(Release Date: June 04, 1982)
And that's exactly what we get in this brilliant Haunted House thriller! We've seen the stories about the palatial estates created by madmen's dreams that are filled with ghosts, just waiting to prey on the living. We've seen the isolated resorts that entrap their tenants with the elements as well as their own fears. We've even seen what should be a pleasant story about a dream home... that just happens to look like it's staring at you... because it is.
However, in Poltergeist, what we get is a really nice neighborhood in sunny Simi Valley, California, just a short, short drive from where I'm sitting right now. You've got swimming pools and well-clipped lawns. Housewives and yuppies are all over the place and every third house has a basketball goal out front for the neighborhood kids to play on. Neighbors get together for football games and kids ride bikes and play with Remote Control cars. It's great.
And, yes, we soon find out it's ALL haunted. That is the frightening and unique aspect of Poltergeist. This haunted house isn't at the mouth of madness... it's right around the corner from where you voted last November. That, folks, is part of why this is so scary.
And perhaps this is also why major amounts of blood and gore and gratuitous shocks weren't needed. Oh, all of that is there (minus the nudity and profanity), but the final film managed only to achieve a PG rating! A few years ago I brought my then-pre-teen daughter to see it on the Widescreen in Long Beach and it immediately became her favorite film. That's how effective it is, even decades after its release. Unexpected? Yes... but that's the key to Poltergeist!
Nobody expected this. In fact, our leading man, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) hardly just happens to live here. He's the sales rep that sold over forty percent of the homes in this very subdivision. And he's brought his family to live there, too. You've got his attractive wife Diane (JoBeth Williams), his independent teenaged daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), his younger son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and, of course, his youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke)!
Everything seems to be going just fine for everyone. Lovely home, great schools, awesome kids... Steve's even up for a promotion from his boss Mr. Teague (James Karen). His biggest problem seems to be that his Television shares the same remote frequency with his next door neighbor's!
Things start to get weird when little Carol Anne starts to talk to said Television and begins to make references to those on the other side. Then again, where's the harm in that? Whose expecting anything too bizarre? Nobody, man! This is the suburbs! In fact, when the "TV People" Carol Anne is talking to start to manifest themselves by moving things around, Diane and Steve are more amazed, as if they've discovered something really neat, than they are horrified.
That is until the fun turns to terror and the Ghosts turn malevolent. Things move violently, the walls open and even the trees try to eat the family through their windows. Most frighteningly of all, however, it seems that these unseen forces have their eyes set on Carol Anne specifically and they aren't going to quiet down until they have her.
Needless to say the soft way this started, coupled with how rapidly the whole thing went South pretty much blows the whole "For God's Sake Get Out" factor out of the proverbial swimming pool water! Once "The Beast" and his cronies has his hooks in the children, there's no way the Freelings are turning tail to run.
Naturally, this is when ol' Coach decides to call in the Ghost Busters... or their University-based counterparts, starting with proffesorial Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), technical Ryan (Richard Lawson) and studious Marty (Marty Casela)! They realize quickly that this disturbance is more than they've ever seen, but before long they are faced with the cold reality that this living nightmare is much more than they can even deal with!
The only other possibility for saving each member of the Freeling family (especially young Carol Anne) is to bring in the big guns in the small form of strange spiritual medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) to "clean the house", send the spirits on their way and bring Carol Anne home! You think that's going to be easy? Not even close! There are miles to go (and a great many surprises for the audience) before the Freelings can sleep.
A great deal of the credit for this great film should go to Mr. Steven Spielberg, the film's producer and the writer of the story on which the screenplay (which he wrote with Michael Grais and Mark Victor) was based. He successfully took the ideas that germinated in Haunted House films and took away the barriers that most of these had, setting his terror tale not in a creepy forest or a vast estate or even a house with fan-shaped windows that looked like eyes... but in a house that could well be next door to your own!
Some of Spielberg's best motifs can be found written all over this film, even to the point that controversy almost immediately arose that Spielberg himself was the director, rather than the hand-selected helmsman who holds the credit, Tobe Hooper. The controversy hasn't died down and while both Hooper and Spielberg maintain that Tobe alone directed the film, outside observers see much more of Steven's fingerprints on the film than Tobe's. Even insiders have claimed that Spielberg called "Action!" on the set and had more of a creative influence than is common.
Where does the truth lie? Possibly somewhere in between, but the fact is, this really doesn't matter... Poltergeist succeeds as a film because it is so well done from page to screen with great acting, great ideas and some seriously amazing surprises and special effects! And all this without even earning an R-Rating. Make no mistake, though, Poltergeist is a deeply frightening film, playing off of our primitive fears as well as our psychological terrors. This film has it where it counts in so many ways.
In truth, many of the off-screen horrors were more frightening than what happened in the movie itself. Poltergeist spawned two sequels, Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Poltergeist III. While Carol Anne survived all three film, the actress who played her, Heather O'Rourke died at the age of 12. Tragically, Dominique Dunne (who played Dana) was killed much more violently by a jealous boyfriend... who is now a free man. Rumors of the "Poltergeist Curse" have yet to subside, seeing as how actor Lou Perryman (who played "Pugsley") was murdered earlier this year (2009) by a fleeing criminal!
In spite of all this, Poltergeist is an excellent film. Many of the special effects may seem dated as compared to today, but just as many of these practical effects still stand up today because they look so good. Otherworldly, yes, but physically real... and that is what makes them so very disturbing. It may have been a huge success and thus considered more commercial than classic by some, it may have its fair share of controversy rolling all around it and it may have tragedy in its wake, but Poltergeist in and of itself, taken for all with all is a Four and One Half Star out of Five motion picture! How could I end the 2009 Summer of Horror without it? Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to call a contractor about getting a pool installed here! I keep hearing these creepy sounds and seeing things moving around on their own and I'm thinking that a nice dip may be the answer to all my problemmos. What do you say, folks? Good idea? See you in the next Headstone-Movin' reel!
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