JoBeth Williams - Diane Freeling
Craig T. Nelson - Steve Freeling
Heather O'Rourke - Carol Anne Freeling
Dominique Dunne - Dana Freeling
Oliver Robins - Robbie Freeling
Zelda Rubinstein - Tangina Barrons
Beatrice Straight - Dr. Martha Lesh
James Karen - Teague
Genre - Horror/Drama/Supernatural/Ghosts
Running Time - 114 Minutes
I'm glad this review, the 450th, just happened to fall on October during All Horror Month. That means I get to review a film many consider a classic due to this milestone. While I do happen to get a lot of requests for more horror films that many have grown up with rather than more modern films many people may not have seen yet or even heard of, I like to save those type of reviews for very special occasions. This month alone, there will be a lot of requests fulfilled, as I will be reviewing a ton of classics as the focus, even though some lesser-known films will probably make their way into this month somehow. I hope you all will enjoy the ride!
As for this review, I felt it was time to discuss a film that's considered a favorite amongst horror fans due to the film itself, as well as the strange history, or "curse", that surrounds this film and its franchise. And since so many have requested this film any time I receive a random e-mail from my readers, I figured it was just the right time to discuss my feelings about one of my favorite supernatural, haunted house movies: 1982's Tobe Hooper's POLTERGEIST. So instead of thinking to yourselves, "It's about time he reviewed this damn movie!", keep your televisions on because the review is heeeeeerrrreeeee...
The Freeling family have moved into a new house on the Cuesta Verde development estate due to father Steve's (Craig T. Nelson) job as a realtor. After a few creepy nights involving a strange looking tree outside son Robbie's (Oliver Robbins) window and youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) talking to people on a snowy television screen at the same time during bedtime, the Freelings begin to suspect something strange is going on. One night while Carol Anne is speaking to the television, a bunch of spirits exit the television screen and inhabit the house, making everyone believe it was an earthquake due to the huge power that was unleashed.
After this incident, a huge storm arrives. The creepy looking tree comes alive and pulls Robbie outside of his room, while Carol Anne's closet sucks her inside. While Robbie is saved, Carol Anne is lost within the dimension that once inhabited the spirits that have now possessed the house. Mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) communicates with a scared Carol Anne through the television, knowing they're dealing with a supernatural occurrence. Diane and Steve hire a team of parapsychologists, who have never seen any type of spiritual presence this strong or violent before. Introducing a medium (Zelda Rubinstein) who can communicate with the afterlife, they attempt to save Carol Anne from forever being lost in the dimension as well as cleansing the house.
Even after 29 years with countless stories about the "curse", the debate over who really directed the film, as well as all the spoofs and parodies paying homage, POLTERGEIST still manages to be an effective film dealing with the supernatural and the family coming to grips about it. Sure, some aspects are dated and the film isn't all that scary really [creepy sure but nothing that's gonna frighten you to death], I still heavily enjoy it. 1982 happened to be a fantastic year for horror films [and films in general], and POLTERGEIST is definitely near the top of the list.
The screenplay was written by Michael Grais, Mark Victor, and producer Steven Spielberg as well, but you wouldn't tell that three men were responsible for crafting the narrative since the film is cohesive and written so well. While POLTERGEIST is seen by a lot of people as a haunted house film, and rightfully so, the film is really a family drama that just happens to have supernatural forces as the antagonist. From the start, you get the sense that the Freeling family are just a normal unit and very loving with each other. Steve and Diane always make time for the kids, tucking them in at night and keeping the light on so they won't be afraid of the dark. If they do get scared, they let the kids sleep in their bed with them. They don't really share much time with their oldest daughter, Dana, due to the fact that she's a teenager who would rather lock herself in her room talking on the phone rather than spend time with her family. The kids are normal children who love pop culture. And the parents themselves love to smoke pot before going to bed, living the yuppie life while keeping their free-spirited, hippie ways without much remorse. In a lot of ways, POLTERGEIST is a reflection of suburbia in the early 1980s and the Reaganomics that came along with it. Hell, Steve is reading a book about Ronald Reagan. It could also be a criticism about television, as it's the reason why these strange things happen to begin with - the television signal that feeds this ghostly dimension. It's a product of its time and a reflection of how easy life was back then on the surface.
Still, the film is still a horror movie and the screenplay definitely reflects that. While the plot to save Carol Anne from this supernatural world she's stuck in is the main focus, having a realistic family reacting believably most of the time over these strange events helps make the terror more effective because we feel for them and can empathize. But POLTERGEIST feeds on our childhood fears - like that weird tree outside the window that looks like a monster and casts a strange shadow over you as your sleep. Or how about that certain toy, in this case a disturbing clown doll, that just gives you the chills? As for the closet, we believe there are monsters in there as children. Ironically, that's where the dimension is opened, proving that these monsters do exist. The narrative takes these common, innocent fears and gives them an evil edge that would frighten both children and adults. It also focuses on the idea of parents losing their children and not being able to fight back and gain control of the situation. The children are constantly attacked by these poltergeist because they're younger, innocent, and give off an aura of life that's brighter than the adults. With Carol Anne, the poltergeist practically kidnap her and bring her into their dimension. That's probably every parent's worst fear.
The film also has some freaky moments. The clown scene in the final act, in particular, is probably one of the creepiest and more famous moments in 80s horror. I dislike clowns to begin with, but having that chilling clown doll in my room and then having it try and kill me would probably send me over the edge. The tree scene is also a classic creepy moment. Hell, Robbie had it pretty rough in this film. And then all the corpses that come out of the pool and the ground at the end is just spine-tingling. The fact that they actually used real skeletons because it was cheaper than man-made models just makes the sequence more morbid. I also think not seeing what the dimension Carol Anne was trapped in was also a good move. INSIDIOUS tried and showed the dimension in its homage, but it just made the film cheesier than it should have been - taking away some of the mystery. Here, we don't get a clue what this place looks like besides it having a lot of bright lights. So this lack of knowledge actually allows us to use our imagination, making a potentially scary place even scarier.
