Poltergeist_82posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Poltergeist is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available through the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Heather O’Rourke, Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, & Beatrice Straight

Directed by: Tobe Hooper

Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, & Mark Victor

Last week I reviewed Man of Steel, a collaboration between Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder to bring Superman back to the big screen (you can read my review here: https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/man-of-steel-2013-grade-c/). The film proves that combining the talents of two talented filmmakers does not necessarily produce a good movie, especially when the filmmakers have widely divergent styles. Every once in a while we see a successful collaboration that bears fruit. One such effort produced 1982’s classic Poltergeist, a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This collaboration is a point of major controversy that has never been officially settled. According to the rumor mill and as suggested by public comments he made, Spielberg rather than Hooper called the real shots on this movie. Spielberg’s public comments prompted the Directors Guild of America (DGA) to launch an investigation into Spielberg’s statements (DGA rules forbid anyone who is assigned to a movie before a director is fired to take over that director’s role – on Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper was officially the director so Spielberg was not allowed to take over directing).

Personally, I believe that Steven Spielberg basically directed the film. If you are familiar with Spielberg’s body of work, it is impossible to NOT see how just about every frame of this film has Spielberg’s signature touches all over it. However, I do not feel sorry for Tobe Hooper either. Even if Spielberg really made Poltergeist, Hooper still got to be officially credited with directing one of the best horror films ever made.

Poltergeist ranks as one of the truly frightening (and not the jumping-out-of-your-seat variety of fright either) movies I have ever seen. Adding to the film’s fright factor is the so-called behind-the-scenes “Poltergeist Curse” that derived from the fact that four cast members of the film died following the completion of Poltergeist. Those deaths were Dominique Dunne, who played the eldest daughter of the Freeling family; Julian Beck, the old man who played Henry Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side; Will Sampson, who played Taylor, the Native American medicine man in Poltergeist II; and the main star of the film, Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne Freeling.

Set in the brand new suburban residential development of Cuesta Verde, Poltergeist introduces us to the Freelings, a typical middle-class American family. Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a real estate developer and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife who takes care of their three children, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), the youngest daughter. The story begins innocently enough when late one night the family discovers Carol Anne talking to a static-filled television. The family thinks nothing of it and moves on. Over the course of the next few days (or weeks?) further strange occurrences and foreshadowings begin to occur. Carol Anne’s canary dies, glasses and utensils break and bend, and the kitchen furniture moves by itself. Carol Anne’s ominous warning to her family that “They’re here” is apparently not enough to raise any alarms, but that is quickly resolved when Carol Anne gets sucked through a portal in her closet and she has to speak to her family through the television. The family hires a group of parapsychologists (Beatrice Straight, Martin Casella, & Richard Lawson), who along with a psychic named Tangina (Zelda Rubeinstein), attempt to bring Carol Anne back to the land of the living.

It is difficult to appreciate this today, but Poltergeist did something that was rarely, if ever, done in the horror genre before the film’s 1982 release. Movies about ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon tended to take place in haunted castles, small gothic villages/towns, and generally in settings that most of us plebians do not live in nor can relate to. Steven Spielberg realized that nothing is more frightening than setting a ghost story right in our own neighborhood – namely, a typical California suburban tract home residential neighborhood (and one that looked almost exactly like the one I grew up in).

What’s more, Spielberg’s characters are your everyday nuclear American family – they are the Family Circus. The Freelings are middle class and, this being the Reagan 80’s, the mass consumption and consumerism of our society is on full display in the Freeling household (it is especially prevalent in the children’s bedroom, where the children practically compete for space with the plethora of toys scattered about their room). Spielberg intended for us to see ourselves in the Freelings.

With such identifiable characters and settings, Spielberg created the perfect playground to completely scare the shit out of his audience. He showed us what it would be like if something extraordinary happened in our everyday lives and this familiarity is the essence of Poltergeist’s success.

Horror films love to use children as conduits to bring spirits, demons, and other supernatural beings into our world. The child Damien Thorn in the 1976 film, The Omen (a film also plagued by behind-the-scenes deaths), is one that immediately comes to mind. Carol Anne in Poltergeist is another. The selection of the late Heather O’Rourke to play the character was a stroke of genius casting. O’Rourke had the perfect blend of innocence and a slight hint of creepiness, which I think results from the stark contrast between the poltergeist and the pure, almost saccharine qualities of Carol Anne.

The rest of the cast gives great performances (as is typical in any Spielberg movie) and there is a natural chemistry between all the actors portraying the Freeling clan. Especially noteworthy is JoBeth Williams, who plays Carol Anne’s mom, Diane. Williams exhibits strong maternal qualities in her character and among all the characters in the film, I connected with her the most. Spielberg’s films have a tendency to feature strong mother/maternal characters (E.T., Jurassic Park, A.I.) and Diane Freeling exemplifies that.

Among all the good performances in Poltergeist, the strongest and most memorable ones are those played by parapsychologist Beatrice Straight and psychic medium Zelda Rubeinstein. Both will leave you with an indelible image. Who can forget Tangina’s line (parodied many times over in popular culture) when she finally purges the Freeling’s house of the poltergeist and announces in her sweet, Southern accent, “This house is clean.” One of the film’s best scenes has no horrific images, special effects, or action. It is one of the quietest moments in the film in which Beatrice Straight explains the afterlife and the nature of ghosts to Diane and Robbie. She explains her theories in a way a good storyteller will entrance a rapt audience of children and you almost begin to think the actress truly is a parapsychologist.

Poltergeist does not have an original story and like Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the film’s narrative serves the purpose of presenting us with a roller coaster ride that makes the film more of an experience than anything else. Despite the film’s scant storyline, I still had one big issue with one of its plot points. Given the Freeling’s background, I found it hard to believe that they would seek the help of parapsychologists instead of either calling the authorities or a priest. Steven is presumably a Republican based on his reading of Ronald Reagan’s biography and if the Freelings are meant to represent your typical American family, then I would assume they are fairly religious (or at least non-practicing Christians) and conservative. So with that, I wouldn’t think they would believe in paranormal investigators and psychics. At the same time, since they do end up hiring a group of parapsychologists, I thought it was weird that although they believe in the work of the parapsychologists, Steven is skeptical about Tangina, the psychic.

The film’s storyline moves along at a brisk and interesting pace that continually builds up the story and it builds toward the climax where Carol Anne is going to be brought back to the land of the living. Once we get Carol Anne back, the story falters a bit and heads into monster territory. This climactic portion of the film where the “beast” tries to recapture Carol Anne and the skeletons rise up out of the earth is inconsistent with everything that happened before. Up until these scenes, the filmmakers use restraint in portraying the poltergeist and overall keep the film grounded in as much reality as is possible given the subject matter. When we reach the climax, the filmmakers unleash the talents of the special effects artists at Industrial Light & Magic, perhaps in their belief that a paying audience deserves a bunch of eye candy for waiting so patiently to the end. The climax is not that bad (its certainly far better than what J.J. Abrams does in Super 8), but the film could have done without it.

I happen to believe in ghosts and the afterlife and my personal belief in the subject matter (aside from the film’s devouring tree, the “beast,” and the skeletons rising up out of the ground) of Poltergeist allows me to lend it some credibility. It also contributes to my fear when watching the film, which makes me wonder whether the film has the same fright factor for those of you who do not believe in the supernatural. Even if you do not, Poltergeist is an enjoyable popcorn movie that may not have much in terms of story, but it makes it up with great performances, characters, and spectacle.