Click on a letter to browse through the reviews on this site:
Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke, Oliver Robbins, Dominique Dunne, and Zelda Rubinstein
Directed by Tobe Hooper
The film which opened a week before E.T.-THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL took the world by storm, POLTERGEIST became on of 1982's most profitable and popular movies. The story of a little angelic girl being whisked away by angry spirits into a netherworld, a place between life and the afterlife, took audiences and critics by storm, and though many where preoccupied with a cute little alien who yearned to phone home, people still flocked to see this ghost story in droves. Originally, producer and writer Steven Spielberg had wanted to write a sequel for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but decided to drop that notion and write a haunted house flick instead. Though there are certainly striking and obvious resemblances between the two movies, POLTERGEIST remained one of the most original feeling boo movies of all time.
The Freeling family live comfortably in their small Californian town in a lavish looking home. Husband Steve (Nelson), is a successful real estate agent, wife Diane is a homemaker and in tow are their three children, sixteen year old Dana (Dunn), eight year old Robbie (Robbins), and five year old Carol Anne (O'Rourke). Life couldn't be more average, except something bizarre has been occurring with their youngest child. Lately, she has been getting up in the middle of the night and talking to the TV set, set on a station with nothing but static. She appears to be answering questions as well as asking them. Diane thinks she is sleepwalking, since there is history of sleepwalking in the family. But then strange things begin to happen. Chairs start moving around by themselves, earthquakes occur and the dog is doing odd things, as if obeying orders by someone. But than little Carol Anne mysteriously disappears into thin air through her bedroom closet, and her voice can be heard through the family's TV set. The family looks for help by a team of paranormal psychologists, led by Dr. Lesh (Oscar winning actress Beatrice Straight), but they don't have any simple solutions for what has happened to the blonde haired little girl. The forces that have taken Carol Anne make themselves noticed, playing mind tricks on one of the three investigators (in the scenes most gory moments, a man believes that he is tearing his face apart), and bright lights flashing all over the house. Lesh brings in psychic Tangina Barrons (Rubenstein), who knows exactly why Carol Anne has been taken:
There is no death, there is only a transition to a different spirit consciousness. Carol Anne is not like those she is with. She is a living presence in their spiritual earthbound plane, they are attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves, her life force, it is very strong. It gives off its own illumination, it is a light that implies life and memories of love and home - and earthly pleasures. Something they desperately desire, but can't have anymore. Right now she's the closest thing to that, and that is a terrible distraction from the real light that has finally come for them, do you understand me?
These souls, who for whatever reason are not at rest, are also not aware that they have passed on. They're not part of consciousness as we know it. They live in a perpetual dream state. A nightmare from which they cannot awake. Inside this spectral light is salvation. A window to the next plane, they must pass through this membrane with friends awaiting too guide them to new destinies. Carol Anne must help them cross over, and she will only hear her mother's voice.
Now, hold onto yourselves. There is one more thing, a terrible presence is in there with her. So much rage. So much betrayal. I've never sensed anything like it. I don't know whatever hovers over this house, but it was strong enough to punch a hole into this world and take your daughter away from you. It keeps Carol Anne very close to it, and away from the spectral light. It lies to her, it says things only a child could understand. It has been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us... it is the beast.
The word 'poltergeist' is a German word meaning playful spirit, and that is exactly what this film is, it plays mind tricks. It blends together drama, horror and black comedy beautifully, and all of it mixes together with sharp timing and a witty execution. Spielberg's script (Mark Victor and Michael Grais also helped to pen it), uses childhood fantasies perfectly, opening up real childhood fears. Unlike the sequel which would follow four years later, there is a feeling of uncertainty and confusion because like the characters, we are unaware of what is going on or how it can be resolved. There is a very childlike awe to it, intensified when Rubenstein makes her first appearance. She has a very sweet coated and childlike voice as she explains the predicament little Carol Anne is in, and we hang on her every word because there is a need for an explanation. It is a very involving story, and proves that Spielberg is just as great sitting at the typewriter as he is behind the camera.
The films best moment is when JoBeth Williams makes contact with her daughter for the first time. It's a very moving scene as Williams, naturally emotional, reassures herself of her daughters safety, who answers her questions with little care in the world or an understanding of where she is or why. But then the drama turns to an unsettling feeling of dread, as Carol Anne utters, Mommy, there's somebody here. It's just one of several perfect example of where the story mixes together several emotions at once. One minute we're moved by the conversation between mother and daughter, the next it is indicated the little girl is in danger. It also works with the theme of maternity, as the special bond mother and daughter have unite them, while the Nelson character looks and feels left out, almost helpless to do anything but stand around.
The performances are great, and they outshine the snazzy special effects. Williams delivers a knock out performance as the mother, who will go to any distance imaginable to save her daughter. Nelson does a fine job as the father, again, displaying a certain disconnection from the relationship between his wife and daughter that he isn't apart of. Straight, a wonderful screen and stage actress, has a wonderful presence here, as does Rubenstein (whose character would unfortunately become a parody of itself in the sequels which followed). Little Heather O'Rourke also does a quaint little job here. Sure she has about forty minutes of screen time max, while the rest of the film it's only her voice that is heard. But I think her innocence and her inability to truly act makes her all the more notable here. I don't think she was asked to act, but to act average, and we do genuinely care for her and her safety. It's sad to know that she would pass away after the completion of POLTERGEIST III in 1988.
Jerry Goldsmith's score here also warrants praise. The score is very tender in nature, very eerie while sounding like a children's nursery rhyme. He would receive his twelth Oscar nomination for Best Original Score here (and has been nominated eighteen times in all, and won one for THE OMEN). h
Not an average ghost story, and it works with some pretty serious themes all the while appealing to various age groups. All in all, pretty innocent fun. But watch out for the imfamous clown scene if you haven't seen it yet.
My Grade: A