A scene from POLTERGEIST.

Retro Review: Poltergeist

United States. Directed by Tobe Hooper, 1982. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubenstein. 114 minutes.

Premise: “They’re here.” Steve and Diane Freelings are a couple who seem to have it all: affluence, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and three wonderful kids. But their perfect life turns upside-down as a strange series of incidents lead them to believe their house is haunted, and the stakes are raised when spiritual forces abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne.

Something I’ve mentioned several times in the past is that one of the formative pop-culture experiences of my childhood was watching Poltergeist with my parents when it was first released on VHS; I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. Except for the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” no work of horror has affected me so profoundly, and revisiting it again after almost thirty years, I found it to retain a great deal of effectiveness.

I believe the key to the film’s longevity is its accessibility. Very few people actually grew up in places like Cuesta Verde or belonged to families as perfect as the Freelings, but the fictional environment never seems less than real. Through a combination of excellent writing, direction and acting, the film creates an idealized yet utterly credible depiction of early ’80s suburban life. We don’t see much of the family’s life away from each other–Steve interacts with his boss in a couple of scenes, and the dialog provides a few tantalizing details such as oldest daughter Dana’s sly remark about remembering the Holiday Inn–but we get enough details to fill in the blanks. I don’t feel the script is perfect–in particular, the final act goes a bit too over-the-top–but overall, it’s pretty strong.

The primary cast–Craig T. Nelson as Steve, JoBeth Williams as Diane, the late Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as son Robbie, and Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne–have perfect chemistry with each other, bringing poignancy to scenes that, as written, run dangerously close to cornball. The supporting performances are also excellent, with Zelda Rubenstein putting in a legendary performance as Tangina Barrons, the eccentric medium. It’s a bit sad that her career took a sharp turn into self-parody almost immediately after Poltergeist’s release, as here she practically radiates authority, and commands every scene she’s in without straying too far into over-acting.

There’s been some debate over the years who was really in control of Poltergeist: Spielberg or director Tobe Hooper. The production features stylistic touches from both filmmakers (watch Poltergeist as part of a triple-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Funhouse and see what strikes you), but I ultimately have to give advantage to Hooper on this one for the gore effects (I’m still surprised the face-ripping scene didn’t garner the movie an “R”), some of the creepier compositions (such as the strobe lighting effect when Carol Anne watches static on the TV), and the handling of the actors. Compare O’Rourke’s performance to that of Drew Barrymore in E.T.–see what I mean? The effects have aged very well–only the “face-ripping” scene (I’d be interested to discover what favors Spielberg rendered to the MPAA in exchange for a PG rating) looks a bit dated by modern standards.

There’s a school of thought that states that aiming a horror movie for any rating lower than R isn’t worth doing. I’ve probably stated my disagreement with this philosophy in the past. Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves: most of us are here because of things we were exposed to (or exposed ourselves to) before we became adolescents. There’s no better time than childhood for the rudimentary principles of horror to take root in the mind. While there are definitely horror concepts that shouldn’t be pitched as PG-13 (movies in the Alien series, for example), I’d argue that there’s a definite need for a particular strain of horror that’s aimed at kids, and Poltergeist proves that it can be done effectively, without pulling punches or watering things down.

Review originally written October 2011.