31 Screams in October, #28: Poltergeist (1982)

Posted: October 28, 2014 in Movie Review
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Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Hudson, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight

There is both an upside and a downside to the fact that none of the channels on our televisions have intentionally gone off the air since sometime back in the 1990’s. The downside is that you run the risk of losing sleep. We’ve got so many channels to choose from, all of which stay on the air all the time, not to mention what our DVDs and various online streaming sources provide, that it’s a wonder how anyone gets any rest at all. The upside, of course, is that ghosts no longer have that source through which they can communicate with your little five-year old.

The story of “Poltergeist” revolves around the Freeling family, headed by real estate agent Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and wife Diane (JoBeth Williams). Part of the project that Steve’s real estate company is experimenting with involves the house that he, his wife and three children occupy. One night, as the broadcast network signs off with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is drawn to the dead air signal and eventually appears to communicate with something or someone. Early on, something isn’t right. A sequence of bizzare events follows, including one more instance of Carol Anne communicating with some invisible force…. and then uttering the movie’s most memorable line: “They’re HEEEEERE!” In the kitchen the next morning, glasses full of milk break and ruin the kids’ homework, utensils are mysteriously bent, and the chairs seem to move all by themselves. Diane seems to find this latest event with the chairs simultaneously frightening, fascinating, and a little amusing. The amusement fades when the old tree outside takes hold of her son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) while, left all by herself, Carol Anne is sucked into some kind of portal.

Who are you gonna call? Well, you can’t call the Ghostbusters, since they won’t be invented for another two years, so Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) is the next best thing. With the electronic monitoring devices she and the rest of her group brings along, they are able to capture on video the poltergeists moving down the Freeling’s staircase. Unfortunately, they can do nothing either to drive the ghosts out of the house nor to retrieve Carol Anne. The solution? Introduce the creepiest element of the film by far: Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein). This tiny old woman with psychic powers and a child-like voice is sure to create unease within even the strongest of souls, however unintentionally.

With Tangina’s help, Steve and Diane are able to rescue their daughter. Diane acquires a few grey hairs from her trip to “the other side,” but since Tangina has assured them that “this house is clean,” she feels free to dye her hair back to its original color and soak in a hot bath while Carol Anne and Robbie are resting in their room. Before long, the poltergeists make it clear that their business with the Freelings remains unfinished, as they make a second attempt to kidnap Carol Anne, even going to great lengths to keep her mother from getting to her. Steve gets his family out of the house just in time to watch as it collapses in on itself and disappears into nothingness, but not before confronting his boss from the realty company. Seems the houses in that neighborhood were built over an old cemetery. Steve has just realized in horror that his boss only had the headstones relocated, but left the buried corpses right where they were!

The person credited with directing “Poltergeist” is Tobe Hooper, but this movie is quite tame when compared with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Funhouse.” Looking up the screenwriting credits for “Poltergeist” will tell you all you need to know. With the addition of one of John Williams’ most beautiful scores, it’s quite clear that this is much more of a Steven Spielberg movie. That being said, certain scenes in this movie could have led to it being saddled with a stronger rating than “PG,” and it was one of the films which led to the eventual creation of the “PG-13” rating in 1984. As successful films often are, “Poltergeist” has been copied to death over the years. In addition to its two sequels and TV series, many other ghost stories have taken their cues from this one, most recently the “Insidious” franchise.

Of course, one cannot escape the discussion of “Poltergeist” without addressing the elephant in the room, the so-called “Poltergeist Curse.” Among the many reports of on-set weirdness, akin to similar reports from the set of “The Exorcist,” there is also a cloud of great sadness surrounding the murder of actress Dominique Dunne (who played the eldest Freeling child, Dana) in November 1982, at age 22. Further tragedy followed in February 1988, when Heather O’Rourke died at age 12. Now, of course, there is no actual curse involved here. It would be easier for some to accept if there were, but really it’s just a series of unconnected events which were much more horrific than anything seen in the movie.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    This is one of the few of your “31 Screams in October” films that I have actually seen. Like with so many other franchises, I wish the producers had not done sequels. Maybe that was the real curse of the original. Well done, Chuck, as always!!!

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