Six Damn Fine Degrees #127: You never forget your first time

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

You probably remember that scene from Poltergeist (the 1982 original, not the 2015 remake): Marty, one of the parapsychologists investigating the Freeling home, goes to the kitchen at night, grabs some food from the fridge – and finds that what he’s taken seems possessed and infested with maggots and evil. Understandably taken aback, he runs to a nearby utility room, he splashes water on his face… and then watches himself in the mirror as slits and cracks open in his face. Blood drips in the sink. And as we’re watching, a horrified Marty pulls off his face chunk by chunk, revealing blood, flesh and bone. A flash of light! – and Marty’s face is where it belongs, where it’s always been. It’s all been in his head… or has it?

Warning: Some graphic albeit cheesy ’80s gore to follow.

Except, I don’t remember that scene, and that’s because until this week I’ve never seen it. Not because I’ve not seen Poltergeist; no, the reason is that I grew up with an ’80s TV edit of the film, and one of the things notably absent from that edit was most of this scene. What I remember is Marty’s face starting to crack and bleed, shots of the sink as drops of blood fell into it, and then it was all over. The briefest glimpse of something more gruesome, but the steak coming to life, first crawling on the kitchen worktop and then sprouting some horrible evil tumour, was more explicit than Marty’s minor case of uncanny flaking skin that we got on TV.

And when I first saw the face-off scene in its full, cheesy glory: Reader, I was not impressed. I found it tacky, camp in that Sam Raimi way that works brilliantly in a Sam Raimi movie (at least when Raimi’s at the top of his game), but an odd fit for Poltergeist, whose best scenes I always thought were its quieter ones: the chairs in the kitchen rearranging themselves when no one’s looking, and of course Carol Anne’s eerily relatable fixation with the television. Sure, Poltergeist goes full haunted-house amusement ride at the end, with coffins and corpses erupting from the ground like a paranormal game of Whac-A-Mole that can only be lost, but that’s after 100 minutes of build-up. What comes before is generally more subtle – or at least more subtle than some dude pulling off his Play-Doh face while dripping litres of fake blood into the sink.

Except that’s not quite right, is it? The mirror scene may be more Raimi-ish than the rest of Poltergeist, but the whole film is pretty much a haunted house ride, even if there is a definite buildup from uncanny to grotesque. I never turned up my nose at the rotten corpses bobbing in the pool, so why should Marty’s face-off be a gory SFX too far?

Most likely it’s because it’s not how I first experienced the film, and first impressions are difficult to shake. Our brains quickly store the first version we see of something as ‘the correct version’. Remember Rick Deckard, for instance? The jaded ex-cop who hunts down replicants, bioengineered humanoids used as slaves, even though (wait for it…) he may be one himself? For me, the neo-Noir feel of Blade Runner is transported in no small part by the cheesy voiceover delivered by a Harrison Ford who clearly didn’t like them – but since I grew up with the German dub, I even missed out on the obvious dislike that Ford’s voice performance carries. To me, it all fit perfectly: Blade Runner looked like a retro sci-fi updating of black and white films where a cynical detective would spout cynical phrases about his job, his failed love life, everything. The voiceover felt no more misplaced than the cheesy romantic noodlings of Vangelis’ synth-and-saxophone combo in the film’s “Love Theme” (as it’s called on the soundtrack, though love may not be the word I’d use to describe the scene that it accompanies).

When I first watched the 1992 Director’s Cut version of Blade Runner, I missed the voiceover – again, because that’s how I got to know the film. Even when watching the Final Cut, released in 2007 for the 25th anniversary, my brain still supplies snippets of Deckard’s absent patter: “Sushi. That’s what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish.” Sure, it’s not a good line, but it’s memorable, and whoever said that Deckard was particularly good with words?

But people can change. They can learn. I remember feeling much like Alan did when I first heard William Shatner’s voice come out of James T. Kirk’s mouth: namely that this was wrong, a downgrading of the original. (Well, my original.) But I got used to it, and by now I barely remember what Kapitän Kirk sounded like: German, I guess, but that’s all I remember. And these days I may still have memories of the Blade Runner voiceover, but I don’t actively miss it – even more so since the many released versions make it difficult to identify one of them as the ‘correct’ one.

Still: that gruesome scene in Poltergeist? It never happened. That’s some fan video, something spliced in from a forgotten Evil Dead film. Marty’s face never comes off. All of that is paranormal propaganda – and who are you going to believe: the poltergeists… or me? Listen to me: it never happened.

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