In times past, religion was considered the opiate of the masses. Now, though, television seems to have taken its place. All throughout the land grown men fall asleep to its warm, comforting glow and children everywhere suckle on its electronic teat. The idiot box has taken over our lives.
Poltergeist begins with the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ ringing comfortingly from a suburban television set as a middle-class father respires gently in the living room. Yes, it’s the TV that is the centre of this family, not the man snoring in an armchair.
At first the Freeling family is kind of amused by the fact that their daughter talks to the television set and that weird forces are present that move furniture. But just when the family thinks the phenomena is harmless, a tree attacks their son and a closet eats their daughter.
It must be said that the special effects for the tree attack are simply atrocious. Yes you have to bear in mind the fact that the film was produced in the early 80s, but still, there’s very little horror to be had when you can clearly see that the tree is made out of rubber – it wobbles like mad. And it also doesn’t help that the dialogue is atrocious. A young child is being sucked up by a tree and it’s going to eat him and the child screams, ‘It’s taking me in!’ I don’t know about you, but if I were about to be devoured by a woody plant I’d be screaming in a series of grunts. I wouldn’t be very precisely describing what was happening like it was a minor annoyance.
Another abysmal piece of effects work occurs when a group of paranormal investigators are trying to help the Freeling family. One guy wanders the house at night and sees a piece of meat crawl along the kitchen work surface. It then opens up and maggots crawl out. Disgusted, he goes to the toilet and then sees his face becoming distorted like the meat. He then rips his face off, flesh coming apart in handfuls. Really this should be a scary scene, but it just looks ridiculous. The face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is infinitely more effective.
But the film really does fail quite spectacularly in trying to be scary. There’s one bit where through a bit of nonsense the mother has to go into another dimension to rescue her child who is trapped between worlds (they can hear the child’s voice emanating from the TV). In order to do this she has to go into the closet while attached to a bit of rope that her husband holds. So the husband holds onto the rope as she disappears and then from within the closest comes a massive skull. It’s meant to be a frightening physical manifestation of the evil force that is holding this family hostage, but instead it just looks like a gnarly skull a marijuana-sozzled Ozzy Osbourne fan would worship. Confronted by this fearsome sight you could imagine this fan getting on his knees, venerating it with the devil horns finger salute and rhythmically banging his greasy, lice-infested head. Rock ‘n’ fucking roll, dude!
Then there’s the infamous clown scene. Now I know a lot of people have an irrational clown fear. Somehow they fail to appreciate the belly laughs that strange men with white painted faces, freakishly bright hair and silly clothes generate. They don’t see the warmth, the love and the benevolence that resides within. But still, the clown doll in this film is insane. It leers at the children like an inanimate psychopath. Quite why any parent would buy it, I don’t know. They’d have to be insane. Either that or they’re colossal wankers who want to traumatise their offspring. Either way having such a toy is the height of stupidity. But all of this left aside, is the scene any good? Well, it’s actually just kind of silly. The toy strangles the child and drags him under the bed and then the child beats it up. Maybe if you’re ten or you’ve never embraced clown love, it’s a crapathon, but otherwise it’s just kind of amusing. But poor kid, eh? First a tree tries to kill him and then a toy clown wants him dead. Have a nice life, pal. Don’t spend too much on therapy.
But even though we’re meant to feel sorry for this family, I can’t help but wonder whether they had their tree/skull/clown apocalypse coming. We see the mother smoking pot while the father avidly reads a book about Ronald Reagan. Yes, you took your hippie ethos and got into bed with a monkey-loving, gay-hating, astrology-fixated nincompoop. Congratulations, you’re middle-class, conformist scum.
And there’s also a scene where the youngest child is watching the static on TV. The mother comes along and says it’s bad for her eyes and switches over to a war film. Yes, violence is much better for a child’s eyes.
But the criticism of Reagan’s America goes further. The father sells houses for a corporate scumbag who moves graveyards to make way for housing. But to make it even worse, we find out that the family’s house is itself on the site of an old graveyard. The only problem is that only the headstones were moved – the skeletons were left in place, hence the bad vibes.
The end of the film sees the family booking into a Holiday Inn and then moving the television out of the room. The lesson to be learned? Corporate greed is bad and you shouldn’t let television bring up your children.
But although it’s nice that a horror film has a message, it’s a shame that the film is so poor. The film is devoid of scares and most of it makes little sense. Plus it features a wise midget with a strong Southern accent who supposedly gets rid of all the bad vibes only for the clown doll to go mental when she’s gone. I hope the Freelings sued her tits off, the useless, ghost-obsessed, midget charlatan. ‘This house is clean’ my ass.