Year of Release: 1982
Running Time: 114 minutes (1:54)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Craig T. Nelson ... Steve Freeling
JoBeth Williams ... Diane Freeling
Beatrice Straight ... Dr. Lesh
Dominique Dunne ... Dana Freeling
Oliver Robins ... Robbie Freeling
Heather O'Rourke ... Carol Anne Freeling
Martin Casella ... Marty
Richard Lawson ... Ryan
Zelda Rubinstein ... Tangina
James Karen ... Mr. Teague
Paula Paulson ... Ghost (uncredited)
This is the fifth in a series of flicks I'm reviewin' in tribute to the ten guys that I feel made the biggest, and in some cases, most important contributions to the Horror genre, and today I'm toastin' the man who did for the roadside B-B-Q industry what Jaws did for seaside tourism - Tobe "it's just a little heat stroke" Hooper.
Life is very pleasant for a California family... until a host of other-worldly forces invade their peaceful suburban home. It starts with just an odd occurrence or two, but soon their house is turning into a swirling supernatural sideshow. The forces at work are anything but friendly - and if the luckless family doesn't soon clear out, they'll all be swept off into nightmarish chaos!
Poltergeist, remindin' us that there're things in suburbia even scarier than the Home Owner's Association.
And speakin' of well-intentioned structuring run amok, you remember back in 2nd Grade when you were given the assignment to write a report detailin' what you wanna be when ya grow up, and then you hadda break out the Crayolas and explain to Mrs. Stickel about how you were gonna be a paleontologist, or a ballerina, or run moonshine to one of those dry counties in a state where the governor's skimmin' money off the welfare fund to wine and dine Miss Tornado Alley 1979? Well, I hadda go down to Chickawalka Elementary and ask Mrs. Finkelstein for another extension last week 'cause I still haven't decided on a career trajectory.
I just can't seem to get the hang of this adultin' thing, and every time I think I'm startin' to another monkey wrench gets tossed into the works. Like, livin' vicariously through your kids, for instance. I guess I'd sorta understand if you were up on the roof adjustin' your antenna, slipped on a pile of bird stuff, and ended up paralyzed from the waist down after landin' awkwardly on a garden gnome or somethin', but seriously - what's wrong with these people?
Normally I try steerin' clear of anything contentious, but I finally regained some of the feelin' back in my legs after that gnome thing and figured I'd take Apollo down to the ballyard to see how Jeannie Bigelow's heater was comin' along and grabbed a seat behind home plate where Cleave and Roxanne like to sit so she can be sure the umpire hears her observations regardin' his visual acuity and sexual dysfunction.
"Saved ya a seat," Cleave smirked, motionin' toward a conspicuously wet spot to his right.
"Dr. Pepper, huh? Ya know, water's free, has the same discouraging effect on people, and won't end with ants crawlin' around in your flip flips," I observed, sittin' down one row behind 'em.
"I'm goin' to get more... water, want anything?" Cleave nudged Roxanne.
"Corn dog," Roxanne replied without peelin' 'er eyes from the game.
"I thought you hated the 'dogs here?" he puzzled.
"I just want the stick," she clarified, starin' a hole through the umpire's back.
"What about you?" he offered.
"Same," I shrugged.
"Alright, what'n hell's goin' on here? YOU hate 'em more'n she does," he snarled, suddenly concerned that he'd been left out of some recent pork-related development.
"They're pretty bad alright. But I know that if I get what she gets you'll be too afraid of mixin' 'em up to go rub your junk on mine," I explained.
"For cripe's sake! Ya cornhole one corny dog..." he muttered en route to the concession stand.
"How's she doin'?" I elbowed Roxanne.
"Five strikeouts against eleven batters," she replied through gritted teeth. "Actually it was six, but FIELD MARSHALL MAGOO HERE'S HAD MOST OF THE GAME OBSCURED BY HIS COLON!" she shouted at Horst Gaskins after a call of ball three on Jeannie's present adversary.
