Conceived and shot virtually in tandem with E.T., Poltergeist is that film’s loud and scary cousin. Whatever the controversy about who actually directed it, this tight, nifty suburban ghost story is unquestionably a Spielberg movie. He produced, wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, leaving his trademarks all over the place. The archetypal middle-class family living in an ever expanding sprawl of housing tracts shares a lot of DNA with the less happy families in Close Encounters and E.T.
Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) are an upwardly mobile baby-boomers living in the ‘burbs. He works selling real estate in the subdivision in which they live while Diane appears to be a stay-at-home mom. They have three attractive kids, teenager Dana (the late Dominique Dunne), eight-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins) and five-year-old Carol Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke). At the beginning, their biggest worry is guiding their youngest through the trauma of a deceased parakeet. They also have a TV remote that appears to be on the same frequency as the next door neighbor’s, causing their set to switch channels in the middle of the big football game and young Robbie is vaguely freaked out by thunderstorms, the big clown doll in his room and the creepy tree outside his window.
Also, young Carol Anne has developed the odd habit of talking to the television when it’s showing nothing but static. You see, kids, this was 1982, back before twenty-four-hour cable, back before television stations had discovered there was gold in them thar infomercials and back when they actually went off the air in the wee hours after the end of the late night movie.
I already looked in the Yellow Pages. Furniture movers, we got. Strange phenomenon, there’s no listing.
Despite the superficially conventional appearance, the Freelings are also children of the sixties. After tucking in their kids, they repair to the master bedroom to light up a joint. Also, if you do the math, you’ll realize that the oldest, Dana, was born when Diane was 15 or 16. Not that these matter in the grand scheme of things but they are interesting character details that help flesh out the humanity of these characters.
Besides Carol Anne chats with the “TV People,” Diane starts to notice other odd happenings around the house. Their dog has taken to growling at thin air. Also, the kitchen chairs have started moving on their own and stacking themselves. At first, she actually thinks it’s kind of neat, but of course it’s always fun and games until someone loses a daughter.
That night, the playful spirits start to play rough, first when the big, creepy tree outside Robbie’s window turns out to be a relative of Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree. It’s suddenly inside his window and dragging him outside. While Steve fights to free his son from the big, creepy tree, little Carol Anne is unceremoniously sucked into her closet and, apparently, another plane of existence.
Needless to say, the Freelings do not go to the police for help. One mention of the tree trying to kidnap their son would probably have the cops fitting the couple for handcuffs, a straightjacket and an indictment. Instead, they turn to a trio of paranormal researchers, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Marty Casella). After a rather stressful night in the Freeling house (especially for Marty), Lesh calls for reinforcements, a diminutive drama queen of a medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), to help “clean” the house and recover Carol Anne from wherever she’s gotten off to.
Whatever your take on all this paranormal mumbo-jumbo, you have to give Poltergeist credit for taking its subject matter seriously and staying reasonably true to “real” poltergeist mythology. This intelligent approach, with a minimum of Hollywood excess, makes this movie an intelligent alternative to later, lesser works like its own sequels and Jan de Bont’s woeful remake of The Haunting. The special effects, while dated, are admirably restrained for this kind of movie and genuinely effective.
The casting of solid, veteran actors like Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, like Roy Scheider in Jaws, helps to ground the film in its prosaic reality before the chairs start stacking themselves. The heavy emoting, especially toward the end, is occasionally excessive but nothing unforgivable. For their part, the three younger stars are refreshingly free of the usual “too-hip” kid clichés that often dog movies like this. The center of the movie and the poltergeist’s attention, Heather O’Rourke, is not only adorable, but she bears a spooky resemblance to Cary Guffey from Close Encounters.
As Tagina the “Mini Me” medium, Zelda Rubinstein is anything but subtle, but having seen my share of so-called psychics on the Sci-Fi channel and other places, I figure it was a conscious decision on her part. She perfectly captures the air of melodrama these people seem to carry with them. Of course, these people don’t usually strut around like an action star, two parts Yoda and one part Indiana Jones. Now, if only her name didn’t sound like a cross between citrus fruit and a heart disease.
If there’s a downside to this production, it’s that the explanation for the haunting is downright clichéd and feels almost tacked on and unnecessary. One minor quibble, too. The Freelings supposedly live in a brand new subdivision, yet they have a big, old, creepy-looking and apparently dead tree in their back yard. Logically, this doesn’t track but I’m just being picky at this point.
Sadly, the entertainment value of this movie is often overshadowed by the extraneous elements that have grown up around it. For those of you too young to recall, the “Poltergeist curse” has supposedly claimed several persons involved in the production of this film and its two sequels. Dominique Dunne, sister of Griffin and daughter of Dominick, was strangled by her abusive boyfriend just a few months after this movie was released. Heather O’Rourke died of a sudden intestinal infection soon after making Poltergeist III. Oliver Robins was almost strangled for real in the scene where the creepy clown doll was supposedly strangling Robbie. Only quick action by Steven Spielberg kept fate from making a clean sweep of the Freeling children.
I’m not a believer in curses, though. Whenever you gather enough people together, like a film’s cast and crew, there is always the chance that a statistically unlikely number of them will meet an unfortunate end. I don’t need the supernatural when the laws of probability will do just fine.
I won’t go into depth about the controversy over who really directed this movie, Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg. I do find it curious that it was Spielberg who was present to leap to Oliver Robins’ aid when he was almost choked to death. Some have suggested that Hooper was hired to let Spielberg get around the restrictions of his contract with Universal for E.T. Others, most recently Zelda Rubinstein, have said that Spielberg had to step in when Hooper was too stoned to work. In the end, all we have are rumors and it’s still Tobe Hooper’s name in the credits.
Regardless of who was behind the camera, it doesn’t keep Poltergeist from being a tidy little supernatural thriller more than deserving of its status as one of the more enduring mainstream movies to come out of the early eighties. The new DVD, while light (almost weightless, really) in terms of extras, has a great transfer of the film and is worth picking up for that reason alone.