IT KNOWS WHAT SCARES YOU.
With only days away from the premiere of the remake of Poltergeist (1982), I decided that a visit to my parents, which is also my childhood home, was the perfect time to watch this classic horror movie again. I knew I had it somewhere on VHS, purchased in the 1990s, and I did find it sharing a box with lots of other old tapes. Popping it into my parents’ ancient player, the movie came alive in all its grainy VHS quality, cropped widescreen and everything. I’m sure it looks a whole lot better on Blu-ray, but this was a more nostalgic experience.
Making contact through the TV set
In the small California community of Cuesta Verde, the Freelings witness strange things happen in their house. The youngest daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), makes contact with someone (or something) through the TV static noise. After a mysterious earthquake, Diane (JoBeth Williams), notices how things start moving on their own. This phenomenon becomes increasingly stronger until one night when an old tree outside young Robbie’s (Oliver Robins) bedroom window suddenly crashes through it and snatches the kid from his bed; at the same time, a supernatural portal opens up in Carol Anne’s closet and she’s sucked through it.
The devastated Freelings reach out for help, but they need something more experienced than the police…
Pretty spectacular thrill-ride
This movie frightened me as a kid. Its effect may have diminished over the years, due among other things to aging special effects, but it was a pretty spectacular thrill-ride in its day. Most previous ghost movies had been more discreet in their use of effects, but this one went all in with help from Hollywood’s very best, including the masterful Richard Edlund.
There is a tremendous sense of imagination at work here, not always rendering complete satisfaction; the attacking tree is an idea that probably looked best on storyboard. But the scene where one of the ghost hunters start ripping pieces off his face until there’s nothing but bone left is outrageous, and the glorious climax where coffins with corpses shoot out of the cemetery underneath Cuesta Verde is sheer madness. Those scenes will remind Spielberg aficionados of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which he made the year before. That movie was also edited by Michael Kahn, and so was Jurassic Park (1993). Watching Poltergeist again really made me appreciate what an asset Kahn has been to Spielberg’s thrillers, how swiftly he’s helped the director build tension, both in narration and in separate, isolated scenes.
There are many things about this movie that looks far more like Spielberg than Tobe Hooper, and there have been persistent rumors over the years as to how deeply involved Spielberg was, with some members of cast and crew claiming that he was the dominant voice on set. Does it matter who gets credit? No, but it’s amusing how easy it is to trace Spielberg’s fingerprints all over this project – the sense of humor, blockbuster sentiments, pop culture trademarks, a suburban idyll thrown into disarray… How very fitting indeed to watch this piece of nostalgia in the house where I grew up.
Part of the film’s success lies in the casting. We really care about this family thanks to the actors, especially Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, and young O’Rourke as the eerily sweet Carol Anne. Another bonus is the diminutive Zelda Rubinstein as a bossy spiritual medium. And, finally, there’s the music. One of Jerry Goldsmith’s most impressive scores, much like the film itself, it skilfully balances the childlike and sweet with full-throttled horror.
Poltergeist 1982-U.S. 114 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Editing: Michael Kahn. Visual Effects: Richard Edlund, and others. Cast: Craig T. Nelson (Steven Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke… Zelda Rubinstein.
Trivia: Followed by two sequels, starting with Poltergeist II (1986). The film also inspired a TV series, Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996-1999). Remade as Poltergeist (2015).
BAFTA: Best Special Visual Effects.
Last word: “When we were shooting the practical location on the house, the first two weeks of filming were exterior, so I had second-unit shots that had to be picked up in the front of the house. I was in the back of the house shooting Robbie [actor Oliver Robins] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, so Steven was picking those shots up for me. The L.A. Times arrived on the set and printed something like, ‘We don’t know who’s directing the picture.’ The moment they got there, Steven was shooting the shot of the little race cars, and from there the damn thing blossomed on its own and started becoming its own legend. Really, that is my knowledge of it, because I was making the movie and then I started hearing all this stuff after it was finished. I really can’t set the record much straighter than that, because Steven did write the screenplay and there are other credits on there, but it came down to Steven and myself sitting at his house. He wrote the screenplay, and we gathered around a poltergeist textbook for the research, which was actually Robert Wise’s research book that he had on ‘The Haunting’.” (Hooper, The A.V. Club)