Director: Tobe Hooper
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, from a story by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O'Rourke, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Zelda Rubinstein
Running Time: 114 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural
Summary: The Freeling family, estate agent Steve (Nelson) his homemaker wife Diane (Williams) and their children sixteen year old Dana (Dunne), eight year old Robbie (Robins) and five year old Carole-Anne (O'Rourke), live in a bland quiet California suburb where kids play with remote control cars on the streets, guys have their friends round to drink beer and watch the game, family breakfasts resemble a warzone and the parents indulge in a nice relaxing toke of weed when the kids are in bed.
However, Carole-Anne seems preoccupied by the ghostly "TV People" which only she can see and hear in the static of the family's television sets. Eventually the seemingly benevolent ghosts emerge from the TV set and enter the structure of the house. However one night, during a thunder storm, Robbie is attacked by the strange old tree in the front lawn and the ghosts snatch Carole-Anne, taking her through a portal in her closet. However, her family can still hear Carole-Anne's echoing voice through the static of their TV set.
With the family constantly plagued by a barrage of supernatural forces they become increasingly desperate in their attempts to save their daughter and put an end to the strange events.
Opinions: This movie is credited as being directed by Tobe Hooper (best known as the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)) however it is widely believed that the film's co-writer and co-producer Steven Spielberg also acted as co-director. Over the years members of the film's cast and crew have claimed different things as to how much of the film, if any, was directed by Spielberg and how much was Hooper's. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is a Steven Spielberg film. Everything about it has his stamp: The cluttered seemingly safe suburban environment, the mix of sentiment and horror, the sense of playfulness with the thrills, the otherworldly forces being viewed with a genuine sense of wonder as well as fear and also the John Williams score. In fact the film could be seen as a darker companion piece to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), another Steven Spielberg film about an otherworldly visitor encountering a suburban family, however while the alien in E.T. is friendly, the ghosts in Poltergeist most definitely aren't. In fact the two films were released a week apart in June 1982.
This is horror as a ghost-train ride. It's fun, there's intentional humour, there are plenty of thrills. The special effects are good and it's scary enough for the duration of the movie, but it's unlikely to prey on anyone's mind much once the credits have rolled. Also, although there is some gore, things never get too nasty (presumably due to Spielberg's influence). In fact, possibly the most Tobe Hooper sequence is the one where rotting cadavers and skeletons pop up out of the ground.
The film's storyline bears some slight similarity to a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone called "Little Girl Lost" written by Richard Matheson, about a young girl who slips into another dimension and, in her house, her parents can hear her calling, but can't find her.
Part of why the film is effective is the fact that the long opening passage, before the supernatural elements kick in, while a little too cutesy, does establish the background and the family dynamic. The film was a huge success, and in my opinion part of the success was due, as with Stephen King novels, to the fact that the horror elements were moved to an instantly relateable and recognisable world. Instead of a creepy, decaying old mansion, the haunted house here was an ordinary non-descript suburban family home in a new, pleasantly dull housing development.
The film has become notorious for being supposedly cursed after several cast members of this film and it's two sequels, including Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke, met untimely deaths. Some have attributed the curse to the fact that real skeletons were used in a scene. Of course it is all more likely to be just a tragic coincidence.
Howeverm the film remains an enjoyable and entertaining chill ride for fans and non-horror fans alike.
Zelda Rubinstein prepares to face a nasty Poltergeist