Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubenstein
“This house has many hearts.” (Tangina, Poltergeist)
What do you get when you combine Steven Spielberg at the height of his power – right after directing E.T. – and Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
The answer is simple: you get one of my favourite films ever.
First though, some housekeeping. It has long been debated whether Hooper had much influence during the making of the film, with many reports and actor testimonies claiming that Spielberg had most of the creative control.
You see, Spielberg had a clause in his contract that stated that while he was working on E.T. he wasn’t allowed to direct another movie. It’s claimed, then, that Hooper was brought in to take on the role of director while Spielberg pulled the strings behind the scenes.
It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if this was true. Poltergeist was shot in exactly the same idyllic suburban area as E.T., during the same time period, and was released only a week later in cinemas.
More importantly, it also features a notable trait, common in other Spielberg films of the time like E.T. and Jaws, that is unmistakeably his work: the presence of a family portrayed in such a realistic, authentic manner that the audience warms to them and therefore feels more engaged in what happens to them.
With this in mind, and no real confirmation either way as to who really directed Poltergeist, I shall refer to the director as Stebe Hoopberg from this point on.
Poltergeist tells the story of the Freeling family – Steven, Diane and their three children – who live in a planned community in California called Cuesta Verde. It’s the sort of idyllic suburbian area you’d see in the likes of E.T., mainly for reasons previously explained.
Steven is a real estate agent tasked with attracting buyers to move into the other vacant lots at Cuesta Verde, using the George Foreman grill “I love these houses so much I live in one” sales technique to great success.
Not all the houses in Cuesta Verde are as perfect as Steven would have his clients believe, however. Not that he’d know this, in fairness.
You see, it turns out the Freelings’ house is actually home to an evil demon who is hell-bent on capturing a human and using them to manipulating spirits, preventing them from reaching ‘the light’ and heading to the afterlife. There’s probably mould in the kitchen too but, really, the demon is the main concern at the moment.
The paranormal activity is relatively low-key at first. Glasses break, furniture moves and cutlery bends with nary a Geller in sight. Meanwhile, Carol-Anne – the youngest of the three Freeling children – starts having conversations with the television, its loud static somehow sending her telepathic messages. Hey, it works for In The Night Garden.
Eventually the demon decides it’s done pissing around and it’s time to start some real shit. The massive tree outside the kids’ bedroom window comes to life one stormy night, smashing the window and dragging Carol-Anne’s brother Robbie outside to munch down on him.
While their parents are distracted trying to save Robbie, a massive portal opens in the bedroom closet and Carol-Anne is sucked into another dimension, trapping her inside the house.
Eager to get her back, the Freelings enlist the help of a group of parapsychologists who work with them to try to discover exactly what’s going on and whether Carol-Anne can be saved. Not telling what happens next, but it’s pretty spooktacular. HAHAHAHA! Ha.
What makes Poltergeist so brilliant is its feeling of authenticity. Obviously I don’t mean the authentic way ghosts can fuck a house up, but rather that the performances from the five actors playing the Freeling family are nigh-on perfect.
You’d swear this was a real family, warts and all. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are a brilliant couple with great chemistry, especially during the early scene in which they discuss recent events in bed at night. Nothing is forced, it all feels genuine.
Meanwhile, the three child actors chosen to play the Freeling kids are flawless. None of them bring that irritating ‘this kid can’t act’ quality to the table, and it’s once again in the bedroom – Carol Anne and Robbie share a room – that we warm to them and their entirely believable sibling relationship.
Heather O’Rourke, the young actress playing Carol-Anne, is particularly fantastic, which is perhaps just as well because it’s the audience’s interest in her well-being that drives the film’s second half.
The whole family is just bloody adorable, basically, and this is down to Hoopberg’s meticulous attention to subtlety and nuance in the way they interact with each other which, in turn, makes you want to do the same.
You find yourself wishing you had an adorable wee girl like Carol-Anne, or a cheeky young lad like Bobby who you could take to the baseball.
You reckon you’d take great pleasure in sneering at the boys teenage daughter Dana brings home, and you can imagine being married to Nelson or Williams: or, if you’re already married, you can relate to the way they seem entirely comfortable in each other’s company.
“This is the movie The Amityville Horror dreamed of being,” the late Roger Ebert claimed, and it was for this very reason. When scary shit kicks off in Poltergeist you fear for the safety of this family you’ve grown fond for, unlike the take-them-or-leave-them vanilla family from Amityville.
And rest assured scary shit does indeed kick off, stuff that goes way beyond the moving chairs, bendy spoons and telepathic tellies of earlier scenes.
From gross-out moments like the revelation of why a steak is mysteriously shuffling along the kitchen counter, to the actual capture of spirits on tape, things only continue to get more over-the-top.
Eventually you’ve got morbid hallucinations of face-tearing, a swimming pool filled with corpses and an evil clown doll that is responsible for arguably the most perfectly paced jump scare in horror cinema.
This is all backed up by a brilliant supporting cast playing a group of paranormal experts who are staying with the Freelings to document what’s going on.
The female expert quickly bonds with Diane and her genuine concern for her well-being makes her endearing to the audience, adding another character to Hoopberg’s ‘love them and you’ll root for them’ strategy.
Later on the group brings in spiritual medium Tangina – the diminutive Zelda Rubinstein – who adds yet another layer of compassion to proceedings. It’s basically all one big love-in and you fall for it entirely.
Special mention must also go to the beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith, which I reckon was the best of his career: considering this is a man who’s scored the likes of The Omen, Alien and First Blood, that’s saying something.
Just listen to Carol Anne’s theme and tell me it isn’t a gorgeous piece of music. Many horror films fail because they don’t provide any emotional set-up to make their frights more heart-felt.
Draw a venn diagram of the scenes in Poltergeist and you’ll find that ‘tender’ is as well represented as ‘terror’. It’s a horror with heart, and for that reason I will always adore it.
Poltergeist’s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see what else made the grade.
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