Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Premise: A suburban family is plagued by ghosts.
What Works: Poltergeist was unique at the time of its release. In the early 1980s the horror genre was all about slasher films like Friday the 13th and these were mostly low budget films based on gore. Poltergeist descends more from the possession and occult pictures of the previous decade like The Omen and The Exorcist and this is an effective haunted house picture. The film builds well, starting with an average family in an average home and the supernatural activities gradually unravel their lives. The frights are well done and very strong. Most of the special effects have aged well but the filmmakers of Poltergeist understand that the effects are the punctuation and that they only work if the film has an atmosphere of dread. It does and as the haunting becomes more aggressive the filmmakers of Poltergeist create a growing sense of trepidation. The entire picture has a surprisingly contemporary look and it has aged little in the thirty years since its original release. Some of this is due to the set dressing and costumes but it is also well shot by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti; the film uses color and light effectively, especially in the haunting scenes. Poltergeist is also aided by its casting. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play the parents and they are the center of the film; the players react credibly to the paranormal activity, which is a challenging thing for actors to do, and they play it with realistic concern as though their child had been abducted by strangers, not specters. The picture is primarily about the parents’ attempt to save their daughter and they go out on a limb to do so, which makes them active participants in the events and raises the stakes of the story. The daughter is played by Heather O’Rourke in a perfect bit of casting. O’Rourke has an innocent, fragile, and even angelic look and her proclamation that “They’re here” is now one of the great movie lines. Also appearing in a supporting role is Zelda Rubinstein in a psychic and she makes a big impression in a small part. Aside from being a great ghost story, Poltergeist also manages to be a little subversive as it hints at the idea that affluent suburban society is built on the dead; it does not dwell on this material but the picture does contain numerous cues that hint at some broader subtext.
What Doesn’t: As well made as Poltergeist is, the film runs into problems in its ending. The story has two climaxes and while the secondary climax gives the film a better sendoff it does not make much sense. After the trauma that the family has been through it is not credible that they would spend another night in the house and so the ending comes across forced and redundant. The finale is consistent with Spielberg’s other films; he has made similarly incredulous storytelling decisions in Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report and like those films the problems of the final sequence are generally overcome by how spectacular it is. Viewers may be surprised by how strong Poltergeist remains. In particular, parents of young children may be misled by the PG rating. The picture was made a few years before the PG-13 rating was instituted, the classification it would likely get if released today, but at its scariest, Poltergeist is as intense as Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That makes this a successful horror film but concerned parents may want to preview Poltergeist before screening it for their kids.
DVD extras: A featurette.
Bottom Line: Poltergeist remains an excellent film that will scare its audience. Its influence can be observed in pictures that immediately followed such as Twilight Zone: The Movie and A Nightmare on Elm Street and it continues to influence more recent films like Drag Me to Hell and Paranormal Activity.
Note: Much has been made about the degree to which directorial credit for Poltergeist belongs to Tobe Hooper, who is officially listed as the director, or to Steven Spielberg, who is credited as writer and co-producer. Poltergeist certainly has a lot of Spielberg’s touch in its humor and domestic scope but perhaps more importantly the crew includes many of his associates including editor Michael Kahn and producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. But Hooper was by this time an experienced horror filmmaker, having directed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the 1979 version of Salem’s Lot, and so his filmmaking skill should not be underestimated. Ultimately the credit debate is a purely academic question since filmmaking is collaborative and what really matters for viewers is what ends up on the screen.
Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)