I don't wanna give the wrong impression or anything 'cause Roxanne's a good mom, and from what I've seen she doesn't push the kid. It's just that when she thinks Jeannie's gettin' jobbed she tends to get a little spirited and metaphorically colorful.
Honestly though, from what I saw, Horst blew as many calls against the visiting pitcher as he did Jeannie, but it didn't seem like the best time to remind Roxanne not to attribute to malice that could be explained by incompetence while she was sharpenin' a corndog stick into a prison shiv. She'da probably thought Hanlon a dickweed under the circumstances.
Anyway - incredible pitchin' exhibition from both girls, and by the bottom of the ninth the game was still scoreless, but before I tell ya what happened next I feel like I oughta explain somethin' so we're all on the same page. Anytime we go to a game, Apollo -- stand-up citizen and all-around good boy that he is -- takes it upon himself to retrieve any balls that leave the playin' field and returns 'em to the staff for reuse, and nobody has *ever* had a problem with this arrangement.
Like I was sayin' though - bottom of the ninth and it's lookin' like this game's still gonna be goin' come Christmas 'cause both pitchers've had cannons surgically grafted onto their shoulders and feel neither pain nor fatigue. One away, 1-2 count on Grace Buckhalter who's hitless on the day but has gotten a piece of five pitches up to this point. Visiting pitcher winds up, throws, and BLAM! Big knock. Ball's headed for left field and it looks like she got all of it, only the wind picks up. Ball starts losin' altitude fast, but it's still got a chance and it's gonna be close. Left fielder reaches the fence, jumps like there's a Nike endorsement contract on the line, and outta nowhere Apollo leaps into view from the backside of the fence and snags the ball, carryin' it outta the park with him and back to the concession staff.
I'm tellin' ya - I've never seen anybody this P.O.'d at a dog since that time Gank stole a rotisserie fried muskrat carcass from the Sagebillies livin' in Skunky's cow pasture.
The place erupts into chaos - the visitors' parents insist Apollo knocked the outfielder's glove away and interfered with the ball, while the home team's folks are certain the ball passed over her mitt and that it was goin' over the fence regardless. Fortunately, we're nothing if not reasonable people.
"The mutt's a ringer! That game was fixed!" the outfielder's father growled.
"How'd ya like a little nacho cheese to go with that whine?" Rusty Dockweiler taunted, enjoying the opportunity to stir the pot.
"It was FOURTEEN strikeouts! Go getcher sonar recalibrated, bat boy!" Roxanne howled, either unaware or uninterested that the game had, at least, temporarily ended.
Eventually things got so heated that the officials hadda confiscate the footage Dax Brazzel had recorded for the public access cable broadcast, plug it into the scorekeeper's laptop, and run it back and forth in super slow motion three times until Horst concluded that the ball had barely cleared the fielder's glove and that Apollo's shenanigans hadn't changed the outcome of the play.
Unfortunately, in a reactionary, chickenshit effort to soothe the butt hurt, the officials decided that "to prevent any future controversy" all dogs "big enough to jump into a pickup bed" would henceforth be barred entry to the stadium. I guess that's how we handle things in this country now - we give it the Bud Light, drag show, Floridian literature treatment. "Land of the free" my splinter impacted butt.
I tried not to let this development get Apollo down, but I could tell by his lack of enthusiasm at the girls' celebratory pizza party that he didn't know how to handle this kinda rejection, so we ducked out early and headed home to hang with somebody we knew wouldn't disappoint us - Mr. Texas Chain Saw Massacre himself. On paper you wouldn't think a collaboration between Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg would work given one guy's propensity for sawin' up teenage hippies into pepper steak and the others' desire to fill people with a sense of childlike wonder in order to stave off a possible Falling Down reenactment at their place of employment, but apparently, Tobe was able to get his hands on enough recreational herbs to keep from punchin' Steve in any of his auteurial orifi and the result is undeniably superb.
