Exploring Poltergeist’s Best Non-Scare Scene In which Spielberg shows us how it's done

Even though Poltergeist is my favorite horror movie, I never bothered to sit down and watch the sequels, or the remake, having seen enough bits of each to determine that they weren’t worth the hit on my psyche. Until last night…

I finally watched Poltergeist 2: The Other Side. It’s… something. On paper it had the goods to potentially work – the entire principle cast returned (minus older sister Dana, whose actress was tragically murdered, not acknowledged in this film), and the plot continued directly from the first film while adding a bit of lore to the haunting. But it was missing two HUGE factors – Mssr’s Spielberg and Hooper. As a result, the dialogue is less natural, the scares are more corny, and the special effects are noticeably worse than the first movie in spite of H.R. Giger being brought in to design monsters. In fact the only scare that really works is the infamous tequila worm scene.

Thinking about where Poltergeist 2 went so horribly, horribly wrong brought me around to thinking about what Steven Spielberg brought to the first one. Tobe Hooper obviously deserves credit as the official director, but by now it’s pretty well known that he collaborated with Spielberg rather than presiding over him. Both directors have a flair for authenticity, but where Hooper is good at making scenes visceral, Spielberg is good at making then relatable.

And that brings me around to a scene in Poltergeist that not many people ever really think about it. It’s not even on YouTube for Christ’s sake. It’s a scene early in the film of the Freeling parents (Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams) hanging out in bed chatting and smoking pot. This scene has nothing to add to the plot of the movie, and there’s an oft-cited rule in filmmaking that no scene should ever be included in the final cut of a movie unless it moves the plot forward. And yet, this scene is super important, because it turns these two characters from mere characters into actual people.

On the page, it’s just two parents chit chatting in bed. And you can imagine how a mediocre director might shoot this: With both characters sitting side by side at the head of the bed, perhaps one reading a magazine, and discussing things that might come into play later in the film. But on screen, it’s so much more loose and authentic. Diane is leaning on a pillow at the head of the bed but Steve is lying face down at the foot reading a biography of Ronald Reagan (Craig T. Nelson, a staunch Republican, very well could have brought this book from home). They casually roll a joint and pass it while Diane talks about a sleepwalking incident from her childhood.

The way she talks about it isn’t grave and foreboding. They’re both giggling through the story. And it isn’t something that pays off later in the film, nor is the weed smoking. This kind of thing was certainly going on in suburban master bedrooms in the early 80’s, but it generally wasn’t talked about in pop entertainment unless there was a moral lesson forthcoming. Here, none of the events of this scene are important whatsoever, but the texture of it is monumentally important because it’s one of the few times we get to see the people in this family just being a family and not having to worry about paranormal activity.

There are other similar moments in the first act that accomplish a similar thing, like Carol Anne performing a funeral ceremony for their parakeet and then immediately asking for a goldfish. Or Dana trying to hide talking on the phone with her boyfriend at bedtime. But when this scene comes on I always pay close attention, in spite of its total meaninglessness, not to mention lack of scares. I’d bet good money this was a scene Spielberg directed personally.

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