The 1982 film Poltergeist tells the story of the Freeling family.
There’s Steven the father (Craig T. Nelson) and Diana the mother (JoBeth Williams). There’s the snarky teenager daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), who has a surprisingly good knowledge of the local motel scene. There’s the son, Robbie (Oliver Robins), who is scared of not only a big ugly tree but also a big ugly clown doll that, for some reason, sits in his bedroom. And then there’s the youngest daughter, Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke).
They live in a planned community in Orange County, sitting just a few miles away from the cemetery. (Or so they think….) They’ve got a nice house. They’ve got nice neighbors. They’ve got a nice dog. They’re getting a pool in the backyard. There are hints that Steven and Diana may have once done the whole rebellion thing. They still occasionally get high, though they do it with a smugness that somehow manages to make marijuana seem less appealing. But, for the most part, Steven and Diana are happy members of the establishment. Steven sells real estate and is a favorite of his boss, Mr. Teague (James Karen). Diana is a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t get upset when some unseen spirit rearranges all the furniture in the kitchen (seriously, that would drive me crazy). They’re the type of family that falls asleep in front of the TV at night, which is a bit of a mistake as Carol Ann has started talking to the “TV people.”
Strange things start to happen. As mentioned earlier, furniture starts to rearrange itself. Whenever Carol Ann sits down in the kitchen, an unseen force moves her across the floor. Diana, for whatever reason, thinks this is the greatest thing ever. Then, on the night of a big storm, the big ugly tree tries to eat Robbie and Carol Ann goes into a closet and doesn’t come out. Though Carol Ann has vanished, the Freelings can still hear her voice. Apparently, she’s been sucked into another dimension and she’s being encouraged to go into the light.
Of course, this leads to the usual collection of paranormal researchers moving in. The house decides to pick on one unfortunate guy and he ends up not only eating maggot-filled meat but also imagining his face falling apart over a sink. A medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) comes by and reprimands Steven and Diana for not doing exactly what she says. Of course, it turns out that Tangina isn’t quite as infallible as she claims to be….
To me, Poltergeist is the epitome of a “Why didn’t they just leave the house” type of film. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that once Carol Ann vanished, Diana and Steven had to stay in the house to rescue their daughter. I’m talking about all the stuff that went on before the big storm. Seriously, if a ghost started moving furniture around in the kitchen, I’m leaving the house. At the very least, I’m not going to take my youngest daughter and invite the ghost to push her around the kitchen. Even stranger is that, at the end of the film, the Freelings still don’t leave the house even though the situation with Carol Ann has been resolved. They hire a moving truck and make plans to leave but, instead of spending a night in a hotel, they instead decide to spend one more night in a house that’s apparently possessed by Satan.
Poltergeist is famous for bringing together two filmmakers who really seem like they should exist in different universes. Steven Spielberg produced while Tobe Hooper directed. It seems like it’s impossible to read a review of Poltergeist without coming across speculation as to how much of the film should be credited to Spielberg and how much should be credited to Hooper. It must be said that the film does occasionally feel like it’s at war with itself, as if it can’t decide whether to embrace Spielberg’s middle class sensibilities or Hooper’s counter-culture subversiveness. On the one hand, the emphasis on special effects and the early scenes where the Freelings watch TV and Steven gets into a remote control fight with his neighbor all feel like something Steven Spielberg would have come up with. On the other hand, the obvious joy that the film takes in tormenting the Freelings feels more like Tobe Hooper than Steven Spielberg. Or take the film’s finale, where the special effects are pure Spielberg but the scene of Diana getting assaulted in bed and then thrown around her bedroom feels like pure Hooper. Really, it’s the mix of two sensibilities that make the film compelling. Poltergeist’s planned community is appealing but it’ll still kill you.
Anyway, I like Poltergeist. I certainly prefer the original to the remake. It’s a silly film in many ways but it’s still effective. Once you get over how stupid Diana acts during the first part of the film, JoBeth Williams gives a strong performance as a mother determined to protect her children. And Craig T. Nelson gives a classic over the top performance, especially towards the end of the film. Just listen as he screams, “Don’t look back!” That said, my favorite performance comes from James Karen, who is perfectly sleazy as the outwardly friendly, cost-cutting land developer.
Poltergeist is still a good, scary film. And, if anyone wants to play a lengendary prank this Halloween, show it to someone who has a fear of clowns.