Directed by Tobe Hooper.
1982. Rated PG, 114 minutes.
Craig T. Nelson
The Freelings are just a regular family of five, six if you count the dog. Steven (Nelson) is a hard working real estate agent and Diane (Williams) is a stay-at-home mom who keeps things running like a well-oiled machine. Dana (Dunne) is the attitudinal teen who doesn't really like being around her family just because. Yes, that's a complete sentence, not a typo. Finally, we have Robbie (Robins) and Carol Anne (O'Rourke) who share a bedroom. Robbie is afraid of everything even though he's the older of the two. He is especially scared of the life-sized clown doll that sits in a chair directly at the foot of his bed and faces him and old, gnarled, massive tree right outside the window next to the same bed. Carol Anne is cute as a button and all sorts of curious. Soon enough, things start going bump in the
One of the things that strikes me as add, watching it for the first time in at least twenty-five years, is the film's tone. It not so overbearingly ominous that it screams horror flick the way most haunted house movies tend to, these days. In fact, it's rather upbeat. Tobe Hooper, who helmed darker flicks such as the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directs here. However, it's long been suspected super director Steven Spielberg, who plays producer on this one, exerted a good deal of control. I'm not sure how true that is, but his influence is most clearly seen in this area. It comes across more like E.T. or Goonies than The Amityville Horror, which came out a few years earlier. This makes it as much an adventure film as it is a ghost story. Scenes that would be played for maximum scares in other films function like action set pieces in Poltergeist. This helps keep it family friendly. The kiddies might get a jolt out of some intense imagery, but most will still want to watch. Between these scenes things the ghosts are doing give our heroes a sense of wonder before eventually becoming dire. This is opposed to a film like The Conjuring where everything is instantly the worst thing that ever happened. Without that ominous tone, Poltergeist maintains a level of "clean fun" uncommon for the genre.
Another of the movie's strengths is its performances. What I did not remember, if I ever knew it at all, is that JoBeth Williams received top billing. This is rather progressive for 1982 given that male co-star Craig T. Nelson had a slightly bigger name at the time. However, it's well deserved. She plays the most present character and gives the film its heart. She is also an excellent scream queen and conduit for the audience. To his credit, Neslon is good in the clueless father role. The kids are okay as a collective. As Carol Anne, Heather O'Rourke gets to say the iconic line ("They're heeeeeerrrrear!) and delivers it perfectly, but is otherwise unremarkable and often absent except for her voice faintly emanating from the snowy television screen. The person who makes the biggest impression is nearly as small as our young damsel in distress. Zelda Rubinstein completely takes over the film from the very first moment she appears about halfway through. She plays Tangina Barrons, the big gun brought in to figure out how to rescue Carol Anne. The confidence with which she strides onto the screen is not unlike the arrival of a superhero. However, she has way more swag than any of those guys. The way she commands our attention is impressive.
There are many great things going on in this film, yet its one that may fall flat to present day audiences. The special fx have aged horribly. What once may have been frightening is now downright laughable. People new to Poltergeist might be taken out of it by visuals they could have created themselves. As evidenced by the film's Academy Award nomination for Visual Effects, this was once cutting edge material. Now, it's merely a testament to how far technology has come. That's likely to prove difficult to overlook for many, especially younger viewers. They may even tune out completely because there are lots of fx in use. If you're able to look beyond the dated visuals, Poltergeist is still a very fun experience. It's overall tone makes it difficult to classify as horror. Let's call it introductory horror for youngsters, or horror with training wheels. as it delivers more thrills than frights. In any case, it delivers.