MY FAVOURITE HORROR MOVIE: PATRICK REA
Although perhaps best known for 2013's Nailbiter, prolific film-maker PATRICK REA saw his latest genre effort - wilderness horror Enclosure - received its UK premiere at this year's Frightfest festival. And word is that it's rather good. Here he talks about his love of surely the scariest PG rated film of all time...Poltergeist (1982)
When asked to pick my favorite horror film of all time, I found myself at a crossroads. Do I pick my favorite horror film that may be more of a guilty pleasure, or do I pick the one that I think affects me the most emotionally on every level, and maybe isn’t a film I watch on a monthly basis? It came down to a stand off between the original “Friday the 13th” which remains close to my heart and I watch on repetition to this day and “Poltergeist” which manages to fill me with excitement every time I revisit it. After careful consideration, “Poltergeist” won the stand off.
The first thing I need to contemplate is why does “Poltergeist” hit me like it does after each viewing. I have to believe that it all comes down to a simple feeling the movie gave me as a child. I was very young when the film was released in 1982 and I was still being subjected to “E.T.” I was only pushing 3 years old at the time, so I probably didn’t see “Poltergeist” till it hit cable in the mid to late-80s. It was again, a film I was told to never watch, which made it instantly more attractive to me.
There were always whispery discussions on the school playground about what happened in the scary movies we weren’t supposed to be watching. Eventually, I caught what was most likely an “edited for television” version on cable. Life was never the same. Over the years, whether it was uncut on HBO or censored on the USA Network, the film still filled me with that sense of danger because I wasn’t supposed to be seeing it. I remember after one particular viewing, I ran around my house calling my sister “Carol Anne” since she strongly resembled her as a child. My parents were very annoyed about this, and reminded me that I shouldn’t be watching that ‘scary movie’. Several years later, I would scar my sister for life by making her watch “Poltergeist 2” while I was babysitting.
The major elements of “Poltergeist” that hold up the most over the years are the powerful themes of family, the fantastic score and the timeless special effects. There has always been a debate over the years on who directed the film, Steven Spielberg or Tobe Hooper. Regardless of the argument, whatever they did together created a really terrific movie that manages to be a big budget studio endeavor that remains scary and filled with heart. The performances by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson still feel very natural to this day. You really believe their a family, which is a rare accomplishment in any movie. The film also spends a good thirty-minutes setting up the family dynamic, which is almost never done in modern studio films. By the time the action starts, we feel like we know this family, which helps raise the stakes and maintain the emotion. When Carol Anne disappears in the film, we really feel the toll it takes on the family, unlike the lifeless 2015 remake, which felt like it was just going through the motions.
One of the biggest aspects of the original “Poltergeist” that keeps it from aging is its powerful score by famed composer, Jerry Goldsmith. The music is overflowing with majestic energy and childlike whimsy, which then turns frightening with low brass to put the viewer on edge. Of course, a major ingredient of “Poltergeist” that has also aged well is the optical effects. The sequence that comes to mind immediately is where the angelic-looking spectre floats down the staircase in front of the family and paranormal investigators. The scene is beautiful and chilling. It does however contain quite a few of Spielberg’s reaction shots that have gone on to be a staple of his films. Nevertheless the scene never ceases to send shivers down my spine, with its perfect blend of visual effects, sound design, music and performance.
“Poltergeist” is a classic example of capturing lightning in a bottle. None of the sequels and the recent remake even comes close to recreating its ‘spirit’ and a lot of modern horror films are still using its formula with mixed results. Someday when she is old enough, I will have my daughter watch the film and then we’ll see its true lasting power. Until then I’m going to sit back around Halloween and watch the film again. Each viewing feels different, and as a filmmaker I start to notice the little flaws, but it continues to be something special that can’t be recreated.