I'd imagine most of you've probably already seen this one 57 times on HBO and Cinemax between the years 1983 - 1997, but in the event that the day drinkin' has started to eat away at your memory bank, I've come equipped with a trio of trivial tidbits to remind ya why you're gonna have no choice but to roll it a 58th time. First, sometimes goin' into the closet is scarier than comin' out. Second, when you're personally responsible for 42% of the yuppies occupyin' a new housing development, expect to be singled out for retaliation. And third, when your kid is trapped inside the TV set, Channel 1 kills in the Nielsen Ratings.
The movie begins at the conclusion of the broadcast day with a little girl comin' downstairs in the middle of the night to chat with the interdimensional station manager of the All Static Network while 'er parents watch on in uncomfortable silence with a pang of regret over their recent decision to introduce the child to The Twilight Zone. The next mornin' suburban life returns to normal with Craig T. Nelson and his family (Diane, Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne) enduring the typical first-world dilemmas of sharin' an identical cable box receiver with your neighbors, explainin' the nature of life and death to your six-year-old when she catches ya flushin' her deceased parakeet down the dumper, and the always tricky deflection of a child's questions about the noises you were makin' while bein' groped by a man makin' lewd advances in the voice of a beloved Disney mascot. Basically, the kinda mundane domestic problems that make ya welcome incursions from the realm of death when they arrive in the form of spectral claws that squirm their way outta your TV set at 3 in the AM and take up residence inside the drywall of your uninspired tract home in direct violation of the clause in your H.O.A. contract forbidding the presence of houseguests living or dead for a period exceeding three days.
Nobody really thinks much of it until a coupla dyslexic interior decorators from beyond the grave start screwin' around with the dinette set and conjurin' ecto-magnetic bobsled runs through the kitchen, but things really go sideways when the gnarly old Ent outside the kids' bedroom wakes up after a few millennia to find itself surrounded by vinyl siding and wood-paneled station wagons fashioned from the remains of its departed brethren. Old Man Willow is P.O.'d, so he busts through the kids' window with his 20' long Pumpkinhead arms and starts swallowin' Robbie like a python left unsupervised with a blackout drunk spring breaker, only while Craig and Diane're outside tryin' the Hemlock maneuver an otherworldly Orkin upright starts suckin' everything into Carol Anne's closet and she ends up trapped inside the TV set bein' slowly tortured to death by unsold Ray Bradbury pilots. Needless to say the block association is gonna catch hell over this, but first Craig hasta go ask a Sylvia Browne adjacent paranormal investigator at the Department of Batshit Phenomenon's Phantasmic Division (Dr. Lesh) to help set up a line of communication for a spirit realm hostage negotiation, and it takes approximately 17 seconds for Lesh and her associates to realize they're in over their heads on a level generally reserved for the crews of nuclear submarines. Then things settle down awhile until Carol Anne's bedroom door opens up so a lost soul train can go marchin' through the house and this pretty much leaves Lesh no choice but to call in the big gun: a three-foot-tall gypsy babe with a black belt in apparition asskickery (Zelda Rubinstein).
Zelda explains that Carol Anne's bein' held captive by a buncha cranky dead guys who won't let 'er leave 'cause it's been a hundred years since they've had somebody around to listen to 'em bitch about how the country's gone to hell in a hand basket ever since that gutless President Fillmore gave Oklahoma to the Indians, and that the only way to get 'er back is to have Carol Anne lead the grumpy old coots into the light without actually goin' into it herself 'cause there're way too many handsy youth pastors in there. Zelda and Diane coach Carol Anne on how to snow the ungrateful dead but now somebody hasta enter the spectral sphincter portal to bring 'er back from Netherland, and so they run a rope through the entrance in the closet to the exit in the livin' room and Diane goes rootin' around the Inside Out until the two of 'em end up fallin' outta the ceilin' covered in KY Jello. Zelda tries to reassure the family that her exorcisms come with a lifetime guarantee but Craig just can't handle the idea of watchin' Family Feud in the same room where his wife and daughter were expelled from the devil's dooker, so Diane and the kids continue to pack while Craig goes to tender his resignation and tell his boss to kiss his subdivision, only while that's goin' on the family uncovers a few dust bunnies that eluded Zelda's supernatural Swiffer. That's all ya get - I spoiled the first ending but I'll be damned if I'm gonna give away the second. However, you students of the dramatic arts will be pleased to know that Chekhov's pool will be making a splash before the credits roll.
