Poltergeist (1982)

The 101 Horror Movies let me revisit another one of my favourite films, Poltergeist.

I won’t get into the whole “who really directed it dilemma” – I don’t care (though if pressed it feels more like a Steven Spielberg film than a Tobe Hooper film). I just know I like it.

It’s a very simple story of a haunting focusing on a little girl, ages before Paranormal Activity was even thought of…

The Freelings, Steven (Craig T Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams – WOW!), Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) live in suburbia, which Steven helps to sell.

We’re not out in some dilapidated old home somewhere, this is our own backyard, which I think adds to a bit of the scare to the film. There’s nowhere to go to distance yourself from it, because it could be your house.

The strange occurrences that start happening around them, at first, seem rather benign, and intriguing, but when the presence in the house uses a rather imposing tree outside Robbie’s and Carol Anne’s window to make an assault on the children, things get very serious, and Carol Anne disappears somewhere inside the house.

While some of the effects don’t necessarily hold up, I find it hard to believe the twister ever held up, the film always seems to work for me.

I find the story and the idea fascinating, I’d love to be investigating these things myself, and quite enjoy when Steven is finally forced to look for help with a parapsychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team, who soon realize they may be out of their depth, and bring in some extra help with Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) a powerful medium.

At the heart of the film is a strong theme of family and love, and perhaps the bad effects of television, as well as the healthy belief that if you are going to move a cemetery, move the whole thing.

For me, when I first saw it, this was the film that showed me that parents were in fact people too. Steven and Diane have this wonderful relationship around and separate from their children, they can be goofy, and affectionate, and as we see in one sequence, use a little recreational drugs to relax. Nelson and Williams bring a warmth and depth to their relationship that makes you believe that they have a history together, and are still very much in love.

The film itself was followed by two, less than stellar sequels, though I will say that Kane (Julian Beck) in Poltergeist II is damned frightening.

But to return to the first film, the crawling steak sequence, and the subsequent bathroom scene were two of my favorites, and of course, there’s the creepy clown doll that keeps popping up through the entire film. From the beginning of the movie, as soon as I saw that thing, I knew that wasn’t going to be good. Gah.

Carol Anne is simply adorable, and it’s tragic that Heather O’Rourke died so young, as did her co-star Dominique. She has to be the center of the film, though for almost 3/4s of it she is heard but not seen. So that first bit of the film she has to make an impact on the viewer and she does every time.

The film was originally slated for an R-rating, but the filmmakers got them to agree to a PG classification (there was no PG-13 at the time, that wouldn’t happen until 1984 when Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom came out, fostering the discussion of a need for another rating between PG and R). While yes, there is some scary imagery in the film, the body count is very low, one budgie.

I love the score by Jerry Goldsmith, especially the opening titles, The film’s editing, pacing and story never let up, and even after all these years I still get caught up in the story, waiting for my favorite moments, watching the shots, and just embracing the world in which the story exists.

This will probably be my all time favorite haunted house movies, I think because of the suburban setting, and the fact that someone actually tries to investigate it. Much like The Legend of Hell House, and the original The Haunting, but, as I said, in my own backyard.

What’s your favorite bit in the film? Or what’s your favorite haunted house film?

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