Poltergeist represents a perfect symbiosis of Hollywood production values and the freewheeling imagination of 80s shoestring horror: When a steak cooks itself on a kitchen counter, or a dude peels the skin from his face, that’s the work of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic. The lilting, majestic strings on the soundtrack are conducted by Oscar-winner Jerry Goldsmith. Steven Spielberg is the co-writer and de facto director, and he supplies the film with the same bravura flourishes as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This might be schlock, but in it’s premium schlock, as executed by an all-star cast and crew.
The story is simple enough. Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) move their three kids into a tidy, suburban neighborhood that looks right out of a 50s sitcom. Their personalities bear a cookie-cutter shape, as well: Teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne) dedicates her life to gossiping on the phone and rolling her eyes, sometimes simultaneously. Preteen Robbie (Oliver Robins) is all about Star Wars and comic books. Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is a precocious preschooler; she’s still young enough to be an endless source of innocent goofiness.
As for Steven and Diane, they’re a familiar 80s phenomenon: Flower children from the Woodstock Era, lost within Ronald Reagan’s plastic perfection. Their world is a homogenous hellscape, wherein the houses, cars, and beer guts are all built from the same kits. (Maybe suburban conformity is the real horror in all this.) To combat this malaise, Steven and Diane toke doobs in their bedroom and swill beer during football games.
This stale routine gets demolished when an unknown entity begins communicating through the family TV. Carole Anne regards it like an imaginary friend, but it’s soon clear that something more sinister is at work. Chairs get stacked in odd patterns. Things slide along the kitchen floor. During a burst of paranormal activity, Carole Anne is abducted, seemingly into another dimension.
With their house now a supernatural crime scene, Steven and Diane must consider extraordinary solutions. They enlist the services of Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), a parapsychologist. Lesh is a scholarly woman, with a patrician bearing. She and her team descend on the house, and are overwhelmed by what they find: Carole Anne’s room has become a paranormal cyclone, with toys and furniture whirling around, as if spun by some interdimensional wind. Lesh’s investigation reveals that even she is in over her head.
With that, they bring in Tangina, a supernatural medium (Zelda Rubenstein). Diminutive, brash, and eccentric, Tangina quickly deduces that a powerful spirit is holding Carol Anne hostage, siphoning her life energy for his own gain. She can be rescued from this interdimensional purgatory, but Steven and Diane might have to resort to extreme measures to make that happen.
Poltergeist is popcorn entertainment of the highest order. The practical special effects and makeup serve a propulsive, frightening story. Spielberg sources our collective nightmares–storms, monsters, and clowns–to build an experience that’s fun, unsettling, and disposable, all at once. Goldsmith’s lush, melodic score is about as close to John Williams or Bernard Hermann as you can get. Nelson and Williams make a grounded, likable couple worth rooting for. All of the kids bring an unforced charm to their roles. (Sadly, Dunne would be murdered by an ex-boyfriend the year of this release, and O’Roarke would pass away from an intestinal ailment after the third Poltergeist. Both tragedies cast a sad and strange mystique over this film.)
A debate still rages over who actually directed Poltergeist. Spielberg was helming E.T. while this film was in production, and DGA rules prevented him from overseeing two movies at once. Still, actors like Rubenstein have stated that Spielberg directed all their scenes, and the famed director has also hinted this was the case. Tobe Hooper, the film’s actual director, has diplomatically said the two men collaborated on the finished product. Whatever the case, several shots in Poltergeist bear a strong resemblance to Spielberg’s work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and even Jaws. This is the clear evidence that, at the very least, Spielberg had a very, very strong influence in the visual aesthetic of this film.
Beyond its look and feel, Poltergeist borrows some of the magic of those other films. The self-assured storytelling is vintage Spielberg. If anything, this is a meaner, edgier cousin to Close Encounters. If you’re a fan of Steven Spielberg, mainstream horror, or all of the above, this film should be at the top of your list.
114 min. R. Freevee.