1982’s Poltergeist has some interesting backstory to it. You’ve probably heard of “The Poltergeist Curse”, regarding strange on-set occurrences, untimely deaths of cast and crew, etc. I implore you to check out the above link if you aren’t aware. But there was also more conventional drama related to “director” Tobe Hooper and “producer” Steven Spielberg. I put those titles in quotes because it’s been heavily rumored that those two should have been swapped. It has been suggested that Spielberg was contractually forbidden to direct another film while he was making E.T. (which came out the same Summer), so he took the role of producer but secretly directed the film, reducing Hooper to a figurehead role.
Whatever the case may be, the end product is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. It feels like what a collaboration between Spielberg and Tobe Hooper should be like, with very Spielbergian themes colliding with the absolute horror and dread that Hooper brings from his experience on Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Creepshow (also from ’82!). It was one of the films that, along with Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom, inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating.
There’s an idyllic suburban neighborhood (which looks like the one in Edward Scissorhands but without the snark). There’s an 80’s era nuclear family. There’s a new home they are moving into. And of course, there is a ghost. Or many ghosts, as becomes clear later on. One night, they enter the home through the television (hello, metaphors!) while young Carol Anne watches the static creepily. As these things are apt to do, their presence starts out benign. Chairs stack themselves on the dining room table as though the restaurant is closing. Objects placed on the kitchen floor slide themselves to the other side of the room. This is one of my favorite moments in the film, when the family reacts to these initial phenomena with amused fascination tinged with fear.
Of course things don’t stay so friendly. During a dark and stormy night, the twisted old tree in the yard decides to have little boy for dinner, and Carol Anne vanishes. The parents can still hear her disembodied voice throughout the house but she is nowhere to be seen. They decide to call in some backup from the local University’s paranormal research division, and these people are immediately out of their depth. You can imagine they’re the same type who star in all those ghost hunting shows on SyFy channel and have gotten really good at telling us that there was totally something there, man. There’s a great joke in which one of them explains that he once witnessed a matchbox car move a few feet all on its own over a period of several days, at which point the father opens the door to his daughter’s room to reveal a whirlwind of the room’s contents floating in thin air.
As I mentioned, the professionals are totally unequipped to deal with this haunting, and after an unfortunate bout of face-rip-off-itis, one of them bows out. They decide to call in a psychic, the iconic Zelda Rubenstein, who is still coasting on this role to this day. She takes a more no-nonsense approach to getting Carol-Anne back, explaining to the parents – I’m paraphrasing – “Your daughter’s not just trapped in a nether-realm with a bunch of ghosts. There’s also a demonic monster in there with her.” From here the shit more or less hits the fan. They do get Carol Anne back, but not without squaring off against some truly horrific creatures, like this:
And lest we forget:
Between It and Poltergeist, the market on traumatizing killer clowns in movies has been cornered. Most people who only saw Poltergeist long ago still remember the clown scene. They may also remember the “skeletons bursting up from the ground” scene as well. Did you know those were real skeletons? Oh yes. They were cheaper. That bastard of a boss Mr. Teague moved the cemetery but didn’t move the bodies! He only moved the headstones!!!!! WHYYYYYY?!?!?!
The special effects in Poltergeist still absolutely hold up. I’m actually kind of amazed at how seamless they are for 1982. The face-ripping scene looks a little wonky, but still better than the one in the Terminator, which came out two years later. The acting is pretty excellent all around. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams anchor the movie as the freaked out parents just barely keeping it together for sake of getting their daughter back. The little girl, Heather O’Rourke who tragically died a few years after this film, portrays the right amount of vulnerability and naivete’. Zelda Rubenstein is kooky but convincing. And that soundtrack….. The main theme is brilliant. If you played it for somebody who had never heard of this film, they might hear a child’s lullabye, like something you should hear from a music box. But because of the association with the horrors in the film, your mind interjects an extremely sinister undercurrent. Like a monster disguised as a doll. Just hearing it still makes me shudder.
Poltergeist always has a secure position on my Halloween horror movie playlist. It’s part of the ritual.