Tuesday 5 November 2013

Movie Review: Poltergeist (1982)

A ghost story from the imagination of Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist delivers family oriented frights. The story of a haunted house and angry spirits abducting children alternates shocks with fun and adds a sprinkling of humour.

Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) seem to have an ideal California suburban life. Steven works for the development company that built the sprawling subdivision, while Diane raises their their three kids: teenagers Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) and the younger Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Everything appears to be normal until Carol Anne starts to exhibit a strange fascination with television static, seemingly communicating with invisible forces within.

As a series of thunderstorm move in on the area, the spirits invade the Freeling house, at first exhibiting childlike, playful behaviour. But matters soon take a serious turn, and Carol Anne is abducted, sucked into her closet by tornado-like forces and vanishing. Carol-Anne is still able to communicate with her mother through the television set in eerie tones. The Freelings turn to Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team, and later the mystic Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), to try and retrieve their daughter and reclaim control of their home, while Steven uncovers the dirty secret that may be prompting all the paranormal activity.

Spielberg is credited as producer, co-screenwriter and originator of the story. On-set mythology suggests that he was also the de facto director, but prevented from claiming that role due to E.T.-related studio-imposed limitations. Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, received the director credit, and at least helped translate Spielberg's vision into an entertaining movie with some razor sharp edges.

Poltergeist does have a few genuinely scary moments that would certainly challenge younger members of the target family audience. The concept of ghosts knowing and deploying what already scares the individual members of the Freeling family is effective. Robbie's close encounter with a tree abduction is disturbing, as are his encounters with the notoriously hideous toy clown. And towards the end, ghosts previously portrayed as invisible and playful take on evil, menacing forms. Diane has to fend off groaning skeletons, while demon-shapes make a climactic appearance to scare the family away once and for all and lay claim to the house.

But the movie also has long stretches of family-friendly fare, the opening 30 minutes dedicated to a reasonably tranquil life in the suburbs, interrupted only by Carol Anne's fascination with television static. And when the spirits make their initial presence felt, they creatively rearrange the kitchen furniture in benign and humorous interactions with the family.

Poltergeist does suffer from a rather draggy midsection. The scientific intervention by Dr. Lesh and her team, and the subsequent meddling by the medium Tangina Barrons, are generally played for rather cheap laughs, and ultimately their contributions amount to little. Other than giving an opportunity for Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein to ham it up, the outsiders just get in the way of the family confronting the invading spirits on their own terms.

The performances are memorable, JoBeth Williams a particular highlight as Diane transitions from lively suburban housewife to a suffering, befuddled mom, and finally a mother bear fed-up with the forces gnawing at her children. The ill-fated Heather O'Rourke gets to deliver the film's most famous line, "they're heeeere!" announcing to the world that Spielberg's imagination has its dark corners.

Much like the subject ghosts, Poltergeist is a movie that makes most of the right moves and many impressive noises.

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