EMPIRE ESSAY: Poltergeist Review

While living in an average family house in a pleasant neighborhood, the youngest daughter of the Freeling family, Carol Anne, seems to be connecting with the supernatural through a dead channel on the televison. It is not long when the mysterious beings enter the house's walls. At first seeming like harmless ghosts, they play tricks and amuse the family, but this friendly behaviour doesn't last for long...

by Ian Freer |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jan 1982

Running Time:

114 minutes



Original Title:

EMPIRE ESSAY: Poltergeist

Horror fans — hardcore horror fans — don't rate Poltergeist. It lacks the gore of Argento,the intensity of Romero and the guts of Cronenberg to galvanize the Fangoria crowd. Yet the bloodlust of fanboys misses the point by a mile. A kind of scarefest starter pack for younger audiences — My First Horror Film — Poltergeist represents the finest example of cinema as fairground ghost train, a brilliantly orchestrated collection of jumps and jolts, childhood phobias that will scare you witless for its 114 minute duration but not trouble anyone over six once the house lights have come up.

Akin to many fairy tales, Poltergeist concerns itself with a child trying to find her way back to the comforts of home (see The Wizard Of Oz (1939) yet plays out its yarn from the point of view of the adults. However, there is a more cynical encapsulation than the modern day fable; as spectres emanate from the TV set to kidnap blonde moppet Carol Anne (a captivating Heather O'Rourke, who Spielberg cast after spotting her dining in the MGM commissary), perhaps Poltergeist is best described as a black comedy about the dangers of kids catching too much tube. Even the afterlife looks like the blue flicker of late night TV.

Most of the attention surrounding the film on release was directed towards the question of authorship: while Tobe Hooper, the hand behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was nominally credited as director, Poltergeist (the word is German for "noisy ghosts") had co-writer/executive producer Steven Spielberg's imprint indelibly stamped all over it: suburban milieu (check), rollercoaster plotting (check), deftly placed comic relief (check), a kidnapped child as a catalyst for the plot (check), light as a major player in the story, a source of both mystery and sanctity (check).

Spielberg created the storyboards, hired the cast, approved camera movements, and supervised the editing and visual effects. In fact, the only sequence that displays any hint of Hooper's sensibilities is the climax, in which a posse of rotting cadavers erupt from a muddy swimming pool — apparently, this is Spielberg's least favourite scene in the whole film. (After Poltergeist was released Spielberg, took out a full page ad in the trade papers, thanking Hooper for what he described as a "unique, creative relationship").

If Spielberg's storyline owed much to Twilight Zone episode Little Girl Lost (as well as being a twisted version of Close Encounters), the detail was ripped straight from the fabric of his life; the crack in the bedroom wall, the maniacal grinning doll, the ominous oak tree all have one foot in Spielberg's past. Unlike many haunted house flicks, Poltergeist locates its horrors in a warm, inviting environ, a haven of radio controlled cars, Star Wars bedspreads, Sunday football and twee burial services for dead pets. The set-up is archetypal rather than stereotypical, tapping into collective childhood memories that brim with cognition.

The Freeling family (the moniker more than likely a reference to legendary animator Fritz Freleng) may be mere spectators to all the paranormal palaver, yet there are enough shades to make you care. Early on, the spectral activity is treated with the sense of playfulness — the room full of swirling playthings — and awe that Spielberg usually reserves for extra-terrestrials. After the relatively benign beginning, however, the chill factor is ratcheted up as a panoply of shock tactics are unleashed at a breakneck pace — the ominous tree turns kidnapper; psychic investigator, played by Spielberg's assistant Marty Cassella, pulls the flesh from his own face (Spielberg, incidentally, supplied the hands); a demonic head erupts from the closet; Diane is thrown all over the walls and ceilings (a risque notion of the ghost sexually assaulting Diane — ILM even created a rig that pulled Jobeth Williams' clothes off—was discarded). Oh yes, and then, the house implodes.

There are inconsistencies — why does a brand new house have the standard creaking door? — but the pace is so compelling that it is impossible to carp. Yet, for all the grand guignol on offer, the film is much more unnerving in its smaller moments: kitchen chairs rearrange themselves into illogical formations, a slab of steak inches its way across a kitchen surface and, it has to be said, Carol Anne's infamous "They're here" far outstrips "I see dead people" as dialogue to freeze the blood.

In the summer of 1982, Poltergeist was virtually buried alive by Spielberg's other suburban set fantasy, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

Managing to cause ripples post release — two sequels, a TV series plus a real life "Curse Of Poltergeist" that gained currency following the tragic deaths of Heather O' Rourke and Dominque Dunne (oldest daughter Dana) — the movie remains a riveting demons
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