Poltergeist (1982) / Horror-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG for gore, scary images, language, and a scene of drug use (re-rated on appeal from an original R rating).  It would most likely be a strong PG-13 if released today
Running Time: 114 min.

Cast: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser
Director: Tobe Hooper, with specific instructions by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

Review published June 8, 2006

Tobe Hooper, perhaps most famous as the director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, gets the directorial credit, although many inside sources indicate that Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters) is the actual uncredited director, with Hooper only following instructions left by Spielberg in his absence.  Regardless of the credit, Poltergeist is still considered a Spielberg vehicle all of the way, having been co-written (from his own original idea) and co-produced by him, and even if Hooper played more of a hand in the directorial decisions, the film is still done in the best Spielberg tradition.

In the film, a family of five known as the Freelings lives in an idyllic suburbia – or so they think.  Strange things begin to occur in the house shortly after their cherubic 5-year-old daughter (O'Rourke) begins receiving communication from someone she refers to as the “TV people” through the static on their television set.  Their pet bird dies, furniture begins to move on its own, and other such oddities, but things take a turn for the deadly for the family when the tree outside their home seemingly becomes animated and threatens to engulf the middle child (Robins) into its wooden maw.  The boy is saved, but their young daughter ends up missing, ostensibly stolen into another dimension by forces unknown, although she is able to still communicate through the television. The family enlists the services of a group of parapsychologists to investigate the strange phenomena, and hopefully get back their beloved daughter, but the forces that currently dominate the house prove to be much stronger than anything they’ve ever seen before. 
Poltergeist is a gem of a horror film, with a blend of elements that are truly horrific, while also quite palatable for mainstream audiences that normally eschew such fare.  Emphasis is strong on character development among the family, a rarely used but very wise feature for horror movies, as the more we relate to the characters, the more fear we feel later during the more frightening moments. 
What really sets Poltergeist apart from other standard horror films is the sheer pacing once the real action gets underway.  Like Spielberg’s Duel and Jaws, most of the quiet moments are near the beginning, drawing you in to the day-to-day lives of normal people, contrasted later by strange events and disturbing images.  As the climax develops, Spielberg and Hooper let it all rip wide open, culminating in truly cataclysmic events that make enough sense to understand what’s going on, but are still mysterious enough to give us a sense of wonder and awe, as if anything can truly happen.
Don’t be fooled by the PG rating of the film – this is one of those movies that can give the impressionable nightmares for weeks – perhaps a lifetime – although by today’s gory standards, the effects are surprisingly mild despite the formidable scares.  Classic horror elements mesh perfectly with the newer graphic style, but most of the points are scored where they rightfully should – in the storytelling and characters. 
Poltergeist has its share of flaws, most notably in being a little cute once in a while (chairs appear suddenly in pyramid form when the mother isn’t looking) while also biting off a little more than it should have decided to chew in a superfluous regurgitation of an ending that raises more questions than it answers.  It’s also frustrating to see a family choose to keep most of its members in a house they know to be exceedingly dangerous to all of them, regardless of whether or not they feel the need to remain for the sake of their youngest.  However, the entertainment value is never really in question, and compared to most other entries in its genre, particularly among the trashy slasher films of the early 1980s, this is by far a superior entry worthy of bestowing far more praise than criticism.

-- Followed by Poltergeist II: The Other Side

 Qwipster's rating:

©2006 Vince Leo