OK, here’s a question for you Fellow Fans out there; it may be better suited for those born before 1975, but I have the utmost faith that all of you guys and gals can play along:
Name a “ghost movie” from the 1980s…first one that pops into your head.
All done? OK, pencils down, I’m taking up your answers.
Now, without peeking, I already know that this could very well be a widely-spread list of titles, ranging from the pure ghost flick (The Shining, Ghost Story ), the vengeful spirit yarn (The Fog, Death Ship ), and even comedies (Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice ), but I would almost be willing to bet that a whole lot (if not most ) of you thought of a little flick from ’82, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper…Poltergeist. Many a nightmare was inspired for this reviewer by this film, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in that, either.
The Freelings are your typical, 1980s suburban family, living in their middle-class subdivision, Cuesta Verde, where the father, Steve, is a hotshot salesman for the developer…in fact, he’s their top seller. He and his wife Diane and their three kids, eldest daughter Dana, son Robbie, and youngest Carol Anne live a pretty good life in the community, where they do all the things suburban families do: cookouts, weekend football games with the guys over; they’re even having a pool put in. One night, when Steve has fallen asleep watching television, the National Anthem sign-off (remember that?) awakens young Carol Anne, and she seems to hear voices talking to her through the static of the television.
In the coming days, Diane begins to notice strange movements of furniture around the house, as well as a feeling of not being alone. There’s nothing really frightening about the paranormal events, and Diane becomes quite excited about the seemingly inexplicable phenomena…until the night all hell breaks loose, and tiny Carol Anne disappears into the closet, pulled by unseen hands into oblivion as the house seems to tear itself apart. Unable to find any trace of the little girl, but hearing her through the television static, the Freelings contact the local university paranormal department to help them try to get their daughter back…but with all their instruments and devices, even the scientists have to bring in an expert to determine where the child went (and what took her), the renowned psychic Tangina. But what the experienced medium feels within the Freeling home is far beyond anything playful or benevolent, and the family must put the things they treasure most on the line to be whole once more…
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more relatable and engaging “haunted house” flick than this one. Hooper and Spielberg (although he’s listed as producer, the amount of actual direction Spielberg did on the flick will likely never be known) bring us a family that could be our own, living a lifestyle that most of us can identify with, and then turns the whole world upside down on them, taking special care to grab the short hairs on all parents and twist. The script effortlessly takes us by the hand and puts you in the lives of these people and lets you get to know them on a personal level; you can’t help but be emotionally traumatized when the whatever-the-hell-it-is from the other side begins its torments upon them. Complementing the amazing script and direction, the acting performances are superb; Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are undeniable in their impassioned performances as first a fun-loving, baby-boomer couple, continuing (and intensifying) in their turn as desperate, loving parents. The children in the film are remarkable in their roles as well; both the interaction between all the siblings and the stark-eyed terror displayed by each of the young actors is never in question; Oliver Robins and the unfortunately deceased Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke were their characters.
Taken altogether, it was easy to not only accept the Freelings, but to genuinely like them, and thus suffer alongside them. Supporting roles by such actors as James Karen and Zelda Rubinstein all served to further color the canvas that Hooper and Spielberg crafted. Special effects wise…well, they’re done by Industrial Light & Magic, and absolutely live up to that pedigree. Sure, some of it looks a little dated today, but I persist that some of the things you’ll see will scare the beejeezus out of you. Not only is the “shock and awe” value present, but even more nuanced sequences occur throughout the film that may not have the same jolting effect, but will nonetheless make you most uncomfortable as you sit and watch, contributing to the wrongness and sinister underpinnings of what is occurring in this little cookie-cutter subdivision home. Not much gore to speak of, but there is one of those “uncomfortable” scenes I just mentioned that will put those of weaker constitutions off their popcorn…you’ll know it when you see it.
This was the film that scared the hell out of me as a twelve-year-old. An evil tree, the lights going nuts, crap flying around the house, and that clown…sweet Jesus, that clown. If you aren’t nodding your head agreeing with me as you read that, let me just tell you that there’s a clown in this flick that I believe single-handedly created a pandemic of coulrophobia that persists to this day…Pennywise may have gotten more press, but this guy started it (quick personal story: my sister had a life-size (for a kid) clown doll that, after I saw this movie, I put up in my mom’s attic; I assume it still sits there in the dark, cobwebby corner where I left it thirty-odd years ago…I’m sure as hell not going up to check).
Poltergeist proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that it doesn’t take chainsaws, hockey masks, POV cameras, spurting blood, or flailing entrails to be scary as all hell…those of you who haven’t had the chance, I highly recommend checking this one out.
OK, even you guys that have seen it; don’t you think it’s time to pick an evening, turn off all the lights, break out your refreshments of choice, and enjoy it again?
I’m glad I did. 🙂
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