Poltergeist (1982)


(director: Tobe Hooper; screenwriters: Steven Spielberg/Michael Grais/Mark Victor; cinematographer: Matthew Leonetti; editor: Michael Kahn; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Richard Lawson (Ryan), James Karen (Teague), Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus), Mrs. Tuthill (Virginia Kiser), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Steven Spielberg/Frank Marshall; United Artists; 1982)
“That it’s all hokum gets washed aside by the believable and perceptive family value story set in bland suburbia.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A credible haunted house ghost story directed by Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”/”Eaten Alive”), but with Steven Spielberg breathing down his neck to make it more of a Spielberg than a Hooper film–much gentler. Choosing virtually unknown actors such as Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as Diane and Steve Freeling, worked out just fine. They made the family seem like the real deal, while the wonderfully eerie special effects by Industrial Light and Magic provided the obligatory supernatural horror story chills. The film arguably also comes with a few horror lessons: never trust realty developers, TV could be bad for your mental health and you never know when you might need a parapsychologist’s help, so don’t scoff at them just because they don’t have a professional license.

Ambitious realty rep Steve Freeling is in middle-class heaven now that he recently moved his family of three children into a nice pristine new suburban community named Cuesta Verde. They have a dream house, a canary named Tweety and the children, teen-ager Dana, elementary school aged Robbie and the youngest Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), are weaned on Captain America comics and bad manners at the breakfast table, while the not totally square parents smoke pot and giggle before retiring for the night in their safe suburban world. But there’s some strange things happening in dreamland such as the sudden demise of Tweety, furniture and dishes moving around by themselves and a TV set that has a beam of green light that causes the room to shake and summons Carol Anne to the set where she becomes frozen like a zombie and says “They’re he-e-ere!” The young couple do not take it as seriously as they should until that stormy night when their darling Carol Ann is sucked into the closet and her disembodied voice seems to be coming from the TV and is heard pleading for her mother’s help. The family call in from the local college a team of parapsychologists led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), who acts to explain everything you ever wanted to know about poltergeists and reassures the family the child is still alive and can possibly be rescued–but not by them. That task falls the next day to midget clairvoyant and professional exorcist Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), who takes control of the situation and has the mother lead her kidnapped child out of the other dimension where these demonic spirits were holding her as a valued prisoner.

That it’s all hokum gets washed aside by the believable and perceptive family value story set in bland suburbia, as the parents gain instant maturity from this bizarre incident and become more responsible. Steve quits his job because the real estate developer, Mr. Teague, is held responsible for the poltergeists: he secretly moved a cemetery to build on that spot, but only moved the headstones leaving the bodies still buried there. Spielberg cleverly reinvented this dying genre by giving it a suburban setting (instead of the traditional Gothic mansion) and threw in a contemporary middle-class family, people the audience can identify with, who are facing the brave new world with a mixture of 1960s radical chic and the 1980s more conservative yuppie lifestyle. Nothing says it better than this image: while smoking weed, Steve is reading to Reagan: The Man and The Myth.