Return of the Poltergeist (1981)

If you’re like me—and you are—then you love gooey, goopy, gruesome horror movies, ones that explode with crimson gore or neon slime. You love those beasties coated in mucus, with the fully articulated arms and eyes that detonate out of their heads. You love the masked slasher who buries his axe inside of a skull, splitting it in half and releasing a miasma of maggots. You love the knives, machetes, and wide variety of power tools that get employed during a bloody rampage. You revel in the ambitious craft and imagination it took to create these effects, ones that last well after the end credits roll.

But you don’t always need a bucket of aortas to entertain, enlighten, and frighten. Return of the Poltergeist is a quiet film that proves that simple, low-budget effects can still be, well, effective.

Julie’s husband has passed away from third-degree burns. Don’t feel bad; he was kind of a dick. Now Julie (Cristina Galbó of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, What Have You Done to Solange?, and more) is getting ready to sell their old manor in the Spanish countryside. But something is stopping her, something supernatural, or as we say in español, sobrenatural.

Windows get thrown open, candles blow out, desks flip over, people levitate, laundry gets torn to pieces, and an electric knife floats across the kitchen. The effects are simple; classic illusions cleanly executed. Long shadows stretch along creaky hallways, a man’s moan echoes in the house, and a biscuit gets eaten by a dog. To be fair, he’s very cute and he absolutely deserves it because who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? You are! You are! 

A creepy medium explains that Julie’s husband has not laid down to rest. A nebbish parapsychologist explains that he may not even know he’s dead. A confused taxi driver explains that he’s not drunk. And all of this leads to the most dramatic scene of paper falling to the floor I have ever seen. Never before has a file folder felt so tense.

At first glance, Return of the Poltergeist might be yet another movie where the VHS cover oversells its contents. Unsuspecting viewers may believe that they’re going to witness a skinless man who radiates psychic lightning. And they will, though only in the last few minutes. But casting aside this slowburn movie just because it doesn’t deliver exploitative gore with an unhealthy dusting of cocaine would be a miss. Return of the Poltergeist does deliver on what is the bedrock of horror: atmosphere. Also a cute dog. But mostly atmosphere. The modest trick-camera effects, creepy setting, and frenetic orchestral score make the movie magnetic and charming. At times it feels like a classic Universal horror film, only with a crusty zombie arm, trippy aura photographs and a housekeeper who just really, really, really thinks Julie should leave (she really should)—and also, yes, a very cute dog. Return of the Poltergeist is a reminder that horror has many textures and flavors; some are filled with cocaine and disembowelment, and others are filled with wine and cheese, and just a little cocaine.

“The greatest mystery man must face, his most fantastic adventure: death.”

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