The summer of 1982 was virtually dominated by the spectre of Steven Spielberg, first with his mammothly successful E.T. The Extraterrestrial, and then with Poltergeist, a now-classic, sometimes sappy, sometimes genuinely frightening horror film, officially directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but with identifiably Spielbergian touches (he produced and co-wrote the film). The film ends up being sort of comparable to a Beatles song where you can pretty clearly tell which part was written by Lennon and which by McCartney. It's a oil-and-water solution, Hopper and Spielberg, and it doesn't always work, but when it does, it's super-charged (in a way, it feels like their take on William Friedkin's The Exorcist). Unfortunately, the baggage of a few really bad sequels (stay away from them) and a weird behind-the-scenes backstory have often obscured how really entertaining this 30-year-old movie is on its own.
At 2:37 a.m., little Carol-Ann (Heather O'Rourke) is lured into a darkened room where, against the static-filled, blue-blinking light of the TV screen, she begins to perceive voices talking to her from "the other side." Concerned parents Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams discover Carol-Ann touching the TV screen and famously warning: "They're heeeeere..." And so begins a spiral into terror that finds an average suburban California family getting slimed upon by some pretty pissed-off ghosts. No one is off-limits...even, as we soon find, the poor kids (Oliver Robins and Dominique Dunne are Carol-Ann's older siblings). At first, there's just some chairs moving about and the like. But when the cute li'l tykes end up getting swallowed up by their strangely-overlit closet and almost choked to death by a stuffed clown, well, something has to be done.
So when things escalate, the parents call in some experts: Network Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight as a doctor of parapsychology ambles by with her posse to record the events, and the diminutive Zelda Rubenstein, in a unique performance, blows in as a kindly super-medium set up to communicate with the ghosts. Rubenstein, with her honey-flavored southern accent and darkened glasses, is really the heart of the movie. She's was a fascinating character actress who still pops up occasionally, mostly on TV (however, she was part of the huge cast in Richard Kelly's bizarre Southland Tales, her final big-screen role before she passed away early in 2010). At four feet or so, Rubenstein was technically a "little person," having played a Munchkin in 1981's god-awful Under The Rainbow (with Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, about the wild goings-on with all the little people hired to be in The Wizard of Oz). At any rate, Poltergeist is largely stolen by her.
The special effects here, by Richard Edlund, Bruce Nicholson, and Michael Wood, are quite a draw, too. I'll never forget the red gaping mouth that the kids' closet morphs into, nor that hallucinatory, lengthening hallway that JoBeth Williams darts down, nor the white billowy demons of the undead and the epic implosion that climaxes the movie. And the makeup, by Dorothy Pearl, really highlights perhaps the films most terrifying scenes as the dead begin to pop up out of the ground (the gloppy sequences in the neighbor's muddy swimming pool will have you grimacing--by the way, those are REAL skeletons there, which definitely seems like a Tobe Hooper touch). Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is a maybe a quieter scene that explodes into fright: a photographer on Straight's team decides to retire to the bathroom and sees something NO ONE should see in the mirror.
Let's not forget Jerry Goldsmith's score, which sometimes thickly ladles on the sweetness with a memorable theme, but is always more effective in the film's scarier portions. And, finally, it should be mentioned, I guess, that there's supposedly a curse on the Poltergeist family of actors, with a few of the principles in this and the sequels dying premature deaths. But most of the cast is alive--geez, Rubenstein, Nelson, Williams, Robins, Spielberg and Hooper are with us, and even Nelson's screeching, unscrupulous boss James Karen keeps on appearing in things like Mulholland Dr. and The Pursuit of Happyness . So why believe in some silly old curse? Unless, of course, it makes Poltergeist more fun for you somehow. That I understand.