Are there flaws in the narrative? Yeah, some. The whole burial ground thing is one of them. While I'm sure more than a few homes have been built over a little of buried corpses, I'm really surprised the construction workers and home builders had no clue about the bodies underneath them if they had to dig really deep to make the house's foundation. Maybe they did know and were told to ignore it and build anyway. The thing is, we're never really sure. But then again, bodies are only buried six feet under. You're telling me no one knew about them as they dug beneath to build? Unless they just randomly appeared, I doubt this very much.
Also, Tangina seems to be unsure of her job as a medium. For one, she tells Diane that only Carol Anne can hear her voice because she's the mother and their connection is stronger than Carol Anne's connection to Steve. But then seconds later, Tangina demands that Steve talk to Carol Ann because he's more of an threatening authority figure. And it works better for Steve than it does for Diane. Um...what the hell? Also, Tangina tells Carol Anne to head towards the light and then tells her not to. The girl is like 4 years old...she doesn't need to be confused and frustrated at such a young age! And then Tangina claims the house has been cleansed. Really? Is that why 15 minutes after that scene, the house implodes and sucks itself into that mysterious dimension, Tangina? You may sound cute, lady, but you know jack about spirits and how they work! Yet, Tangina is not the only one to blame since the family still stayed inside the house after Tangina told them that, even though some major traumatic episodes occurred there. Dumbasses.
I also find POLTERGEIST being pretty edgy for a family-horror flick. There's drug use, some foul language, and while not gory still manages to have blood and other frightening images and sounds [like the dude who rips his face off]. I'm surprised it got a PG rating at the time instead of an R [today, this film would be considered very tame]. Still, I wouldn't let small children watch this without some parental supervision.
The special effects in POLTERGEIST are kind of dated, but they still look okay. There's a lot of use of green screen, especially during the scene where the ghost hunters open the door to Robbie and Carol Anne's room and see all the objects inside floating around. The spirits that are seen are a great use of lighting and some computer work. The monster that comes out of the closet towards the end is practical SFX, which I love. The rip face scene looks like it's stop-motion. Plus the dimensional portal stuff and the house imploding still looks good even today.
The direction of POLTERGEIST still remains controversial. While THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE director, Tobe Hooper, has his name on the credits, many speculate that it was producer Steven Spielberg who really directed most of the film. While there is a bit of rawness and great tension and suspense that Hooper is known for in the film, the film does have a lot of similarities with E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND in terms of look and storytelling. Hooper claims it was a collaborative effort, but a lot of people say Spielberg overpowered Hooper at almost every move, refusing any of his input. Whether of who directed, POLTERGEIST is still a very pleasing visual film. The movie still looks great after all these years. The mood and lighthearted tone still works within the horror moments. The lighting and pacing is fantastic. The tension and suspense works still. I could do without all the product placement because it gets a bit annoying to look at, but POLTERGEIST is well directed. I'll say Hooper did direct the film, but I'm sure Spielberg had his hand in the cookie jar every step of the way.
The acting is very solid. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams come across as very believable and sympathetic parents of the 1980s. Nelson plays the semi-skeptic role quite well, while Williams is loving and plays a mom anyone would want. Of the children, Heather O'Rourke is probably the best one here. Unfortunately she would pass away at the age of 12 four months before POLTERGEIST III was released in 1988. But her adorable role as Carol Anne is one of horror's many beloved and famous faces. Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest daughter Dana, plays the typical teenage daughter role. She, too, suffered a tragic fate a few months after the release of POLTERGEIST, as she was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Oliver Robins does well as Robbie as well. He was the child actor who went through the most crap in the film, but he does a good job handling it all and still coming across as a normal, scared kid. Beatrice Straight does a fine job playing a motherly figure as Dr. Lesh. And Zelda Rubinstein is probably the most memorable actor as Tangina due to her small 4'3" frame and child-like voice. She steals the film the moment she appears, coming across as mysterious, wise, and maybe even a bit sinister at times. Her kookiness is very appealing.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO HEAD TOWARDS THE LIGHT
- Carol Anne can hear voices from the television. Who cares? I can hear voices without the help of technology. And we're all doing just fine!
- Steve and Diane like to smoke pot before bed, enjoying their time together. Now I understand the secret of a happy marriage.
- A tree outside grabbed Robbie from his bed. He doesn't have the ring nor does he need to go to Mordor. We've screwed up our environment so much, we've confused the trees!
- Something sucked Carol Anne into the closet. She shouldn't be afraid. Allegedly Tom Cruise has been in there for years and he seems to be doing great!
- The poltergeist are attracted by Carol Anne's strong lifeforce. Young girls...trapped in closets...R. Kelly is behind this, isn't he?
- Teague built the Freeling house over a burial ground, only moving the headstones but not the bodies. Given his history with the living dead, he's the last guy I'd take real estate advice from...
THE FINAL HOWL
As a kid, POLTERGEIST was one of my favorite films and it creeped me the hell out too. Now as an adult, I can see the flaws in the story and it doesn't scare me all that much anymore. But the film is still well-told, has great creepy moments, and solid direction and acting - whether it was Spielberg or Hooper behind it all. POLTERGEIST is definitely one of the better haunted house movies out there and definitely worth watching in October or in any other month. Just make sure you turn off the television after you watch it. Not only will it save energy, but it may save you a trip to another dimension. Just some word of advice.
3.5 Howls Outta 4