ActorsStarring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O'Rourke, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Zelda Rubinstein, Lou Perryman
Craig T. Nelson stars as Steve Freeling, the main protagonist, who lives with his wife, Diane, (JoBeth Williams) and their three children, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), in Southern California where he sells houses for the company that built the neighborhood. It starts with just a few odd occurrences, such as broken dishes and furniture moving around by itself. However, a tree comes alive and takes Robbie through his bedroom window, and Carol Anne is abducted by ghosts. Realizing that something evil haunts his home, Steve calls in a team of parapsychologists led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) to investigate, hoping to get Carol Anne back, so he can remove his family from the house before it's too late.
Poltergeist is like a funfair ghost train, whisking the viewer from one jabbering to the next, hardly allowing them time to catch their breath. Produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Tobe Hooper, the true authorship of the film remains subject of enduring debate. I don’t want to get drawn into that, but suffice to say the film could hardly look more Spielbergian if Hooper had ripped off his producer’s face and worn it over his own while wielding the bullhorn.
The story focusses on a nice young family, the Freelings, living in a newly built suburban housing estate in California. Dad Steven (Craig T Nelson) is a successful real estate man, while Mum Diane (JoBeth Williams) stays at home, looking after youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) while their two eldest, Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Dana (Dominique Dunne) are at school.
One night, while her parents are asleep, Carol Anne wakes and is drawn to the static on the TV set after sign off. She hears ghostly whispering, and a supernatural force blasts its way into the home, prompting the little girl’s legendary announcement: “They’re here!”
The family is initially amused and astonished by the subsequent phenomena occurring in their home. Things turn bad very quickly, when during a storm, the tree in the back yard crashes into Robbie’s bedroom and tries eating him. While the parents and elder sister are trying to rescue him, spirits abduct Carol Anne via a portal in her closet.
Writing that summary makes me realise just how bonkers Poltergeist really is. When I was younger, I thought it had a slow build up. It doesn’t – it goes from a few quaint poltergeist tricks to an all-out cavalcade of special effects in no time at all, and stays at maximum volume for the rest of the movie.
The tone of the movie is set when a visiting parapsychologist, brought in to help recover their daughter from the spirit world limbo she’s stuck in, breathlessly recounts a previous case. He saw a toy car travel across a room – although the incident took several hours, and it took time-lapse photography to witness. Haunted and dark-eyed, Steve opens the door to Carol Anne’s bedroom, revealing her toys whirling wildly around the room, animated by an unseen force.
What lends the film credence is two very likeable performances from Nelson and Williams as the parents. They’re a modern couple not above having a spliff and fooling around after the kids are in bed, and their family life is so concisely drawn in the early stages that their grief and emotion at the loss of their little girl is palpable. It is impossible not to be caught up in their quest to rescue Carol Anne from the spirit world before an evil ghost, referred to as The Beast, claims her forever.
There are some showstopping moments, including a paranormal investigator tearing his own face off, an attack by a possessed clown doll, and a brilliant cameo from Zelda Rubenstein as a medium, who waddles into the film halfway and pretty much steals the whole show.
Poltergeist is horror at its most benign, championing solid family values and ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances. It materialised in that era of Spielberg directed and/or produced movies where he monopolised child-like wonder, weaving magic in films where laughs counterbalanced scares in a series awestruck adventures, and every movie seemed like the best summer holiday you ever had. It would be interesting to see what a more hardcore, uncomprimising horror director would have done with Poltergeist – say, Tobe Hooper?