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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Poltergeist  (1982)
4 Stars
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O'Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, James Karen, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Lou Perryman.
1982 – 114 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for scary images, mild language, and brief drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 12, 2013.
The archetypal American Dream—having a family, making a living, and being a homeowner—is perilously pulled out from under the Freelings in "Poltergeist," one of the post-1970s watermarks of the supernatural horror subgenre. A reputable classic, more modern than one might suspect from a 1982 release, the film offers up the complete package: well-defined, down-to-earth characters; giant scares galore that prey on both grown-up and childhood fears; superb special effects that still hold up decades later, and an overhanging mystery that pulls the audience from one terrifically nail-biting situation to the next. Spawning two respectable but less well-received sequels—1986's "Poltergeist II" and 1988's "Poltergeist III"—"Poltergeist" has been the bearer of a number of myths and controversies over the years. Some people claim that co-writer and producer Steven Spielberg directed certain scenes rather than credited helmer Tobe Hooper, who, at the time, already had two solid genre efforts under his belt with 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and 1981's "The Funhouse." There also has been a fair share of documentation about the series' alleged curse, what with real skeletons being used as props in certain scenes of the first and second pictures and six cast members dying in the half-dozen years between the making of the original film and the third. While this sort of conjecture might be fun to talk about, the dazzling skill that "Poltergeist" possesses deserves to not be overshadowed by Hollywood gossip. Its influence undeniably reverberates thirty-plus years later through virtually every haunted house story that sees the light of day.

5-year-old Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O'Rourke) shuffles downstairs in her pajamas as the living room television concludes its daily broadcasting with the late-night playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before cutting to static. She is drawn to the screen, closer and closer, placing her little hands on the glass of the tube. She seems to be communicating with someone, or something, but who? "They're here," she simply utters. Carol Anne has recently moved with her family—father Steven (Craig T. Nelson), mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), moody teenage sister Dana (Dominique Dunne), and over-imaginative 8-year-old brother Robbie (Oliver Robins)—to a brand-new tract housing development called Cuesta Verde. All appears to be relatively happy-go-lucky until Diane begins to witness things in the kitchen moving around on their own. At first, she is more excited than scared, believing that there must be some sort of gravitational explanation for these strange occurrences. When she turns her back and sees that all of the chairs in the kitchen have stacked themselves on top of the table like a pyramid, however, it becomes fairly clear that their house is haunted. How could a construction that has just been built have ghosts? With the help of a group of parapsychologists led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Steven and Diane are drawn into investigating this very question when Carol Anne suddenly goes missing, trapped in another dimension as she communicates to her family the only way she can: through the television.

Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, "Poltergeist" is a quintessential paranormal thriller pitting a normal, sympathetic middle-class family against extraordinary circumstances. When Carol Anne's tweety-bird dies and Diane helps her to bury it behind their house, the young mother has no way of guessing that she will soon be facing the potential loss of her daughter through means outside of her control. It is an unthinkable situation for any parent, to be sure, and the film approaches this subject with an uncompromising poignancy while bringing an intimidating reality to the more irrational fears that kids and adults often experience. As the Freelings are clued in on the cause of what haunts them—Cuesta Verde was built by money-hungry investors atop a cemetery, the headstones moved while leaving the corpses behind—Tobe Hooper works a consistently mounting level of giddy apprehension while hitting his imaginatively conceived scares out of the ballpark. A lifelike tree outside Robbie's window and a seriously daunting clown doll sitting in a chair across from his bed are milked for all the tension they're worth. Eating a leg of fried chicken immediately after the movie would be out of the question.

The cast is superlative all around, though there is a shade of melancholy with the knowledge that two of the three young actors playing the Freeling children met with untimely deaths. As eldest daughter Dana, a typical teenage girl whose relatively frivolous concerns come to an end when she witnesses her family battling powers beyond their comprehension, Dominique Dunne reveals a charismatic sparkle that would have served her well as her career flourished. Tragically, she was strangled to death by her real-life boyfriend mere months after the film's release. As little Carol Anne, Heather O'Rourke (who would go on to reprise her role in the two sequels before passing away from intestinal stenosis at the age of 12) is adorable. Heading up the ensemble are Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, bringing a pleasing warmth to their relationship. The viewer actively comes to care about them and want to see them through their ordeal. By being able to connect so intimately with the Freelings, it is easy to imagine if one's own family were in their shoes. In a standout supporting turn, Zelda Rubinstein is a delight as diminutive, fervently no-nonsense clairvoyant Tangina, called in to help the family get Carol Anne back.

"Poltergeist" climaxes in a morbidly fantastic rush of emotional catharses, its marriage of the entertaining and the horrific grandly paying off as the root of the haunting comes back for vengeance and all hell more or less literally breaks loose. An extended stormy setpiece of crowd-pleasing payoffs commence, a scene in which Diane is terrorized in the mud-drenched swimming pool by unearthed dead bodies especially hair-raising. A big summer movie of the sort that doesn't usually get made any more, the film never loses sight of its closely observed characters or the mainstream spectacle closing in on them. It's a spectacular ride, relying on exquisitely orchestrated suspense over violence and topped by composer Jerry Goldsmith's vivid musical accompaniment. As far as motion pictures about the spiritual unknown and things going bump in the night are concerned, "Poltergeist" is tough to beat.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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