How Poltergeist Perfectly Brings Together Horror and Comedy

Poltergeist was a smash hit with audiences when it first came out, as it was a horrifying all-ages take on a classic scary movie premise. This haunted house film has been an undeniable influence on horror films in the decades since its release, and one major element of its success has been similarly effective with other filmmakers too.

While it’s far from the only horror film to rely on comedy to make the characters more endearing, Poltergeist — which has just received a new 4K Ultra HD remaster courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment — does it better than most. The film’s focus on the funny and charming aspects of the Freeling family helps elevate the tension for the audience, highlighting just how effective horror and comedy work together.

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At the heart of Poltergeist is the Freeling family. Steve and Diane do their best to take care of their children — Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne — resulting in them living in the highly developed suburb that Steve helped establish as a real estate agent. There’s no true supernatural edge to the family in the original film, or any actively supernatural element to any of the characters, as opposed to the world of The Conjuring series. In fact, they are an average American family that frequently jokes with one another and reacts to the supernatural with a mix of sheer terror and bizarre fascination that tracks with how real-life people would respond to the horrors that befall them.

Instead of being twisted or secretly villainous in some unexpected way, the Freeling family are simply charming and funny. The film highlights this multiple times, especially in the first act. Steve gets into a remote control fight with his neighbor. Dana flips off the construction workers objectifying her. Diane turns the ghostly haunting in their kitchen into a parlor trick. All of these little beats make the Freeling family likable in a way that horror movie characters can be tricky to portray.

The inherent dangers thrown at the characters in the horror genre make it easy for creatives to simply create disposable characters the audience won’t care as much about losing. Instead, the Freeling family feels friendly and fleshed-out. they like these characters, meaning they have a reason to hope they don’t get destroyed by their experience with the supernatural.

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In a lesser film, Carol Anne’s kidnaping by the malevolent spirits of the house would spur on more base-line action or movement in the plot. Because of the jokey and happy nature of the family in the film’s first half, the beat-down and emotionally exhausted portrayal of the family in the film’s second half lands so much harder. Instead of just happening to people in the film, it’s happening to characters the audience have come to love.

Poltergeist highlights how important comedy can be in horror movies. Comedy can make characters pop and likable, giving the audience more reason to root for them as they are forced into more high-tension sequences and scares. Poltergeist is far from the only film to do this — the characters in films from Jordan Peele’s horror output, the meta-minded teens of scream and even the more overtly comedic entries of the genre like Shaun of the Dead and Tucker & Dale vs. evil all use comedy to their advantage.

Poltergeist highlights that concept better than almost any other film though, with comedy that plays to all-ages ahead of the unsettling and gruesome scares of the film’s more frantic second half. Comedy and horror operate on a similar structure. A punch-line is the comedic equivalent of a scary reveal in a horror film, so the addition of some humor doesn’t throw off the natural rhythm and pace of a horror story. It gives audiences a reason to care about the characters and invest themselves in their fates. Poltergeist wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without that reliance on comedy in the first half, leaving the audience invested and vulnerable to the full horror potential of the film.

Poltergeist is now available on 4K Ultra HD

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