A film perhaps – and unfairly – more renowned for its behind-the-scenes intrigue and urban legends, I don’t really care who directed “Poltergeist”, it’s a masterpiece. No doubt the horror elements benefit from Hooper’s input but it’s clearly a Spielberg showcase through and through. It’s the dark and evil twin of “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial” and showcases the best of both directors.
The Freeling family live in quiet suburban harmony on the Cuesta Verde housing development where Steve (Craig T Nelson) is a successful real estate salesman. One night, their youngest daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) wakes up and begins talking to the ‘TV People’. The following night, something ghostly emerges from the television’s static, triggering what feels like an earthquake and prompting Carol Anne to announce “They’re here”.
“Poltergeist” takes a patient approach to easing us in to the Freeling family’s world and when the paranormal activity first manifests, it’s a subject of wonder and intrigue. It’s that gradual escalation of the haunting that really gives this film, and the terros to come, their potency.
For all her iconic dialogue, Heather O’Rourke isn’t actually at the centre of much of the film’s action, in fact, it’s her disappearance which really marks the film’s shift from eerie fantasy to true horror. There’s a classic approach to horror here, with very little in the way of the genre’s modern-day hallmarks of gore and egregious jump scares. Famously, it’s a movie where nobody dies and yet there’s no denying it’s hugely effective as a scary haunted house horror. Taking the very real fear of a missing child and giving it a supernatural twist or two, Spielberg’s self-penned story takes his favoured tropes – the strong family unit, a child as a centrepiece – and puts them through an expertly paced thrill ride of edge-of-your-seat suspense.
The casting of Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams is a masterstroke, grounding the movie in the real world with the authenticity of their chemistry as a married couple. All three children are terrific too, and although obviously its Heather O’Rourke who draws all the attention, Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the scary moments.
Another factor in the film’s success is how quickly the Freelings seek out professional help instead of trying to cope with all the weirdness themselves. It brings a team of parapsychologists into the movie but most importantly it leads to the arrival of Zelda Rubenstein’s iconic Tangina Barrons. It’s able to credibly embrace such a quirky, off-beat character because again – unlike much of the rest of the genre – this is not a movie which relies on its characters making stupid, unrealistic decisions. Time and time again, the characters here act and react like real, sensible adults. People turn lights on when they hear a noise in the dark, and they lock the rooms where bizarre things happen. There’s a realism to the entire film that makes the haunting all the more thrilling, something the remake gets completely wrong.
Made for an even-then modest budget, it’s a triumph of economically creative filmmaking. The judicious use of lighting and practical effects work has inoculated the film against the years, allowing it to age wonderfully into the timeless classic it is. With the expertly choreographed chaotic final act featuring (very real) skeletons emerging from the muddy depths of the freshly-dug swimming pool, it can legitimately go toe to toe with any other horror movie you might care to mention; it’s little wonder that contemporary classification boards were confused by it (it scored a PG in America and an X in the UK).
Every bit the genre classic as the more edgy or hardcore titles people tend to rattle off, “Poltergeist” fully deserves a place amongst the genre greats and if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in a while, it’s high time you paid a visit to The Freelings.