As I mentioned yesterday, today’s film is the 1982 classic “Poltergeist”, directed by Tobe Hooper.
Or was it?
There’s some contention as to whether Hooper or Steve Spielberg directed the picture. Some allege that Spielberg was the director for all intents and purposes, such as Zelda Rubinstein. Hooper claims credit on doing half the storyboards.
Whatever the case, the only reason Spielberg isn’t credited as director is because he legally couldn’t. Contractual clauses for “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” prevented him from doing so. Time and Newsweek both labeled 1982 “The Spielberg Summer” as this film and “E.T.” were released within a week of one another that June.
There’s also the matter of the curse. But more on that later.
For my money, I was a little underwhelmed by this whole thing.
Spoilers beyond this point.
“Poltergeist” opens with the Freeling family’s young daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), creeping down to the television at night. As this is the 1980s, television has a broadcast day, which ends with shots of American monuments and flag over the national anthem.
Then starts the static… and the TV people.
Carol Anne talks to the static, claiming that there are “TV people” that speak to her in voices her family cannot hear. After two nights of this, a ghostly hand made of smoke emerges from the television before starting an earthquake. Everyone panics, and Carol Anne merely smiles.
Strange events follow this – a glass of milk spontaneously shattering, silverware contorting, and furniture moving of its own accord. An area of attractive force appears in the Freelings’ kitchen, pulling things in a line across the tiles toward the opposite wall.
The mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is unconcerned. Her husband Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is not as sanguine. Steven is proven correct when the creepy old tree in the backyard comes alive and tries to devour their son Robbie (Oliver Robins).
During the rescue, a portal forms in Carol Anne and Robbie’s closet, sucking the little girl inside. Her voice then begins to emanate from the television when tuned to static. She’s been taken to “the Other Side”.
The Freelings call in Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her assistants, Ryan and Marty (Richard Lawson and Martin Casella). They discover it’s not one ghost and realize that this is out of their area of expertise, and resolve to call in psychic medium Tangina Barrons (Rubinstein).
Before Barrons’s arrival later on, Steven’s boss Mr. Teague (James Karen) reveals their neighborhood, Cuesta Verde, was built on a cemetery. Teague assures Steven that they moved the bodies.
Barrons arrives after Robbie and the eldest child Dana (Dominique Dunne) are sent away for their own safety. The medium explains that the spirits were attracted to Carol Anne’s life force and are distracted from “the Light”. She also adds that a demon called “the Beast” has captured the young girl in a bid to grab the other spirits.
They enter the portal to grab Carol Anne – an arduous affair that nearly goes very wrong – and save her. Barrons declares the house cleansed and leaves with Lesh and Ryan (Marty having refused to return after last time). The Freelings decided that it’s time to move.
Before they can do so, however, the Beast returns and tries to grab Carol Anne one last time. Coffins burst from the ground, and Steven realizes that Teague lied. They moved the grave markers, not the bodies. The family manages to escape and just miss their house imploding into the portal before astonished onlookers, including the horrified Teague.
The family goes to the nearest Holiday Inn and settle in. Steven shoves the television out on the balcony and the credits roll.
Something tells me that the Freelings are going to be a books-only kind of crowd from now on.
Now, about that curse.
It probably didn’t help matters that apparently the skeletons in those coffins weren’t fake. Allegedly, Spielberg purchased actual human remains from India, which was cheaper than making fake skeletons. One can only imagine how angry those spirits were.
Later, in November of 1982, Dominique Dunne (Dana) was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend in her driveway. Several years after that, Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne) died of an acute bowel obstruction that was misdiagnosed by doctors. Several others from later sequels died as well, including one actor being brutally ax-murdered in his own home.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, as well. The full slate of evidence for the curse could be two articles unto themselves.
But as I said earlier, for all the drama behind the scenes… I wasn’t overly-impressed by the whole thing. Perhaps I’ve been desensitized to horror in recent years. Perhaps it’s just not scary. Who can say?
Ultimately, I felt that the plot was acceptable. But where “Poltergeist” really shines is its production. The music, done by Jerry Goldsmith, is beautifully eerie, putting my teeth on edge and putting a shiver down my spine. The cinematography, be it by Hooper or Spielberg, is top-notch, and only rarely did I wonder, “What’s going on? I can’t tell.”
The performances are all top-notch, without a weak link in the bunch. Even the child actors turn in solid portrayals, which is hard to find in cinema. The stand out, I’d argue, is Dr. Lesh. Beatrice Straight makes her a credible parapsychologist with an authority behind her. One that does not compromise her credulity and empathy for the family’s tribulations.
Overall, I’m going to give “Poltergeist”…
Three skulls out of five.
Come back tomorrow for “State of Decay”.