US (1982) Dir. Tobe Hooper

“They’re here!”

Home sweet home. It’s the one place where we can all feel safe and be with the people that matter most in our lives – well, that is the idea anyway. Unfortunately, some of us might have spouses, relatives, or housemates that aren’t very pleasant and make our lives a misery; others have unwelcome visitors from the other side…

The Freeling family – real estate developer Steven (Craig T. Nelson), wife Diane (JoBeth Williams), children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) – live in a planned community in Cuesta Verde, California. One night, youngest daughter Carol Anne is awoken by the static TV as Steven sleeps and talks to the screen as if someone is in there.

During a storm the next night, as Robbie and Carol Anne sleep with their parents, the TV once again falls to static and Carol Anne again talks to it. Suddenly a ghostly hand pops out of the TV screen and violently shakes the room waking the others us up, as Carol Anne declares “they’re here”. Subsequently, the family is attacked by a violent presence which takes Carol Anne away to the other side, leaving her parents to call in paranormal investigators to help.

A horror classic I have somehow managed to miss over the past 40 years, Poltergeist was part of a unique one-two-punch in US cinemas the summer of 1982. Released a week before the family friendly ET: The Extra Terrestrial, the connection is one Steven Spielberg. Spielberg directed ET and is listed as producer of Poltergeist – except it has been heavily mooted that he directed most of this film and not Tobe Hooper.

Contractual restrictions by Universal meant Spielberg couldn’t direct this film while he was working on ET, hence Hooper being brought in, but many sources, including cast and crew insist Spielberg did most of the work and called the shots on set. As this has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it whilst seeming tame for Hooper, it does seem plausible enough.

Regardless, Poltergeist was a seminal shocker in its day but has it held up after all this time? I’m sure those who have lived with it for decades will say it has, but as a first time watcher, I’m not quite convinced. There are times it comes across as a comedy, which is hard to tell if this is intentional or not. The occasional wry gag, like in the very last shot, works but in other instances, this humour tends to seem a bit goofy.

For example, when the paranormal team arrive at the house and want to establish if the house really is possessed, a kettle slides across the table on cue. Conversely, spiritual medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) being a small person does undermine the gravity of the situation – nothing against Rubenstein’s lack of stature but this doesn’t work even if it was done ironically, in my opinion anyway.

Back to the film, and it starts off setting up the cushy life of the Freeling family, with the teenage daughter Dana living fancy free, Robbie being a huge Star Wars fan, and Carole Anne the cute youngest one. It is established early on that the younger siblings, who share a room, can’t sleep too well in the dark, not helped by an ominous looking tree outside the window.

Quite why they don’t just pull the curtains I don’t know, but Robbie’s other gripe is the large clown doll that sits on a chair at the end of the bed. Again, this could be moved but nobody seems to have thought of that, but then we’d be robbed of a scary scene later on. The big old tree becomes crucial in the terrorising of the family once “they” arrive in one of the creepier set pieces that no doubt spooked hundreds of kids in the 80s.

So much is left unexplained, such as why Carole Anne was taken away and why only she could see “them”. Did they want to be friends with Carole Anne thus liberated her from her family or was this a way of hurting the Freelings by taking the baby of the brood? Robbie also suffers whilst Dana is usually away with her friends, leaving the parents to endure the emotional psychological suffering in trying to protect their family.

Unfortunately, the paranormal team, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), might as well have been The Three Stooges for all the use they were, although one does get a taste of the horror in seeing a pork chop implode and his flesh tearing from his face in a mirror. The latter scene is an example of the special effects being of the time as the actor is clearly wearing a wax mask, sharing the ignominy of other practical effects that haven’t aged well.

With ILM at the helm, the digital effects, which were advanced for this period, hold up much better. One can see Spielberg’s influence more clearly in the ghostly figures which share similarities with the escaping spirits from Raiders Of The Lost Ark a year earlier. The scary monster tree makes for a great visual as does the scenes of the family being sucked into the void, including Diane sliding up the walls.

It is easy to see the influence this film had on horror cinema in its wake, but its lasting legacy is regrettably tragic as young Heather O’Rourke sadly died five years later aged just 12 from a series of heart attacks, which some conspiracy theorists have attributed to working on this film and its two sequels.  

Poltergeist is a good enough film with some decent moments though the chills aren’t all as scary as they might be, and a bloated middle section is exceptionally dull. Maybe one needed to see it in 1982 to appreciate it more, but I am glad I have finally seen it. An enjoyable watch but one I expected more from.

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