"Hey," I said to myself "I should watch that again. Maybe I just didn't appreciate it before. Maybe this time I'll like it, because I should like it, right? It's a classic."
Now believe it or not, there is precedent for this. The first time I saw "The Exorcist," I wasn't too impressed with the scariness of it, although I thought it was a good movie. On a second viewing a few months later, however, I found it to be almost unbearably frightening. I also enjoyed "Let The Right One In" far more on a second viewing as well, so it is possible for me to do a 180 on a film. On the other hand, I've also given second chances to "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Deer Hunter," among other classics, and I still hate those films. Sometimes I just plain don't like a movie, I guess.
So long story short, I still don't like "Poltergeist" that much. And it still wasn't scary, although the potential was there. On second viewing, I think I can determine that one of the big reasons I don't like it is because I'm not sure that "Poltergeist" knows what kind of movie it wants to be.
Ok, this scare is pretty good. I'll admit that...
Sure enough, it starts off really good. The opening scene is simply chilling and creepy as all hell, with the little girl, Carol Anne, coming downstairs in the middle of the night to talk to the spirits in the TV that only she can hear. I'm not going to lie, that scene sent shivers down my back. That's some messed up stuff.
Not too long after that, however, the movie really starts losing me because I felt like none of the characters are taking this seriously. It's almost like they're in a comedy or something with how nonchalant they are about things at times. The mother, Diane, played by the absolutely terrible JoBeth Williams, is of particular fault for this. "Oh yeah, our daughter got sucked into the TV and is being held captive by a thing called The Beast, but that doesn't mean I, as her mother, have to freak out about it."
After Carol Anne disappears, Diane really doesn't display too much terror or anguish or even willingness to do ANYTHING to get her back, at least not to the point where it becomes believable. And while that may be the fault of JoBeth's wretched acting, I also have to blame the script and its priorities in display real human emotion. I mean, I know plenty of mothers. Several of my best friends are mothers. The amount of fear that can result from something like a kid taking a bad spill is enough to set your average mother near the point of a stroke. That's not an indictment, that's just life. BE TRAUMATIZED ABOUT YOUR MISSING DAUGHTER.
Kevin Bacon IS JoBeth Williams as Sally Field in "Sybil 2: The Reckoning"
There are also comedic beats which, for me, utterly kill the mood of the film. Of particular note is a scene where Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams try to ask their neighbors if they've seen anything strange going on. The amount of stammering and restarting of sentences in this scene is enough to make Bob Newhart say "Get on with it." I think it's supposed to be funny, but I honestly can't tell. They just set a pail next to that premise and milked it for all it was worth.
So basically yeah, I don't like the characters, mostly because I never connected with them because I never got the feeling that the actors ever knew exactly how their character was supposed to be feeling, and the emotions just jump all over the place from scene to scene to the point where it's really distracting. One moment they're terrified, and the next scene taking place not 5 minutes in movie time later, they're sitting back, having a drink and chuckling. It's not a very well paced film.
Speaking of pacing, another big thing that bugged me is that it feels like some scenes were misplaced. There are big set-pieces in the first act that in any other movie would usually be saved for the end. And while that does imply greater things to come, in the end it's kind of a let down.
For example, about 30 minutes into the movie, there's the scene where the son gets attacked by the tree out in their yard, which tries to eat him. He is snatched from near death by Craig T. Nelson (off camera, by the way), and the whole time I'm thinking that it's a scene belonging at the climax, for two reasons.
Tree tried to eat the kid. And NO ONE SPEAKS OF IT EVER.
First is the fact that everything after a TREE TRYING TO EAT YOU is pretty small potatoes. The famous scene with the clown doll is saved for the obligatory "4th Act" that "Alien" made mandatory for horror films, and while it is a pretty well done scene...come on. It's a doll. You can't top "Man-Eating Tree" with "clown doll." There is no possible reason that those scenes shouldn't have been switched.
The second reason is that after a TREE TRYING TO EAT YOU, why in the name of all that is holy would you stay in the house? Carol Anne's abduction happens at the same time as the tree attack, when everyone else is helping the son, but at the very least, GET YOUR REMAINING CHILD OUT. There's no reason for the son to stay. None at all. But there he remains for a good chunk of the film. For me, that just helped to highlight the fact that I never just the feeling that these people really knew what they were doing, and it was really distracting.
AND LEAVE THE DAMN HOUSE ALREADY!!!! THERE'S NO REASON FOR A 4TH ACT!!!
I also never understood the concept of "The Light," and what that was all about. The keep going back and forth between yelling at Carol Anne to stay away from the light and telling her to run towards it. I could tell that there was a very good reason that they were doing this, but since the movie never explains it to us, that whole dramatic tension is completely wasted.
Also, if you're going to enter another plain of existence...show it to us. The biggest cop-out of the film is the fact the we never see where they went when they entered the spirit world. I was expecting that dimension in "The Real Ghostbusters" where they kept all the spirits they captured with their proton packs! That would have been sweet.
I think the most disappointing thing though, more than anything else, is that I felt feeling that had I been the one writing the script, I could made it WAY more scary. And that's not some ambiguous statement. There were scenes in "Poltergeist" that while watching, I started to get on the edge of my seat in anticipation of something truly scary happening, because I saw it coming. Yet these scenes never did happen the way I thought they would. Every time I would say to myself, "Oh man, if they go where I think they're about to go, that's going to be wicked messed up." But it never happened.
Me? I could have made this movie SIIIIIIIIIIIICK. And it would have rocked.
Oh, but look who I found in a little cameo role! Check it out! Billy is digging a hole! Now he's got to find a way out of it!
Anyone who got that joke is AWESOME.
THE BOTTOM LINE - "Poltergeist" is probably one of those movies that you had to be there for back in '82. Maybe then it would have been more effective. It defiantly has Spielberg's grubby hands all over it, which makes sense since he wrote and produced it (and reportedly all but directed it, too, instead of Toby Hooper), and for that reason there are plenty of striking visual moments, particularly a very effective scene with Craig T. Nelson outside a cemetery. However, the cheesiness of Spielberg taints what could have been a really terrifying film. It's a movie everyone should see, since it's important to the horror genre, but it's far from the best out there. I would actually recommend Tobe Hooper's masterpiece, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" over "Poltergeist" for something truly disturbing.