Director Tobe Hooper is most famous for Poltergeist (1982) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Chainsaw’s a sick, stone classic of the horror genre. And Poltergeist, a slick Steven Spielberg production, is creepy, top-tier fun; but it’s a different, tamer beast.
In a sleepy California suburb, sweet-pea Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) starts to communicate with an unseen presence that lurks in the TVs around the house. Before long, the presence kidnaps her, pulling her into the screen. The whole Freeling family—her dad (Craig T. Nelson), her mom (JoBeth Williams), her sister (Dominique Dunne), and her brother (Oliver Robbins)—search high and low for her, each of them having to fend with the fact that their house is (clearly) haunted and will spare no effort to screw with them. To the rescue comes a parapsychologist (Beatrice Straight) and her team, who (clearly out of their depth) ask a dwarf, the medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), to find Carol Ann and rid the Freeling home of the unwanted spirit or spirits—the poltergeist.
Is Poltergeist scary? Well, it depends on your tolerance for a certain horror film. Hooper & Spielberg concoct one that is aware of the need to set up the characters and the world they inhabit, before the spirits come a-cropper. To give us an emotional anchor to welcome us into the world on-screen, a reason to invest in what we are watching so that it can frighten us. And it’s a setting with which many of us are familiar—the American suburb*. I also appreciate the filmmakers’ sense of humor—and pace. We get to laugh with the family during sunnier moments; and the movie slowly builds into the darkness, then gives us a false reprieve before it pulls the proverbial rug out from under us. Special FX-heavy, none of the scares stay with you that long. This is because of how imagined so many of them are. I think Spielberg (a major figure behind this project; besides co-producing the film, he wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay) liked the challenge of visualizing the horror elements in a way that leaves little to the imagination. He and Hooper keep things family-friendly, though. Poltergeist is a commercial, cute enterprise that wants to scare you, but it won’t rattle you too much.**
If, that is, you aren’t a jaded horror connoisseur like me who (generally) prefers scary movies that really want to mess with your head, the mainstream be damned…
So, I keep coming back to how warm Poltergeist is. It’s like the darker half of E.T. The Extra-terrestrial released that same year—another wrenching but soft spin on the fantastic invasion of a California suburban family, this time carried out by a not-so benevolent force. (The story feels to me like a souped-up version of The Amityville Horror wed to the Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost.”) On its own terms, it’s a good movie. I like it.
A final note. Much has been said about whether Spielberg directed the film. If you must know: I believe both Hooper & Spielberg were actively involved in the production. Poltergeist feels like it is of one voice; and while it may look and sound a lot like a Spielberg film, I choose to see it as Hooper’s triumph. He put up with being Spielberg’s co-pilot. Lap dog or not, he made a good movie—regardless of the level of involvement of these two principals. Hooper, God rest his soul, can technically claim he was the sole director of a hit horror film filtered through the Spielberg sensibility, a film that seeped into the cultural landscape and which most people call a classic.
It deserves its reputation.
The new Warner Bros. 4K UHD set has a Blu-ray disc with a few special features: a bit about real poltergeists, a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
*As an ‘80s suburban kid born and bred in Southern California, I can share that Poltergeist is also a pure rush of nostalgia for me. I grew up in a neighborhood much like the one depicted here. That Star Wars merch you see in the Freeling home? My friends and I all had that stuff, too, on our walls and floors. This doesn’t change the movie for me. It just provides a texture that gets me to reminiscing about old times.
**The gentle Jerry Goldsmith score bottles this perfectly.