40 Years Later, Poltergeist Is Still A Must-Watch Horror Film

Scares, thrills, and laughs. They’re here.

Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist (1982)

The 80s gave birth to a lot of iconic horror films: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Evil Dead, to name a few. Also among them, of course, is Poltergeist, a 1982 film about a family whose home is invaded by mysterious supernatural entities who kidnap their youngest daughter. Considering how it’s now been officially 40 years since its release on June 4, 1982, it’s mightily impressive how well the film still stands the test of time, remaining one of the most consistently frightening and finely made horror films of all time.

Poltergeist is a must-watch if you’re a horror film fan and a film fan in general. Every aspect of it, from the writing to the directing to the cinematography, is top-notch, clearly made by masters of their craft. On top of it all, it’s rated PG, meaning director Tobe Hooper and screenplay writers Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor had to be extra creative with how they delivered the scares — and boy, did they deliver, despite the restraints. It’s a great achievement in of itself how Poltergeist still remains a delightfully scary film despite being sanitized enough into family-friendliness.

There are some really creative scares here, both through writing and visuals. This is an utterly gorgeous film with cinematography that still, to this day, holds up — some shots are straight up mesmerizing, like you’re watching the horror equivalent of a fireworks show. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti takes this horror film and turns it into a dazzling spectacle: visually, Poltergeist is one of the most distinct and unique horror films of all time and it’s hard to think of another horror that resembles its aesthetic. The closest film I can think of is Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and that’s not even a horror film.

Another way Poltergeist is distinct is in its abundance of humanity — there’s a love and warmth here not often found in horror movies, especially of its time. The Friday the 13th series may boast some creative and gory kills, but nobody really cares about its characters — most of them are just future dead bodies. We know they’re only there to add to Jason’s kill count and we might even be cheering Jason on when the time comes for them to die.

Poltergeist, however, wants you to care about its characters. The loving relationship between every member of the family is on full display here — these are characters you actively care for and hope make it out alive. Poltergeist isn’t just scary and thrilling, it’s endearing and emotionally affecting. Thankfully, the film boasts a stellar cast. Every major character here is perfectly cast and the stellar acting really brings these characters to life, with performances from JoBeth Williams as Diane and Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh being particular standouts.

Another thing that makes Poltergeist even more memorable is its terrific sense of humor. While the film doesn’t have enough funny scenes in it to consider it a comedy, there’s still a surprising amount of chuckles and laughs in this horror film. It’s a welcome addition — Poltergeist may shine because of its scares and its visual prowess, but the occasional funny scenes make for great toppings to an already delicious desert.

But while the film may boast tight writing and stunning cinematography, it’s hard to deny how dated some of the special effects now look. Not all of them, of course, as many of Poltergeist’s ghouls and monsters still look terrific, if unconvincing, but occasionally the film will have a scene where the effects have become too cheesy, not enough to distract but enough to notice.

This is to be expected, of course. Poltergeist is four decades old and many 80s horror films suffer from the same problem, so this is easy to forgive. Still, while some of the effects may be showing their age, the writing and directing most certainly do not, proving that great storytelling really is king.

The haunted house subgenre of horror films is a crowded one and it’s only become more crowded since Poltergeist’s release. Sinister, The Conjuring, and Oculus are just a few haunted house films of the last ten years to owe a debt of gratitude to Poltergeist. Truly, it’s a testament to great writing and directing that even 40 years later, Poltergeist still stands as one of the greatest haunted house films of all time.

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