The 2015 reimagining of Poltergeist is mostly what we've come to expect from horror remakes -- a passable if tedious display, hitting a lot of familiar beats from its source material but dressed up in the current horror fashions. In fact, the one thing that's brought into sharpest focus by the new Poltergeist is that the original has held quite a bit of influence on modern horror.
Insidious, Sinister and The Conjuring all have one unifying theme in common -- family. At the heart of each of their stories is a family struggling to deal with the supernatural. It's a theme that has served each franchise well enough to merit lucrative theatrical sequels.
There is an important distinction between those films and Poltergeist, though. Poltergeist isn't just a movie about a family; it was designed to be for family viewing. Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper actually fought the MPAA over the film's initial R rating until it was lowered to PG. Granted, we're talking about a time before PG-13 existed, but the result is no less noteworthy. Poltergeist went from being briefly considered a largely adults-only affair to a rating that told parents "Yeah, bring the kids along, too."
Although Poltergeist does have its fair share of scares, that PG rating is earned, because the focus of Poltergeist really isn't the scares -- it's the family. That is at the heart of what makes Poltergeist stand out. But much like the Freelings' home, this film has many hearts.
The closest modern-day comparison that can be drawn to Poltergeist is not its own remake but 2013's The Conjuring. (Note: this article will discuss plot elements from both films.) Both feature a family in distress due to a supernatural disturbance within their home, and both seek the aid of gifted paranormal investigators. Both also place the mother in a central role, but that is exactly where the two films diverge, and where Poltergeist's uniqueness once again comes into play.
Whereas Carolyn Perron in The Conjuring is the focus of the haunting and eventually becomes possessed, Diane Freeling is consistently the one person strong and wise enough to protect her family from the titular poltergeist. This distinction is essential in understanding why the storytelling in Poltergeist is unlike any other horror movie ever made.
Although every member of the family plays their part, Poltergeist is largely Diane Freeling's story. While Carol Anne may be the first to discover the disturbance, it's Diane, portrayed by the luminescent JoBeth Williams, who seeks to understand it. The film even makes a point of telling the audience that Carol Anne's gift of seeing beyond what most humans do comes from Diane.
As a result, once Carol Anne is taken by the spirits inhabiting the Freeling house, it is Diane who is most capable of remaining in communication with her. Placing a maternal figure at the heart of Poltergeist has a profound effect on the way we experience its brand of horror. Take, for example, this sequence, in which Diane communes with Carol Anne for the benefit of Dr. Lesh and the other paranormal investigators:
You can see from that scene how Poltergeist's scares are tempered by Diane's strength as a woman and as a mother. Her energy makes it so we can see something larger than just the scary parts of Poltergeist. And her energy is strengthened by two other strong female characters -- Dr. Lesh and, of course, Zelda Rubinstein's career-defining Tangina. Each, despite their own fears, treats the situation they find themselves in as something not just frightening but wondrous.
Meanwhile, the audience throughout the film are treated like children, struggling with all the big questions they don't yet have the experience to understand. That is the role that the Freeling's son Robbie plays -- he asks the questions we want answers to, not just in the film, but in life. Take this scene, for example, in which Dr. Lesh tries to explain to Robbie what happens after people die:
Both this and the earlier clip form the backbone for Poltergiest tonally, and so much of Poltergeist uses this tactic in dealing with the supernatual -- not only with jump scares or dread, but with wonder and compassion.
Ultimately, Poltergeist has much more in common with Spielberg's other film of 1982, E.T., than it does with The Conjuring. In fact, it could be argued that if it weren't for the one malevolent spirit in the Freeling house, Carol Anne's relationship to the other spirits in her home would have probably been much more similar to the one between Elliott and E.T.
There are so many aspects of Poltergeist that people talk about. Whether it's ILM's effects work, the conflicts between Spielberg and Hooper, or the supposed curse surrounding the franchise, Poltergeist is one of those horror movies that appears on every best-of list. But plenty of movies have great effects and scores, most have creative conflicts galore, and stories of "real-life" curses crop up in myriad horror movies.
All those things combined aren't what makes Poltergest distinct. What does make Poltergeist so genre-redefining and singular is that, despite the scares along the way (and there are lots of very memorable ones), the story of Poltergeist isn't as simple as one of good defeating evil -- it's a story of reuniting lost souls, be they living or something beyond. It's a story that isn't just scary, it's one that reminds us that it's OK to be scared sometimes.
Poltergeist takes the most ordinary of family lives and makes them extraordinary, not just through dreams or nightmares, but through the spaces in between. Not only does the Poltergeist remake fail at doing any of the above, but it stands in such stark contrast to the original Poltergeist that it serves as a reminder of just how truly unto itself the 1982 classic remains.
Poltergeist was a true original when it came out, and even with the obvious nods in decades' worth of filmmaking since, it remains wholly unlike any movie that was made before or since -- a horror movie that tugs at the heartstrings of the whole family.