Friday, May 22, 2015

Must-Watch Sci Fi / Fantasy Movies: Poltergeist (1982)

As the (unnecessary) remake of this movie hits the theaters today (and I have no intentions of watching it), I thought it was worth re-running my previous Must-Watch review of the original film. Go back and watch that one this weekend, your time will be better spent.  And also friendly warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Produced By: Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg
Written By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein
Original Release: 1982

Reviewed By: John J. Joex

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Synopsis: The Freelings are a normal family living the suburban life in California in the 1980’s when they discover that the house they have lived in for several years has some odd quirks about it. Furniture starts to move by itself, the dog sees people who are not there, and their youngest daughter (Carol Anne played by the late Heather O'Rourke) hears voices on the television. At first this all seems mostly harmless, but then what looks like a storm ravages the house and Carol Anne disappears. When they hear her voice calling to them from the television, they know that something otherworldly has taken control of their house and they call in paranormal investigators to help them rescue their daughter. This leads to a descent into the bowels of the Freelings' possessed house and a journey into terror.

Review/Commentary: Poltergeist came out back in the early 80’s when the boom of sfx-laden blockbusters really began to kick into high gear and the film delivered a big budget, Hollywood-ized horror film that managed to beat the odds by actually being good. This was a Steven Spielberg film, though he only penned the story and produced, he did not direct (though allegedly Spielberg actually did do much of the directing but did not add his name to the credits because of a clause in his contract with Universal where he was directing E.T.). Tobe Hooper took the actual credit as the director for the film and brought some horror-movie cred with him as the writer and director of the cult slasher classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The marriage of these two talents (along with their supporting cast and crew) delivered a blockbuster-style film to appeal to the masses that never forgot its horror roots .

Poltergeist succeeds because it finds horror in the everyday world; horror that we all can relate to. Its menace does not live in a dilapidated haunted house or in the isolated backwoods. It’s in the suburbs, in our very bedrooms. It invokes the terror deep inside spurred by everyday things we find in our homes like that creepy toy we got for Christmas one year or that spooky old tree in the back yard or even from the television set. Those irrational fears that we are told to ignore actually prove themselves out in this movies as they manifest the latent horror we always knew resided in them.

The movie also works masterfully in the way that it draws the audience into its premise. It starts slow by introducing us to the Freelings who live in the “normal” house we will learn to dread. They seem like the typical, nuclear family of the 80’s living in a nice suburban home and carrying on the usual, over-stressed lifestyle with too little time to deal with all the necessary daily routines. But they discover something odd about their house—furniture moves by itself, the dog sees people who are not there—and at first it seems fun and exciting. Then it turns sinister and perhaps deadly as the youngest child is abducted by an unseen presence and can only communicate with her family as an eerie voice emitting from the television.

This is when the film turns the corner and begins to unfold as a horror movie. And it does so at a relentless pace as wave after wave of events bring the family (and the paranormal investigators they have called in) face to face with the sinister forces that have possessed the house. The film delivers some fairly horrific and at times graphic scenes, but it never descends into gratuitous gore. Instead, it treads that fine line that keeps it in the PG rating category, not by compromise but by judicious use of the horror elements. And the fact that the horror never seems to end, but instead just keeps building, emphasizes the terror that has overtaken the Freelings family. (MAJOR SPOILER: Skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) And just as you think the movie has reached a resolution, it provides its own version of the horror movie standard “bounce back” scene that again avoids the gratuitous and actually provides a final resolution for the film.

What really holds the film together, though, is the tangible love that the Feelings demonstrate for one another and their willingness to fight through anything to keep their family from harm. Their desperate pleas for Carol Anne’s safety when they hear her through the television demonstrates the family’s strong bond and keeps the audience routing for the young child to make it through her ordeal. And this is not accomplished with the typical child-in-jeopardy ploy (something that Speilberg would later resort to many times) but much more genuinely by portraying Carol Anne as a child who has become lost and now the family must pull together to help her. And the cast, which noticeably and refreshingly lacks big-name stars, pulls this off through their believable sincere performances. Plus, the movie gets the added bonus of the inclusion of the diminutive but always delightful Zelda Rubinstein, one the greatest character actresses of all time.

And while people today may not realize it, this movie has seeped into popular culture over the years since its release with infamous lines like “They’re Here!” and “Don’t go toward the light!” as well as the since clich├ęd idea of building on a burial site and perhaps even the menacing potential of the television set. However, the movie often gets overlooked when compiling best-of lists, probably in part because its slick, big budget look strays from the seedy, darker approach that pure Horror fans prefer and because it delves too far into the paranormal for the tastes of most Science Fiction and/or Fantasy fans. But this is not a movie to pass on. It is definitely a first rate Horror movie with a broader appeal making it a film that should be appreciated by anybody who enjoys a good, engaging story.

Buy the original Poltergeist on DVD and Blu-ray from

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