Does anyone remember the first movie that truly scared them? For me, it was Poltergeist from 1982. I was nine years old, and my father worked for the local cable company, which meant — FREE CABLE!! Star Wars was the first movie I fell in love with after seeing it on cable, but Poltergeist was the first one to make my jaw drop in fear. Looking back as an adult, it’s not all that scary, but when you’re nine, it’s easy to believe that a TV channel signing off late at night was the first sign of impending doom. Thank goodness we live in a 24/7 world now [insert sarcasm here].
Running time: 114 min.
Release date: June 4, 1982
An All-American family must deal with some not-so All-American supernatural forces in this special effects-driven thriller produced by Steven Spielberg and reportedly directed by Tobe Hooper, who gets the director credit even though most accounts were that this was Spielberg’s film from day one. Regardless of what rumors and facts have swirled about Poltergeist behind the scenes, it does not detract from the on-screen presentation which is haunting, funny and touching in appropriate doses.
The All-American family mentioned is the Freeling family: Steven (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Diane (Jobeth Williams) and their three kids, oldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), only son Robbie (Oliver Robins) and youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). The family lives in a planned community called Cuesta Verde, the type of neighborhood where all the homes look the same. Steven is a successful real estate developer working for the company overseeing the planning of this community. Things suddenly begin to get a little strange, however, when Carol Anne wakes up one night and starts talking to the television set, which is displaying nothing but white noise. This is back in the day when stations would sign off, of course. The next day, strange storm clouds appear, perhaps signifying the storm that is about to come for this ordinary family. Carol Anne speaks to the television again, but this time a large ghostly hand emerges from the set and things are abruptly shaken up by what appears to be an earthquake. Next thing you know, drinking glasses are breaking, chairs are being stacked and kids are sliding across a kitchen floor seemingly assisted by some unseen force. Then there is the scary tree in the backyard that taunts young Robbie. During a storm, the tree suddenly comes to life and attacks Robbie, providing enough distraction for the “TV people” to abduct Carol Anne. The family enlists the help of a group of parapsychologists, who bring their doubts and equipment and are amazed – and aghast – at what they find: this family is, indeed, being haunted by supernatural forces from… who knows where. Eventually, a diminutive medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) is brought in to assist in finding Carol Anne and bringing her back. The story begins smartly enough by focusing on the everyday routines and dynamic of the Freeling family, allowing the viewer enough time to develop a connection with them so that when scary things happen, there is plenty of empathy. While we’re never truly clear on where the supernatural spookies come from, the viewer is led to believe that they are benevolent at first, with innocent parlor tricks. Some of the plot elements get a little silly, like when the dialogue is focused on things like “life forces” and whatever it is the spirits are seeking; but the story is filled with enough threats and scares to keep things moving.
As mentioned, Tobe Hooper gets directing credit, but this feels like a Spielberg film all the way, from the suburban setting to the more touching moments that soften the edges of the story. Hooper is known for being the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the edge from that work is missing here, which hints at Spielberg having his hands all over this. Spielberg gets writing credit along with Michael Grais and Mark Victor. The characters are given plenty of depth (except for the elder daughter, who is relegated to sobbing and screaming duties) so that there is a connection made between the material and the viewer. Carrying the heavy burden of this film are the special effects. Hooper/Spielberg have created many cool visuals along the way, from some of the haunting spirits to a piece of steak that slides itself across a counter. Poltergeist received a worthy Oscar nomination for the effects (losing to Spielberg’s own E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial), providing for plenty of jaw-dropping and chilling moments throughout.
The cast of relative unknowns (at the time) is a wise choice, so that no one character is overwhelming either the story or the effects. Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams provide strong character work in making their mom and dad characters sympathetic and caring people. The younger children also provide surprisingly effective performances as well. They are smart and downright scared kids and convey that very well. It is well documented that first Dominique Dunne and later Heather O’Rourke met untimely deathss, and there may be a slight pall over the proceedings with that knowledge, but the surrounding cast is so good that there isn’t any lingering somberness. Another revelation amongst the cast is the work of Zelda Rubinstein, as she provides some levity and a strong center for the climax.
Poltergeist is a special effects and character-driven story, with strong work from both elements. With moments of humor, moments of terror and moments of emotion, Poltergeist is a roller coaster of a ride. While the plot does little in explaining the origins of the so-called “poltergeists” and whether or not the exact location of the house has anything really to do with the proceedings, the movie provides endless entertainment and never truly wavers. Confronting frightening supernatural forces with nothing but a length of rope and some tennis balls may seem silly, but the effects and the characters make you forget little things like that quite easily.
RATING: **** – Solid, effective roller coaster thrill ride of a movie.
Remember, for more reviews of films from YOUR past, check out MY OWN SITE!