Alrighty, well, if that sounded a little more to the point than you're accustomed to it's because this is an extremely well-crafted movie that's equal parts sizzle and steak, and I prefer to leave the sizzle on the editing room floor on the basis that it's not crucial to the overall story arch. Poltergeist is much more than just a collection of effective scenes, and that's critical when you've got a flick that runs close to two hours because it's easy to lose the audience between effects shots. You wouldn't expect a concept this simple to be so demanding, but when you go crashing through the 90-minute barrier you need character development, chemistry between the actors, snappy dialogue, snippets of comedy, appropriately paced tension building, the right atmosphere, and proper grounding to keep everything from goin' to pieces when the TV spirits start spawnin' toynadoes in the kids' room. Fortunately, Poltergeist had one of the greatest filmmakers of our time at the helm, and havin' Steven Spielberg hangin' around the set all the time didn't hurt either.
Spielberg actually offered Hooper the chance to direct E.T., which was supposed to start filmin' around the same time as Poltergeist, but Tobe chose the latter even though it didn't have a script at the time. A lotta people claim that Spielberg actually directed the film, citing the look and feel as being Spielbergian, and I always wonder whether or not they understand that Spielberg co-wrote the screenplay when I read these remarks because it stands to reason that if a man with a distinctive style lays out a story and contributes dialogue, setting, and situations, that maybe, just maybe, it ends up having his mark. Yes, Poltergeist absolutely has that "Spielberg glow." The thing I don't understand is why that dictates he must have directed it, because when you get right down to it the writer (provided their vision isn't bastardized) is ultimately the person who has the most control over what happens on screen; the director only determines how that vision is presented. It is true that Spielberg was on set for nearly the entire shoot due to the production dates for E.T. being repeatedly pushed back, and it's also true that Spielberg was given final cut in the editing process, but logically it's still such a big leap to me to then assume that Hooper couldn't possibly have been lining out the shots, making the production schedule, or providing instruction to his actors. It's like suggesting the construction crew you hire is irrelevant as long as you've got a good architect.
Collaborative as it was, Poltergeist should have been the launch pad that propelled Hooper to superstardom as a director; instead, despite Spielberg's efforts to debunk the conspiracy theory, the myth persisted, and Hooper was never again entrusted with a project of comparable prestige. He would return to lower budget efforts and scored several B-level hits with Lifeforce, a remake of Invaders from Mars, and what was, in my opinion, the second-best Horror/Comedy of all time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2, but enjoyable as those films were it was clear that the ship had sailed. I'm not gonna sit here and try to convince you that he was the most talented director of all time, or that he was a more talented director than Spielberg, but he directed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, its fantastic sequel, and Poltergeist. And because a coupla writers who had article deadlines to fill one afternoon happened to stop by the set and see Spielberg there working alongside him, the project that should have been his proudest moment as a filmmaker crippled his career. Isn't life grand?
One of these days I'm gonna get over that, but today is not that day. Today is, however, the day I give Tobe his due, so stand back while I lead this baby into the light.
