Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist (1982)

Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: June 4th, 1982 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Tobe Hooper Actors: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Zelda Rubinstein, James Karen




n a sleepy weekend morning in the subdivision of Cuesta Verde, little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) walks downstairs and begins talking to the static on the television set. Later that day, a crowd of fathers gather around a different TV to watch the big football game – interrupted by a neighbor with a matching remote control just a bit too close to the house. As a storm moves into the area and night settles in once again, other routines take place in the Freeling house: a pet bird passes away and requires a burial; older sister Dana (Dominique Dunne) rolls her eyes at the event and concerns herself with her friends; middle brother Robbie (Oliver Robins) climbs the oversized, gnarled tree outside his bedroom window; mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) consoles them all before bed; and father Steve (Craig T. Nelson) reads a book and goofs around in front of a mirror as his wife smokes a joint.

The sound of the national anthem blaring on a television set nicely contrasts – or perhaps distracts from – the horrors that await. Strange things start to happen in the Freeling home, and it doesn’t help that there’s a large clown doll staring at the children in their room, and that the massive tree next to the house seems to be watching, menacingly at the slumbering youths. Impressively, there’s a complete naturalness to the characters’ interactions and small talk, right down to their idiosyncratic habits, the way they console one another, and even the way they move about the house. This greatly helps to make these eventual victims sympathetic and relatable and to define them as realistic, average people.

“They’re here!” So when furniture rearranges itself; Diane figures out how to get the “TV people” to move objects based on specific spots in the kitchen; music plays and lights flicker on their own; and other mild phenomena plague the household, it’s curious at first, instead of petrifying. The adults possess mild disbelief, but quickly search for answers based on the existence of ghosts. Through amusing editing techniques, including gaps in time and jarring shifts to the next scene, the film progresses quickly and escalates into genuine horror without much warning. Though there’s something entirely dismaying about kids behaving unexpectedly and the family dog barking inexplicably at nothing, those events aren’t enough to forewarn of just how unnervingly chaotic subsequent incidents will become.

Upbeat, sensationally adventurous music (by Jerry Goldsmith) during the opening title credits instantly denotes that filmmaker Steven Spielberg had a hand in this movie’s creation (here he served as writer and producer), which gives further insight into the playfulness of the initial activities and the focus on scary things occurring to kids (coupled with bits of movie memorabilia, such as an “Alien” poster on the children’s wall, a black-and-white Spencer Tracy picture on the tube, and “Star Wars” items in the room). But with Tobe Hooper’s direction, there’s also a decidedly sinister side to the happenings – quite suddenly, in fact, when a mutant tree creature attempts to consume Robbie, and when a tornado appears out of nowhere to yank that tree into the sky. Presumably from his involvement, the extraneous children are removed from the picture in favor of adults who can more appropriately cope with the situation. It’s very much the truly frightening version of “Ghostbusters” – especially when parapsychologists (and then an exorcist) are called in to conduct a proper investigation, and they exhibit fascination almost as much as fear.

Despite the gamesome attitude toward such obvious paranormal mischievousness, there are also moments of extreme gruesomeness – signature components of a project involving Spielberg. These sequences of body horror don’t hold up as well as in a project like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but they’re effective in generating striking, nightmarish imagery. Additionally, the inclusion of diminutive actress Zelda Rubinstein is a stroke of genius; she’s incredibly odd but plays it straight, becoming the perfect choice for a source of grave, morbid exposition. Alone, she amplifies the project to a level far beyond what more special effects or “boo” moments could have accomplished. And with its spectacularly rambunctious finale, “Poltergeist” cements its place as one of the all-time great haunted-house epics.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10