Review: Poltergeist (1982)



Tobe Hooper
Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
115 min.
Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williamson, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Marty Casella, Richard Lawson, Zelda Rubinstein, James Karen, Dirk Blocker
MPAA Rating
R (original); PG (re-rated after appeal)

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I originally saw this film back when it first came out and then later in the ’90s when it was run fittingly on television. I remember liking the film and even managed to have several scenes ingrained in my mind after all of these years, but I had never looked at it through the eye of a film critic. Picking this film up again over the weekend, I was reminded of several things.

The first is just how much care went into producing films in the 1980s. During that period, not only did a film have to break boundaries in terms of story, it had to do so with a literate and compelling script. Today, any sequel will do and even Poltergeist was turned into a pair of decreasingly successful sequels, but today’s sequels aren’t necessarily built on quality originals as was the case of Poltergeist. The story, conceived and written by Steven Spielberg, and directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) tells the story of a home salesman (Craig T. Nelson) and his family living in one of his developer’s own original houses who begin to experience strange occurrences, each pointing to a supernatural incursion of some kind.

The film opens as the Star Spangled Banner plays off the nightly television program before shifting to “snow”. Young Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) walks up to the television settles down in front of the static and begins quietly conversing with the strange entity within, an entity that neither the audience, nor her family can see. From there, several strange things begin happening, chairs will be pushed out from the table even though they were previously pushed in, then later those same chairs will be found balanced in a precarious stack on the table even though the mother (JoBeth Williams) had her back turned for only a second. Other intensely creepy events take place before Carol Ann is sucked into the closet while her brother is being pulled out through a window and eaten by a large, hollow tree in the backyard. The Freelings bring in an expert in such phenomena (Beatrice Straight) who, along with her associates, come to the conclusion that their house is haunted and that only one person can help save Carol Ann: a diminutive psychic (Zelda Rubinstein) who must convince the Freelings to listen to her instructions or face losing their daughter forever.

This is a film whose visual effects are truly special, unlike the excessive abuses in most modern films, Poltergeist uses its chilling effects so well that it’s difficult at times to tell where some of them begin and end. And despite being nearly 30 years old, the film’s effects hold up amazingly well, the closing scene with the house being pulled into an extra-dimensional speck is quite impressive. Other effects feel dated, but they are entirely in service to the film, something a lot of new filmmakers should learn. The performances aren’t great, but they serve the plot quite well. O’Rourke was a talented discovery whose death in 1988 at the age of 12 sent shockwaves through audiences who had cherished her in this film. That and the earlier murder of actress Dominique Dunne (who played her older sister in the film) led to several speculations that her involvement in the Poltergeist films led to her passing, all of which have been debunked for years now. Had she lived, she might have followed a similar career trajectory to Dakota or Elle Fanning.

While some of the film’s conceits are firmly rooted in the ’80s (television hasn’t gone off the air at night in more than a decade), there is still a timeless quality to the film’s format. It’s a engaging thriller that relies less on grossing the audience out and more on terrifying them. And in a decade where horror films perfected the slasher milieu, Poltergeist stands out further as an example of how horror could still scare audiences even if there aren’t buckets of blood on the screen.
Review Written
January 24, 2011

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