The plot is straightforward, simplistic, and one that's been done many times before (dating back to the likes of The Haunting), but never with such modern special effects to back it up or the gumption to imperil a 6-year-old girl. A lot of time is invested in getting the audience to identify and sympathize with the cast by presenting them as an ordinary family (just like yours) dealing with the typical stresses of acclimating to a new place, and while this serves the film well in the long run, the story is surprisingly minimalistic and basically just sets the stage for the actors and special effects designers to do the heavy lifting. I realize it may sound insulting, but it isn't. Some movies are sold based solely upon an intriguing premise, and although the exploration of paranormal phenomenon was a big draw in the '70s and early '80s, it's a topic that has become oversaturated and consequently, Poltergeist has stayed relevant not because of its played-out theme, but because of the chaos that theme unleashes on people we've come to care about.
The acting is exceptional, and the chemistry between the film's cast makes for one of the most genuine depictions of an average, likable, middle-class family in genre history. All the time spent fleshing the characters out pays off with the audience's ability to connect with, and ultimately, care for the characters impacted by the public access analog apparitions. Both Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams' characters evolve noticeably throughout the film, with Nelson suffering from periods of disconnection and utter despair stemming from his inability to protect his family, forcing Williams to hold things together after being blindsided following her initial fascination with what had appeared to be harmless prankster spirits. Zelda Rubinstein's bizarre performance is gonna be what people remember best from the film, and it is fantastic, but among the supporting cast I feel like Oliver Robins doesn't get the credit he deserves for the level of sheer terror he projects during the rogue Maple attack and the immediate aftermath where he hears Heather O'Rourke calling out from the TV set. Often the performances of child actors come off as phony or silly, but when Robins realizes what he's hearing and starts meltin' down in front of the Trinitron you by-God believe it. There isn't a weak performance to be found here, and the authentic family dynamic between the primary cast elevates the flick to a level rarely seen in a genre film with such a basic premise.
Here's who matters and why (besides Craig T. Nelson who's probably just barely over the notoriety hump for most folks): JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist II, Within, Endangered Species, The World Beyond), Beatrice Straight (Chiller 1985), Dominique Dunne (V), Oliver Robins (Poltergeist II, Don't Go to Sleep), Heather O'Rourke (Poltergeist II & III), Michael McManus (The Munsters' Revenge, Captain America 1979), Virginia Kiser (The Deliberate Stranger, Dreamscape, Space Raiders), Martin Casella (RoboCop 2), Richard Lawson (Not Alone, Sugar Hill, Scream Blacula Scream), Zelda Rubinstein (Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Wishcraft, Little Witches, Timemaster, Guilty as Charged, Teen Witch, Poltergeist II & III, Anguish), James Karen (America's Most Haunted, The Butterfly Room, Trail of the Screaming Forehead, Mulholland Drive, Fatal Kiss, Piranha 1995, Congo, Future Shock, The Unborn, The Willies, Girlfriend from Hell, Return of the Living Dead I & II, Invaders from Mars 1986, Time Walker, Capricorn One, Hercules in New York, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster), Lou Perryman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Natural Selection, The Cellar), Dirk Blocker (Night of the Scarecrow, Cutting Class, Prince of Darkness, Starman), Allan Graf (Total Recall, Real Men, RoboCop, Space Rage, Impulse 1984, The Astral Factor, Capricorn One), Helen Baron (The Return of Count Yorga), Robert Broyles (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sonny Boy), Sonny Landham (Predator, Mental Scars, Disintegration, 2090, Blood Bath 1975), Jeffrey Bannister (Twilight Zone: The Movie), William Vail (Mausaleum (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1974), Danny Nero (Ghostbusters 1984, Star Trek III, V).
And the normals: JoBeth Williams (Karen in The Big Chill, Phyllis Bernard in Kramer vs. Kramer, Reggie Love on The Client), Beatrice Straight (Mother Christophe in The Nun's Story), Richard Lawson (Ed Price in Streets of Fire, Lucas Barnes on All My Children, Det. Nathaniel Hawthorne on The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd), Zelda Rubinstein (Ginny Weedon on Picket Fences), James Karen (Martin Frohm in The Pursuit of Happiness, Mac Churchill in The China Syndrome), Dirk Blocker (Hitchcock on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 1st Lt. Jerome Bragg on Black Sheep Squadron), Joseph Walsh (Sparkie in California Split, Glasses in The Driver).
