Kids today just don’t know how good they have it. Their favorite cartoons are on when they want them to be, they can watch them on multiple devices, and when the cable goes out, the screen just says “No signal” or turns blue.
As a kid, I was scared any time the cable went out. During a big storm, “snow” would fill my television screen. We didn’t have DVRs/DVDs/VCRs to watch something on tape. Nope. I had to pray for the cable to turn back on when it was out. If it was in the middle of my favorite show, I’d wait it out (hoping for the picture to pop back on). I’d stare at the snow hoping to see something…anything. Sometimes, out of this snow, I could make out pictures.
Thankfully, I never heard any voices though.
The movie responsible for my fear (which also launched my love of horror) was Poltergeist. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in years. But as my birthday was last weekend, I had every right to drag my family around town looking for the DVD. I ended up getting a used copy for $5.00.
Poltergeist is still one of the greatest horror films I’ve ever seen. It has a simple story that everybody can relate to. It tells it in a clear, creepy tone without overdoing it. It brings R rated horror to a PG rated film.
As the Star Spangled Banner plays, we are introduced to our sleeping family in the film’s first frames. Steve Freeling (Craig T Nelson) is asleep in the living room while his beautiful wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) sleeps in their bed. Steve and Diane have 3 children: Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Carol Anne hears something, gets out of her bed, and begins talking to the television (which is showing snow). Her loud voice wakes up the family, and they watch in confusion as she answers questions they cannot hear.
The Freelings live in a brand new housing development that is expanding quickly. Steve is responsible for much of the growth and has sold a majority of the homes here. They decide to get a pool, and a work begins on digging up the back yard. Of course, they have normal problems as well. Their pet bird dies. They fight with their neighbors.
The kids get scared during a thunderstorm and end up in bed with Steve and Diane one night. After everybody is asleep, the voices once again talk to Carol Anne and a ghostly hand comes out of the television and touches the bedroom wall. An earthquake shakes the house, and Carol Anne says her famous words “They’re her-ere.”
At first the hauntings are quite amusing to Diane. Diane finds the chairs all stacked up on the kitchen table, and she discovers a spot in the kitchen that things cannot be placed without be pushed across the room. She’s very excited for this, and experiments with different objects. That soon changes when her children are attacked.
When Robbie is pulled out of the room by the scary old tree outside, Carol Anne goes missing. They look all over the house to no avail, and then Robbie hears her voice coming through the snow of the television. The family seeks out a paranormal team, and they are speechless about what they encounter.
Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), a psychic, is consulted and informs the family that Carol Anne is in danger. The ghost that has her (“The Beast”) is not allowing the other ghosts to leave this world. They are enamored with Carol Anne as she was born in this house and different from what they are. The Beast uses her to confuse them, and he takes the form of a child to lie to her. They must separate Carol Anne from him, and lead the ghosts “to the light”.
1982 was referred to as the “Summer of Spielberg” as Poltergeist and ET: The Extra Terrestrial (both written by Steven Spielberg) came out a week apart from each other. It definitely shows. Although he was only a writer on this film, you can see the strong similarities in the films and how they are shot. The neighborhood looks familiar. The dialogue is similar. Hell, even the soundtrack to the film sees oddly cheerful and out of place (and like it might belong in…I don’t know…A feel good sci-fi adventure about a boy and his alien?). The writing is phenomenal, and some of the creepiest moments are when the casts are whispering lines to each other.
When Tobe Hooper made Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he attempted to limit the blood and gore in his movie in an attempt to secure a PG rating. He was unsuccessful. Hooper achieved that here. Poltergeist received a PG rating but has some of the greatest horror scenes ever depicted in it. It’s not blood and guts. It’s creepy images that came to dominate ’80s cinema. It’s the tree swallowing Robbie. It’s that hologram like giant mantis guarding a door. It’s the melting face. It’s the ghostly echo of a voice coming from the television. It’s that freaking clown.
The actors are all on in this film. As the film hinges on 2 children in key roles, they did perfect. Carol Anne is iconic in her role. Her lines are delivered well for her age, and one of her greatest scenes is when she is staring at her closet in disbelief and horror as to what is happening. She doesn’t move a muscle. Robbie is no slouch either. When he discovers his sister is trapped, he can’t quite get out the scream. It’s broken, and it’s what we all do when terrified. Steve goes from a confident business man/father to a broken man, while Diane becomes more and more “comfortable” in dealing with and facing the supernatural forces. Nobody else could have played Tangina but Zelda. She’s just so creepy.
Poltergeist is a horror classic. Even after all these years, the film still seems ahead of its time. It knows how to make me like characters, and it knows how to scare me still. It is a must for any horror fan.