This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
It’s day seventeen and we’re going nowhere near the TV after watching Poltergeist.
Steven Spielberg didn’t direct Poltergeist like Tobe Hooper didn’t direct The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Contractually forbidden by Universal from taking the top seat of a second film whilst he made E.T., Spielberg wasn’t supposed to direct Poltergeist but the suburban, family focused horror itself tells a very different ghost story.
All the tropes of classic Spielbergian cinema are here. Children on bikes? Check. An orchestral suite? Check. A family brought together by unprecedented circumstances? Abso-bloomin-lutely. Frankly, you wouldn’t want it any other way. On writing and producing duties, Spielberg’s take on horror is heartfelt, funny and even sporadically frightening, albeit in a gore-free, fairytale fashion. In some ways, this is more Ghostbusters than The Exorcist but that’s no bad thing.
Set in the Californian model community of Cuesta Verde – which just happens to be built on an old graveyard – Poltergeist finds successful estate agent Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) enjoying the all-American lifestyle with their children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Things seem normal enough but there’s a freaky clown toy hanging around and Robbie doesn’t like the tree outside his window. Carol Anne, meanwhile, has become a somnambulist and started talking with the dead through the family television. Turns out, things aren’t always as they seem.
There’s a point early in the film when it seems almost as though Poltergeist is heading down a Caspar (the friendly ghost) avenue – what with the acrobatic chairs – but when the frights do come they come hard. Spielberg fought for his film to win a PG rating on its release and it’s true that the film works well as a jumping on point for young potential horror fanatics. On the other hand, in one truly ghastly scene we witness a character ripping his own face off, having just himself watched maggots crawl out of the steak he was about to have for dinner, so for the faint hearted this is not.
Things go awry for the Freeling family when Carol Anne is sucked through a vortex in her bedroom cupboard and begins herself to haunt the house. Various paranormal experts are summoned to investigate and together they reveal that the angelic Carol Anne has been kidnapped by a nasty poltergeist from a different ‘sphere of consciousness’. It’s a poignant moment, however, that sees poor, dishevelled Steven declare ‘we don’t care about the disturbances, we just want our daughter back’.
Even if Poltergeist is rather more terrifying than Spielberg envisioned – if you don’t like clowns, you won’t like this – the film remains a ripping good yarn. A brilliant opening transforms the, now defunct, vision of television static into a surprisingly eerie image, with the flickering light it gives off mined for all its spine-tingling worth. The effects too are superb for their time, whilst Cheryal Kearney’s sets, loaded with Star Wars merchandise, nowadays resemble a time capsule of eighties ephemera.
A few frustrating gaps in logic do knock the film’s quality down a notch – why don’t they close the curtains if Robbie’s so freaked out by the tree? – but there’s enough fun here to carry the plot and its spooks through. Zelda Rubinstein is great as spiritual medium Tagina Barrons, while Beatrice Straight shines brightly.