"I love you, TV"
When we think of haunted house movies, we inevitably picture an old, gothic mansion harkening back to the Vincent Price days. There's usually an evil spirit involved making all sorts of scary sounds, but staying hidden for most if not all of the movie. They're all fairly standard affairs with just a few differences thrown in. Even most modern-day haunted house movies still revolve around the same basic haunting tenets. The ones that don't tend to veer off into the exorcism genre. The select few that take place in modern times, but blaze their own trail are far more interesting and entertaining, but also riskier. When you have Steven Spielberg writing and producing with Tobe Hooper directing, you're off to a good start.
Poltergeist is a 1982 horror movie starring Craig T. Nelson (Coach, The Incredibles) as Steven Freeling and JoBeth Williams (Baby M., Dutch) as his wife Diane. The Freelings live in the nice planned community of Cuesta Verde in California with their children Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Steven is a successful realtor, selling houses in the community while Diane has her hands full with three very active children. One night, while everyone is asleep, Carol Anne wakes up and begins talking to the television which is only transmitting static. The same happens the next night and an apparition leaps from the television and vanishes through the wall behind her. Knowingly, Carol Anne states, “They're here.” Throughout the next day, strange paranormal events occur, such as a glass breaking and chairs in the kitchen inexplicably moving. That night, during an intense storm, an old tree comes to life and grabs Robbie through window. As Steven frees him, a portal opens in a closet and pulls in Carol Anne. With her physically missing, the family is able to hear her through their television calling for help. Steven reaches out to a group of parapsychologists at the local college who investigate the paranormal activity in hopes of finding Carol Anne. They discover that is not one ghost, but many ghosts in the house. Steven meets with his boss Lewis Teague (James Karen, The Return Of The Living Dead, Congo) who reveals that they are planning to build new houses on top of a cemetery. Teague reassures Steven that they will move the bodies down the road before construction. Dana and Robbie are sent away for their safety and Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein, Picket Fences, Teen Witch) a spiritual medium, is brought in to help rescue Carol Ann. She explains that the spirits in the house are not at rest and are attracted to Carol Anne because of her life force. This attraction is keeping the spirits from crossing over while a demon referred to as the “Beast” is keeping Carol Anne in order to manipulate the spirits. Will The Feelings be able to get their daughter back and what horrible secret does the house hide?
Are we sure she's not from the Village Of The Damned?
Poltergeist is certainly different from most other haunted house movies up to it's release. Gone is the musty and dark mansion with the eccentric owner. Instead we have a healthy and happy family living in a house that oozes 1980's in a cozy suburb. The inclusion of a cute and precocious little girl as the victim makes the horror much more real than, say, an older socialite trying to win money by staying at a haunted house. We see the family in their everyday lives, much like our own, and truly feel along with them when their daughter disappears. Director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot) is no stranger to scares. The same could be said for Steven Spielberg, though the horror in Jaws and Duel are much more cerebral. Poltergeist gives us a few different things to scare us. The most memorable scene involves a creepy looking clown that comes to life and starts to choke Robbie while his mother is being dragged across the ceiling. I didn't quite understand the scene where the tree comes to life and grabs Robbie. No one else seemed to be concerned that a plant was suddenly moving around and stealing children. It really bothered me that it was never addressed or came up again. Some of the special effects are good for the time while others are embarrassingly cheesy by today's standards. Apparently, they used actual skeletons in the movie rather than plastic ones because it was cheaper. That raises so many questions that I don't even want to know the answers. The movie has occasionally great atmosphere, but it doesn't sustain throughout the entire film. This becomes evident towards the end when it appears to be a happy ending only for the movie to continue an extra 20 minutes with the best scares of the entire movie. They would have been better off switching things around instead of hurting the movie's horror momentum.
"Crap Yourself the Clown"
Despite having two young children in the film, Poltergeist manages to mostly avoid the “annoying child” trope that plagues so many horror movies. JoBeth Williams is great as the loving mother and Craig T. Nelson is solid as the distraught father. One small thing in the movie that I found funny was when he was reading a book in bed about Ronald Reagan. Craig T. Nelson is a staunch conservative and generally made an ass out of himself when on Glenn Beck's show, talking about no one helping him while he received food stamps. Zelda Rubinstein is also very good, exuding a loving confidence that one may not expect in a haunting movie, but will appreciate. Tobe Hooper gets some very good shots throughout the film and Spielberg's hands-on approach is evident.
Shout! Shout! Shout at the Devil!
Poltergeist took the haunted house genre from the drab far-off mansions and stuck them right into suburban America. It was risky move, but for the most part, it paid off. We still see references to Poltergeist in pop culture today. Whether it's in South Park, the Scary Movie franchise, or The Simpsons, iconic lines and scenes always manage to spring up. It's even the subject of The Misfit's song "The Shining". The story in Poltergeist is decent, if a bit predictable. There are elements of tradition haunted house movies as well as some fresh takes. There are some good scares, but the movie's momentum is frequently cut off. What should have been a pulse-pounding thrill ride was instead a disjointed and occasionally jumping ghost movie. The movie has a lot of special effects, some very good and some laughably bad. The acting is good throughout and the direction is fairly solid. Some like to shower praise on Poltergeist, but I feel there were some things that could have and should have been better. Overall, it's a decent horror movie with some fun scares and good acting.