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Poltergeist (1982)


For the longest time, haunted house movies took place in old, well-worn edifices – places with a long history of Bad Things happening, and generally places that looked haunted. You don’t expect your brand new house, built last summer, to have any sort of supernatural wonkiness going on. Then Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg got together and made a little movie and scared the crap out of people with a new brand of daylight terror.

They’re heeeere…

Poltergeist is a horror film directed by Tobe Hooper (the guy who made people afraid of chainsaws in 1974) and produced and written by Steven Spielberg (the guy who made people afraid of the beach in 1975). It stars Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein.

When the Freelings moved into their new home in the recently-built neighborhood of Cuesta Verde, they thought they’d found their dream home, the place where they would raise their family. When five-year-old Carol Anne begins conversing with the static on the TV after the end of the broadcast day, Steven and Diane think their daughter might just be sleepwalking, until one night an earthquake shakes the house during one such nocturnal conversation, prompting Carol Anne to spookily announce, “They’re here.” “They” start to manifest as strange phenomena, such as objects moving around in their own, or unattended items bending or breaking. The activity seems to be centering on little Carol Anne, and at first the Freelings think their spectral visitors or benign and sort of cute, until one night the spooky tree in the back yard attempts to eat middle child Robbie, and in the confusion Carol Anne disappears, sucked into another reality through her bedroom closet. Desperate to get her back, the Freelings enlist some unconventional help to unravel the terrifying secrets of their new home.

Drawing upon elements from real-world investigations, Poltergeist was one of the first haunted house movies to use paranormal investigative techniques as a significant plot point. A group of secondary characters brought in to help find Carol Anne use techniques still used today by ghost hunters, including the capturing of electronic interference on special devices, the videotaping of visual phenomena, and listening for supernatural communications through white noise. The investigators also make the distinction between a poltergeist and a haunting clear, such as the tendency for a poltergeist to focus on a single individual (in this case, Carol Anne). This, combined with the decision to use unknown actors, helped to root the film in “our” world, even when things start really going to hell.

Both the acting and directing in this film are exemplary. As with many effects-heavy films, the primary difficulty comes when live actors are reacting to special effects that will be added later – particularly when one of your principal actors is only five years old. Everyone did very well here, portraying both the initial excitement at their new “invisible friends” (even when they do alarming but harmless things like stacking chairs just off camera) as well as the growing terror as they learn about the evil presence Tangina identifies as the Beast, and the parental desperation and determination Steve and Diane find within themselves as the Beast goes after Carol Anne and tries to snatch her away from them again and again. While Spielberg was nominally the producer, he happily got his hands dirty in the filmmaking process, comforting Heather O’Rourke after she was frightened by an effects sequence and jumping into the half-completed pool surrounded by film equipment to demonstrate to JoBeth Williams that if it was not safe, then he was willing to take that risk. In the end, the mutual genius of Hooper and Spielberg combined to make a very tight, enjoyable little haunted house movie.

If you’re looking for a good, scary horror movie that doesn’t rely on people getting horribly murdered for its scares, absolutely watch Poltergeist. While it doesn’t feature scenes littered with slashed-up victims, it will take you just far enough outside your “safe” zones to have you checking your closets before you go to bed.

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