Horror is a big genre, but many of the most successful scary movies rely on gory and grotesque to win over audiences. From recent hits like Hereditary and Barbarian to classics like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, the easiest path to success is through blood and body parts. So it’s surprising that one of the best horror movies of all time is shockingly low on gore.
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to defy convention. And while the legendary director didn’t technically direct this film (at least, depending on who you ask), his fingerprints are all over it.
Of course, we’re talking about Poltergeist, which is streaming on HBO Max until the end of the month. Here’s why you need to watch it before then. And what you should know before you do.
Poltergeist follows the Freeling family as their home is invaded by evil and increasingly aggressive spirits. While many horror movies establish the lead characters as unlikable jerks you can’t wait to see get murdered, the Freelings are a stable and loving family. Parents Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) take good care of their kids and love each other too, while their teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), eight-year-old son Robbie (Oliver Robins), and five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) all seem nice and well-adjusted.
This works to Poltergeist’s advantage because it’s easy to feel bad for the Freelings when terrible things start to happen to them.
Poltergeist begins with a scene that may take some explaining in 2022. The Freeling family falls asleep but leaves the TV on. The broadcast system then prepares to shut down. The TV plays the U.S. national anthem and then turns to static.
In the era before CNN and Netflix, TV actually wasn’t an always-on service. At a certain time each night, the programming would end, and you’d be out of luck until morning. But Poltergeist takes what was then a common sight and makes it feel ominous. This dark room, filled with dead air and static, feels apocalyptic — especially since we know something scary is coming soon.
Little Carol Anne is first the target of the spirits and the entity known as “The Beast.” It’s her life force the spirits are attracted to. Children in horror movies aren’t anything new, and Carol Anne is not evil or possessed, but when she turns to her parents and creepily says, “They’re heeeere,” you do get the unsettling impression that this angelic child may have just been tainted by evil.
But when the Freelings first discover their house has ghosts, they’re not actually scared. Quite the opposite: they’re enchanted by these spirits. At first, the spirits seem harmless, but the movie’s tone doesn’t shift. While the Freelings are having fun playing games with the ghosts, the mood is still consistently spooky. Whimsical fun may be happening on the surface, but there’s a menacing undertone that lets the audience know something isn’t right.
Spielberg does this in many of his movies, no matter the genre. From Jurassic Park to E.T., the director is capable of balancing awe and danger like no other. In many Spielberg movies, there’s almost a command to respect the unknown or supernatural. Consider Jaws: that shark may look really cool, but there’s a good chance it could end your life.
It’s worth noting here that Steven Spielberg didn’t technically direct Poltergeist. The director has a “Story By” credit on the film and helped write the script, but he was unable to get behind the camera due to his contract for E.T., so the gig went to Tobe Hooper, who created the blood-soaked cannibal cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Some reports have suggested that Spielberg was a presence on set and might even be deserving of a co-director credit, but both Spielberg and Hooper dispute those claims. Still, it’s impossible not to see his fingerprints all over the movie, which blends the heightened sensibilities of an Amblin picture with the horror chops of Hooper.
Aside from one particularly disturbing scene, Poltergeist feels like the work of Spielberg. It’s scary, but not too scary. And like in Jaws, the scares come more from what you don’t see than from any actual monsters.
The plot unfurls as a pretty straightforward haunting. The Beast kidnaps Carol Anne, and the family hires a medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein in the role of a lifetime) to save her. It seemingly works, and the family is finally able to relax. Poltergeist then lulls us into a false sense of security, but horror fans have been trained for decades to expect one final scare. And this most delivers.
On the odd chance that you’ve never seen Poltergeist, we won’t spoil the incredible ending, but suffice it to say it’s one you’ll never forget. Hooper’s horror sensibilities shine through here in more ways than one as the movie delivers a terrifying sequence of scenes — though there’s no cannibalism to be seen if that makes you squeamish.
Ultimately, Speilberg’s sensibilities win out, though, and the movie’s iconic final shot is surprisingly playful considering what came just before it.
Poltergeist is a film that brings thrills and chills without excessive gore. There are no cheap jump scares or fake outs, either. Instead, every scene and image has a purpose. If the camera shows us something, there’s a good reason for it, and you can bet that detail will matter later.
Ultimately, Poltergeist exists as the unlikely collaboration between two very different filmmakers. But sometimes, that’s what you need to create something truly unique and special.
Poltergiest is streaming on HBO Max through November 30.