it probably will involve gophers and a pitching wedge). So it's not like we're talking a surefire classic here.
Yet I get the impression it is. It has a strong reputation, it still gets referenced all the time and Netflix thought I'd think it was pretty snazzy. Are you going to argue with a computer? It will upload pictures of you while you sleep. Not nice pictures.
So Poltergeist opens smoothly enough. The pace is as casual and comfortable as Nelson and Williams' family. But Hooper doesn't let their domestic life get too boring -- after the kids have gone to sleep, Williams smokes pot in bed. In Reagan's America, no less!
The initial paranormal activity's pretty good, too. O'Rourke manages to be cute and a little creepster who holds apparently one-sided conversations with the TV. Also, if at some point in the past you have looked at a chair and said "I will never be afraid of this," you will now be proven wrong. Snappy direction on Hooper's part.
But as the story expands, it starts to get flat. Predictably, the family hires an exorcist -- excuse me, parapsychologist -- who is predictably weird. Meanwhile, it has strong effects both practical and CG, but despite this and some economical storytelling, the plot feels like something I've already seen.
This could be a sign of its success, that a lot of other movies have copied it since. But I get the idea Poltergeist is doing a bit of copying of its own, resulting in a good movie that could have been great.
* Contact Ed Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.