Monthly here at Horror Bound I provide a deep dive on a horror franchise providing analysis, watch orders, rankings and insight into each of the films. The past entries have been Child’s Play (eight films), Hellraiser (10 films) and the remakes of the Living Dead trilogy (ten films) so I felt a bit relieved to work on a much smaller franchise this month, Poltergeist which, including the remake, (not covered here) is only 4 films. Poltergeist is a familiar and easily accessible franchise about a young girl named Carol Anne and her family who are terrorized by angry spirits…or is it? After this most recent viewing of the series it has become clear that what this film really is about is fear and over the course of the three original films the movies address just about every phobia imaginable.
The original, directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper, is about a standard 1980’s suburban family who encounters a spirit in their house which at first seems harmless as it slides chairs around and stacks plates but soon becomes dangerous as it abducts their youngest daughter Carol Anne and sucks her into the television. Aided by a trio of parapsychologists and a medium, portrayed by the amazing Zelda Rubenstein, and armed with a mother’s love they rescue young Carol Anne from “The Beast”. As I said, this movie is really and exploration of fear, so let’s look at some of the phobia and fears this movie expresses.
First, there is the childhood fear of death as the opening scene’s show the passing of Carol Anne’s pet parakeet and catching her mother flushing the bird and her having to cope with death by burying the bird in a cigar box with all his earthly possessions. Next, her brother Robbie has not only the standard childhood fear of the creepy tree outside the window, but also of storms. Poltergeist works perfectly as a horror movie to watch with kids because the fear of a thunderstorm is something they all can relate to. As far as the creepy tree outside of the window my 16-year-old daughter still sometimes will get freaked out by the giant lilac bush that presses up against her bedroom window, the moonlight casting ominous shadows on her bedroom walls. Most certainly the movie leans heavily on a parent’s fear of losing their child whether it be getting eaten by a tree, drowning in a swimming pool or being sucked into the television but it also explores the fear of opening up to strangers with your personal problems as parents Steve and Diane have to talk about weirdness in their house with their neighbors and complete strangers. The ending of the movie plays on the overall fear of death and cemeteries as it turns out the Freeling house was built on top of an old cemetery and finally we get a subtle bit of Coulrophobia aka the fear of clowns as Robbie is attacked by his toy clown that tries to drag him to hell.
The original Poltergeist has incredible special effects for its time, a fantastic storyline that is easily accessible to all manner of horror fans from the die hard, to the casual to even new fans as this is a wonderful first-time haunt for kids who are too old for Halloweentown and too young for The Evil Dead. Enough shocking scares and subtle acknowledgements of common fears make this film truly a masterwork in horror.
Poltergeist 2: The Other Side
Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, we find the Freeling family having moved in with Grandma Freeling in her television free home looking to move beyond the events of the original. Soon they encounter a mysterious man named Kane who turns out to be an undead hell demon who is trying to possess young Carol Anne. This time aided by a native American Medicine Man, Taylor, and the amazing Zelda Rubenstein armed only with a father’s love they successfully save Carol Anne from “The Beast”. As with the original, this movie is really an exploration of fear, so let’s look at some of the phobias and fears this movie expresses.
As with the original we confront death as Carol Anne’s grandmother dies suddenly near the beginning of the film. It’s interesting as the death of the parakeet in the original was given much more screen time than the death of Grandma. The parakeet gets a funeral, Grandma is mentioned in passing only. We then explore the Father’s fear of inadequacy as after the events of the first film he has lost his prestigious job as a real estate agent and is relegated to selling vacuum cleaners’ door to door. The movie explores another all too real fear of losing your child in a public place as one day the family goes out to the mall and a quick glance away finds little Carol Anne missing in a public place and the mother frantically running through the mall looking for her daughter only to find her with a stranger, which is a fear in and of itself. Stranger danger is a real thing. The stranger is of course the undead and insane preacher Kane who in a past life led his followers to their death in a cave (claustrophobia) over fear of an impending doomsday which never happened. In the climax of the film after the father Steve is possessed by a demonic tequila worm and puked up (credited as Vomit Creature) the family faces their fears and travel back to their home in Cuesta Verde, confronting and defeating the beast on his own turf ridding themselves of the demon forever more.
Poltergeist 2 is bizarre. The original was pretty cut and dry. Greedy land developer builds on top of a cemetery and the dead get pissed. The end. With a simple story like that you really have to stretch to get a sequel and that’s how you go from zero to zombie priest and Native American mythology in a matter of seconds. Overall a great film but in my opinion inferior to the original and the third entry.
The third film has a change of scenery taking place in Chicago with Carol Anne moving in with her Uncle Bruce, Aunt Patricia and Cousin Donna who live in a fancy high-rise apartment building. Soon after, the ghost of Kane reappears to again take possession of Carol Anne’s soul this time hiding in mirrors. Aided by the amazing Zelda Rubenstein armed only with her gaudy necklace they save Carol Anne from “The Beast”. This movie like its predecessors explores fears but this movie is unique that it only looks at one fear.
While this movie could have easily leveraged a fear of heights considering the movie is set in a high-rise apartment building or trapped some of the characters in an elevator to explore claustrophobia. Hell, they could have even explored paranoia as Carol Anne’s doctor is convinced she is lying about all the paranormal goings on but all these things are hardly mention and some just outright ignored. Instead it based the entire plot development on a specific fear, the fear of love or showing love. In the first two movies it was the love for Carol Anne that saved her or kept her grounded in reality, but surrogate mother Aunt Patricia expresses that she is burdened by Carol Anne’s presence. She almost seems annoyed by having to care for her throughout the movie, but Carol Anne is never taken completely by Cane, why? The why is simple, deep down inside Patricia loves Carol Anne with her whole heart but is bound by fear, unable to speak her true emotions, afraid of feeling vulnerable and opening herself up to the possibility of being loved in return. When Patricia does finally face her fears and admit that she loves Carol Anne, then and only then, is she saved.
Poltergeist 3 is my absolute favorite of the trilogy. The creepy scenes with weird stuff popping up in mirrors, wacky possessed doppelgangers, and amazing special effects, have this movie lodged deep in my memory banks. When I think Poltergeist, I think this movie. Unfortunately, Heather O’Rourke, the actress who plays Carol Anne, died during post-production. That, coupled with a poor box office, hindered this films performance and removed Poltergeist from the big screen for twenty seven years before horror legend Sam Raimi decided to produce the sequel.
Overall, the Poltergeist series is one that, outside of the original, does not get as much love and attention that it should. It is truly a deep series which each entry acting more like an anthology series than direct sequels even though there is a similar cast. A fantastic series with some of the best practical effects throughout this side of Puppet Master. The limited amount of entries ensure that the series stays focused and doesn’t go into bizarro world by sending the series to space or Manhattan.
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