The special effects hold up very well even 40+ years down the road, and were, at the time, state-of-the-art mindblowers. To simply describe them as composite shots wouldn't be giving them the credit they deserve because while that is often true, some of them have a *lot* going on, particularly those that take place in the children's bedroom when all manner of toy are bein' whipped around in a cyclone, but even the simpler stuff like the evil red clouds rollin' in are pretty impressive. I'm probably gonna forget a few just for the fact that there're so many, but we're also treated to an animatronic/puppeteered killer tree, a ghost parade, the spectral sphincter vortex, gooey face peeling, gnarly demon heads, the grody pool zombies (though all those skeletons were real due to the easy access), and a buncha chasms opening up in all those pristine suburban yards. Poltergeist was nominated for the Academy Award for special effects that year before losing out to E.T. (which is crapola in my opinion, though the Academy rarely asks for it), but Industrial Light and Magic understood the assignment and brought the second half of the one-two punch that keeps this flick held in such high regard so many decades later.
The shooting locations are perfect in their by-design conventionality. As a general rule, it's nice to have a unique setting that gives a flick a sense of individuality, but this particular script and concept called for an occupancy so ordinary that a tract home in a subdivision where the houses share a similar aesthetic is essentially mandatory, and the production designer/prop manager have done an excellent job giving their monument to middle America an excellent lived-in look. As of the time of this review, the house used during filming is still standing in Simi Valley, California, and it, along with the panoramic view from a nearby hill, effectively manifests an ideal image of the home in the suburbs often seen as the centerpiece of the American Dream. The house's significance is such that it soon becomes a character in its own right, and for this reason the film spends very little time apart from it, with the only other settings being an old cemetery overlooking the valley, the parapsychologist's office, and a motel seen in the final moments of the flick. Each serves its purpose, but at the end of the day the house is the only location that really matters, and it checks all the boxes.
The soundtrack was nominated for the Academy Award (also losing out to E.T., although I agree with that decision) and is one of the best in the history of the genre despite being tonally restrained to stay in line with a PG-rated, zero body count flick. It's frequently light in demeanor, with many of the tracks containing variations on the celebrated "Carol Anne's Theme," and whether you believe that was the right decision or not, there's no disputing that Goldsmith hit the sweet spot with impeccable marksmanship. It's lively and exciting without ever becoming so dark that we lose the Spielbergian glow, and just in case I'm not properly expounding its virtues sufficiently, I'd say that it's among the catchiest compositions of a man whose scores include the soundtracks to Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, The Omen, First Blood, Psycho II, Gremlins, Legend, Fatal Attraction, and Total Recall. His only score that edges it in terms of quality and prominence is his iconic Star Trek: The Motion Picture soundtrack that was later reused as the theme song for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and there's no shame in bein' second best to that. Amazing score from beginning to end, with Carol Anne's Theme coming in at #37 on my list of the Top 100 Horror Scores of the '80s list. Bravo, sir.
Overall, Poltergeist is probably the best angry spirit flick of all time, and the second best film of the late, great Tobe Hooper, who took a coupla dozen crew and a half dozen actors into the Texas countryside and made the greatest horror movie in history. I know everybody already knows that, but it bears repeating for those in the back - Tobe Hooper's collaboration with Steven Spielberg succeeded only in producing his *second* best picture, and even then, not accounting for production value, I probably prefer Chainsaw 2 to Poltergeist. That said, their collaboration was still a tremendous success and the flick is undoubtedly better than it would have been had either man gone it alone. All I ask is that ya stop regurgitatin' the crapola you read on the internet and give Tobe a little due the next time you marvel at the Spielbergian film Steve coaxed him into makin'.