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What To Watch: The Unconventional Horror of ‘Poltergeist’ (1982)

Need a good scare along with some classic Spielbergian fun?

Poltergeist is a 1982 horror, thriller about a suburban family who move into a home haunted by ghosts who abduct the youngest daughter.

The haunted house movie is a cherished genre in cinema, one done almost to excess and with very little innovation, though there is not much to be tweaked about a very simple concept. The formula is always the same: introduce nice people, a new home, usually children, a dark past, and mix well. It a basic premise but one that triggers some very primal fears and allows most filmmakers to stick to well-tread tropes that have only grown deeper as the years pass. Jump scares and creepy music are mainstays, and to break from that would be to betray the conventions audiences who crave this live for. No studio looking to bank sure money is going to take a risk.

Enter Steven Spielberg, who by the early 1980s was already a hugely influential force in the industry, looking to make a horror movie but in all new ways. If anyone could, it would be him. He wrote Poltergeist as a modern fable incorporating much of the classic traditions of such layering in some heavy themes about family, something he works often with. However, due to his commitments with E.T.-The Extra-terrestrial, which released the following week, he was legally barred from directing, which put Tobe Hooper in the big chair, he best known for his impressive independent film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, still one of the scariest movies ever made. Much debate has been waged about their collaboration on the film, with many giving Spielberg full credit for directing, but either way, officially, Hooper is listed, though recently Spielberg’s name has been added as an ‘uncredited’ co-director. No matter who wore the hat, the film easily incorporates both styles and the movie is considered one of the finest in the genre. Let’s take a look.

Poltergeist
Poltergeist, 1982 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

THE STORY: Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) live with their three kids Dana (Dominique Dunne), the oldest, Robbie (Oliver Robins), the middle child, and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), a five-year-old girl, in Cuesta Verde, a planned community in California. One night, little Carol Anne awakens to the sound of the static on their television set, lured by odd whispering sounds. She begins to talk with the voices and the next night, when it happens again, this time, a ghostly hands reaches from the set at her, triggering what seems like an earthquake. When it’s over, she turns to her family and announces, “They’re here.” Goosebumps.

What follows is an increasingly bizarre series of events that occur in the house, including toys coming to life and a tree almost swallowing Robbie, before finally, Carol Anne is sucked into a portal in the closet, her voice now emanating from the television. The family seeks the help of parapsychologists and it becomes a race to try and save Carol Anne before she is lost forever.

Poltergeist
Poltergeist, 1982 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: As this is well before the age computer-generated-imagery, the film uses practical effects and camera tricks to great use. The movie has a real dreamy/nightmare quality to it with the terrific visuals of spectral beings, but the authenticity of many smaller effects truly make it fun, such as when the kitchen chairs move about the room or toys float in the air. There are a number of sensational visual moments that make Poltergeist not just an impressive movie to look at, but often kinda scary, and best, none are clichéd jump from the dark frights but frights far more cerebral.

That said, pay attention to the characters because what Poltergeist does best, like any Spielberg film, is get the audience invested in the people in the conflict. There is a lived-in feel to the Freelings, we recognized them instantly as people we might even know and befriend. They are us. Many horror films can’t seem to get hold of the importance of this and instead rack up a body count or use characters as props or fodder, but Poltergeist takes its time and gets us all warm and safe in the Freeling home before unleashing the dark and in so doing, have us far more attached to the goings on.

Poltergeist
Poltergeist, 1982 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

A GREAT MOMENT: Knowing that, there are of course a number of impactful moments between the members of the family and the experts who come to the house to help, including a tense moment when Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), a spiritual medium helps Steven and Diane try to steer Carol Anne to the light away from what she calls the Beast. It’s nerve-wracking, but one of the more impressive moments comes when the parapsychologists, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), along with her two-man crew Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella) stay in the house with their specialized equipment.

Poltergeist
Poltergeist, 1982 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

They’ve been witness to some startling things already, which I’ll leave for you to discover, but on this night, they are huddled in the living room at the base of the large flight of stairs leading to the second floor. Three cameras and monitors are positioned about the place in hopes of capturing ghosts or other such things and sure enough, while all are dozing and Ryan sits at the monitors with a book, unwatching, things begin to stir.

Poltergeist
Poltergeist, 1982 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

There’s hardly a word spoken, but the direction and visuals in this short sequence is some of the best in the movie, building incredible tension out of something so simple. Of course, this comes just moments after we’ve seen poor Marty have a particularly horrifying bit of hallucination, shredding his face off, so our nerves are already primed for the worst. What comes instead is a beautiful moment of brilliant white sprites and flowing, glowing lights that mesmerize as well as carrying a little dread. Watch closely the direction of the camera and how it gently pulls us to the stairs and how the use of monitors juxtapositioned with what they are showing generate some terrific tension. This is some of Spielberg’s best work and reveals his mastery of storytelling, all with visuals. It ought to be studied.

THE TALLY: Poltergeist is a fun movie packed with some quality scares that somehow keep themselves divided from typical horror standards. In fact, probably most wouldn’t really define Poltergeist as a horror movie, even though it surely is, the film more an adventure in many ways than what might be expected by the premise. Either way, it’s a great achievement and a terrific time at the movies. Filled with great performances, from Nelson and William’s distraught parents to Rubinstein’s wonderful turn as a medium to O’Rourke herself, who is the very heart of the movie. She’s just great. Looking for a classic 80s cinema experience? Get a hold of Poltergeist. It’s what to watch.

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