Steven Spielberg’s tale of a little girl’s supernatural abduction is a cinematic spook show that I tend to watch at least once a year. In the film, restless spirits capture young Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) out of her own bedroom, leaving her distraught parents (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) with the task of first admitting that they have a supernatural problem, and then seeking help from a few paranormal investigators. The story (by Spielberg) allows for a wonderful combination of poignant family drama, ghostly horror, and spectacular-looking action set-pieces.
Technically, Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). I say ‘technically’ because there has long been hullabaloo about the exact nature of Spielberg and Hooper’s relationship during the making of the film. From what I have gathered, The Director’s Guild of America forbade Spielberg from directing Poltergeist since he was already in production with E.T. But many of the cast report that Spielberg was the dominant force on-set, and it was he who oversaw post-production of the film entirely on his own. But forget about the controversy — Poltergeist‘s a great ride no matter who directed it.
Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams do remarkable jobs in the lead roles. They manage to keep the human element of the story up front and center, which is no small feat considering the dazzling array of special effects that swirl around them. Academy Award winner Beatrice Straight (Network) is terrific as one of the paranormal scientists who sticks with the family through thick and thin, and diminutive, high-pitched Zelda Rubinstein is indelible as Tangina, the freaky little spirit horder that the family turns to as a last resort. Rubinstein still scares the crap out of me when she talks about “The Beast” keeping poor Carol Anne close to him, lying to her, ‘saying things only a child can understand’. What parents wouldn’t be terrified to know their little girl was The Devil’s plaything?
Young Heather O’Rourke delivers a commendable performance as Carol Anne, a role she would reprise in two Poltergeist sequels. O’Rourke would die tragically at the age of 12, from sudden complications involving Crohn’s Disease. Unfortunately, O’Rourke’s death would not be the only to haunt the film’s legacy. Dominique Dunne, who plays the Freeling’s eldest daughter, was strangled to death by a jealous ex-boyfriend just a few months after Poltergeist was released.
The film features some of the finest, most thrilling, action set-pieces I’ve ever seen. The storm sequence in which Carol Anne is abducted remains one of my favorite movie sequences of all time. The last 30 minutes of the film pack a powerful wallop as well, including Craig T. Nelson’s fleeting face-to-face encounter with the Devil himself, and the family’s desperate escape from suburbia during a mass corpse raising. (And for my two cents, the spindly white creature that blocks the children’s door from JoBeth Williams is one of the coolest monsters Industrial Light and Magic ever brought to life.) The entire film soars with a superlative score by Jerry Goldsmith, writing at the most fertile period in his long and distinguished career.
Poltergeist goes for the universal jugular, keeping the terror mostly on a psychological level for the sake of its PG rating. Which just goes to show: great horror isn’t about what you see. It’s about how the film makes you feel. And whenever I revisit it, Poltergeist makes me feel like falling in love with movies all over again.
Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)