Poltergeist (1982)

You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

(1982) Supernatural Horror (MGM) Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Dirk Blocker, Allan Graf, Lou Perry, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Joseph R. Walsh, Noel Conlon, Helen Baron. Directed by Tobe Hooper

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Our home is our castle; it is our safe place, somewhere we escape to from the cares and troubles of the world. We are protected by our walls, our windows, our doors. Those we love the most are there with us. Our home is our security.

Steven Freeling (Nelson) has a suburban castle, brand spanking new in the center of a spiffy new development. He sells property in the neighborhood and is responsible for most of his neighbors having the lovely new homes they all have. His family includes wife Diane (Williams), son Robbie (Robins), daughter Carol Anne (O’Rourke) and teen Dana (Dunne) from his first marriage. Life is sunny and perfect.

Then odd things start to happen. Chairs are found stacked by themselves. Carol Anne hears strange voices coming from the TV set. Toys begin to move from themselves. They see strange lights and hear strange noises. Unable to account for any of these phenomena, they consult Dr. Lesh (Straight), a renowned parapsychologist and she concludes that their home may be haunted by a poltergeist. When tests confirm a malevolent presence (to put it mildly), things begin to go from bad to worse – and even worse still, Carol Anne disappears.

Desperate, they bring in Tangina Barrons (Rubenstein), a powerful psychic and medium, to help them get their daughter back. She detects a horrifying presence, something malevolent and deceitful who is using Carol Anne to control all the other spirits locally. Getting Carol Anne back however won’t be the end of the affair.

This was a collaboration between Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Steven Spielberg and two more diverse styles I don’t think you could find. There has been a great deal of controversy over the years regarding Spielberg’s role in the movie. He is listed as a co-writer and producer but many have said that he did many things a director might do and that he was on set all but three days of the shooting schedule. Certainly there are many of Spielberg’s touches here; the quiet suburban setting, the family in crisis pulling together, the escalating supernatural crisis. However, even today it remains unclear just how much creative contribution Spielberg made to the film. Keep in mind he was filming E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as filming was wrapping on Poltergeist. Some of the scenes though are very definitely NOT Spielberg-like.

Nelson used his performance here as a springboard to a pretty satisfying career that has shown a great deal of range, from his sitcom work in Parenthood to dramatic roles in movies like The Company Men. His solid performance as the dad here – a dad who is not the perfect sitcom dad but for all his faults and blemishes still cares deeply about his family and would put himself in harm’s way for them – changed the way dads were portrayed in the movies. Nelson also gets to utter one of my all-time favorite lines in the movies: “He won’t take go to hell for an answer (so) I’m gonna give him directions.”

Rubenstein also made a memorable appearance and while her career was cut short by her untimely death six years ago, she will always be remembered for her absolutely mesmerizing performance here. There’s no doubt who steals the show here and even while O’Rourke was incredibly cute, she didn’t stand a chance against the hurricane force of Rubenstein’s personality.

The movie set horror tropes on their ears. Rather than the haunted house being a spooky old mansion, it was a suburban split level of the type that many people who flocked to see the film back in 1982 lived in. That brought the horror home for many; they could see spider demons in front of their master bedroom; skeletons emerging from their swimming pool and their dining room chairs stacked on their dining room table. It could happen to anyone and that’s what makes it truly terrifying.

The effects here are not groundbreaking and most of the time practical effects were used, sometimes in some quite clever ways. There really aren’t a ton of special effects here in any case; it is the unknown that scares us most and Hooper/Spielberg wisely left the best scares to our imaginations.

There’s nothing scarier than death and this is all about what happens to us after we die. Sure, atheists probably think all this is nonsense but no more so than a bratty teenage boy on some backwater desert planet being the savior of the universe. It’s all a matter of how you look at things. Hardly anybody wants to die, but nobody wants their afterlife to be worse than their life. Poltergeist taps into that fear, the fear of death and brings it right into our living rooms. What could be scarier than that?

WHY RENT THIS: It’s one of the scariest movies ever made. Relocating a haunted house flick to a suburban environment had never been done before. Nelson and Rubenstein give career-making performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people have issues with kids in peril.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images and scenes of terror. There’s also a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zelda Rubenstein was a medium and a psychic in real life before becoming an actress.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 25th anniversary DVD edition has a 2-part documentary on poltergeists. The Blu-Ray includes that and a digibook that includes essays, trivia, production notes, photos and cast and crew bios.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $121.7M on a $10.7M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Dressmaker

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