Poltergeist – 1982

Director Tobe Hooper (Steven Spielberg)
Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein

The mind’s eye gives one emotional impressions that sometimes pervades one’s memory. My memory tells me that Poltergeist is a classic. It’s a film I remember fondly, even after my most recent viewing. Several scenes still stand out for their pacing, script and acting. Time passing and this reviewer just getting older has given a different perspective of the film overall, though.

First, let’s talk about what hasn’t changed. The best things in Poltergeist are still the same:

  1.  The clown. My kids, 10 and 13 called it from the first moment. The 10 year old was sent away long before it happened, but my oldest daughter screamed during the payoff. She knew it was going to happen and still it got her. The crowning moment for this film may be in the whole sequence, which took over an hour to complete. Robins knows there’s something up with that clown, but he is sidetracked by the tree. Later on, he still knows something’s up. By the time he realizes it, though, it’s bedtime…again.
  2. Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons. This character is the ace in the hole. By the time we see her, we’ve already invested 2/3 of the film in a ratcheting of the tension. Her dialogue matches the severity of the moment, but also provides a “are you serious” chuckle for those of us who still can’t believe her. Rubenstein created a character that has been duplicated many times, even to the point where the person her Tangina was modeled after (The Conjuring‘s Elaine Warren) feels like a copy. This culminates in her debate with JoBeth Williams’ Diane over who should go after the missing…
  3. Carol Anne (O’Rourke). So many times kids are precocious to the point of nausea. Spielberg had a real knack for making kids believable and helpless early on. The kids in this story are great, and it’s a shame we didn’t see much more of them after this film. Nothing is more memorable than little Carol Anne as the little vessel who’s open to the world. Of course she can see and communicate with the other side. Wisely the script doesn’t make her a genius though. She has no idea what the hell they want, and she’s really not keen on taking their side of things. None of the other films were able to completely capture the magic of her character, perhaps because they gave her too much more to do.
  4. Nelson and Williams as Steven and Diane Freeling. As a parent with a wife in the same age range as Steve and Diane, I find much to identify with. Neither of the parents are any sort of genius, but it’s obvious that they are in love and love their kids. This doesn’t preclude them from mistakes. They stay too long, for one. When you see how well they work together, it is a comfort, primarily because they are not wasting precious dialogue in the arguing stage.
  5. The script. It’s about as lean a script as I have ever experienced covering such a complex range of possibilities. They could have filled several more spots with tons of hocus pocus. That we are spared these detailed answers leaves room for imagination in a good way. The two sequels killed that feeling. The bare bones script has become the model for all haunted house possession films but most of these films don’t ever feel too close because of the flexibility allowed in it’s being so spare.

There are things that have detracted from the film with the passage of time. If I spent a long time believing Tobe Hooper is truly the director of the film, experience tells me the truth is otherwise. There are many clues to this being the case:

  1. Advertising. Nothing says Spielberg quite like product placement. This is grounding in a way. Watching Poltergeist, I can fondly remember that 60 Minutes was popular in 1982 as it is today. Conversely, kids born after Generation X would need to consult the internet to figure out what That’s Incredible! was. Pizza Hut is still popular. So are Coke, Cheetos and Star Wars. I could go on, but I will leave it at this: I was always envious of all of the “stuff” that Spielberg movie kids had, even when they were supposedly part of families with limited means. That feeling was front and center here.
  2. PG? If this film were really a Tobe Hooper film, there are two scenes that would have to have been left on the cutting room floor in order to pass the ratings bar. The overwhelmingly inappropriate moment when Martin Casella’s Marty tears his face off in the bathroom. (For those wondering, my 10 year old was sent away before this scene.) The other horrific sequences are anything involving the skeletons coming out of the pool in caskets or outside of them. Yes, we are in the age of The Walking Dead. That show isn’t PG though.  Spielberg got away with a lot back in this time. There was the melting faces of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the ripping out the heart of a living being in that series’ second film. The director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre just didn’t have that kind of sway.
  3. Goofy crap. Why oh why do we have to have those caskets pop up at the end of the movie? One would have been enough, but geez, he pulls that cheap stint too many times to be scary, much less effective. And when in your life have you ever seen a grown man trying to hold onto a 24 pack of drinks in order to bring them to the big game? When someone needs to have that box of beverages fall all over hell, that’s when. More examples are available, I just don’t want to encourage Spielberg to feel like they were memorable.

All in all, it’s a good and nearly great film. It’s taken years for me to add it to my collection, though. I finally needed a somewhat safe movie for my kids to watch this Halloween, and that’s really what we have here. I am sure they’ll watch it in the future. Not sure if they’ll ever know what the fuss was about. I think they’ll appreciate it though.

(**** out of *****)


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