"Poltergeist" (1982) Review
Why would anyone ever try to make a film about suburbia dealing with ghosts when Poltergeist exists?
Poltergeist has always been more than a film. It exists in film mythology with stunning stories that go well beyond the final film itself. That's not a reference to its two sequels, its remake, or its influence on countless horror films after, but more a reference to its legends. The "Poltergeist curse" of cast and crew dying over the years in tragic ways, the "who actually directed the film" argument that's never really been resolved, the fact that skeletons in the film were actual human skeletons because it was cheaper for the production, and so much more.
Mythology and legends like that don't pop up around just any film. The films that inspire such followings are usually cult classics, wonderfully "bad" films, and truly great films. Poltergeist is a permanent mark on the pop culture psyche whether you've seen it or not, and it's one of the truly great films, a potent mixture of nasty funhouse scares with a sincere heart at its core.
The various shifts in tone can be easily attributed to Steven Spielberg's rumored influence over the film's director, Tobe Hooper. I don't want to get into the semantics of "how much did Spielberg direct" or any of that, but I think it's worth saying that Poltergeist's greatness probably (have to use the word "probably" there because, again, this is technically speculation) is the result of their sensibilities coming together. If there was ever a film that could be described so literally as "a Spielberg film, but the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed it too," that film would come exactly the way Poltergeist did.
You have the Spielberg family caught in the onslaught of truly extraordinary events, but those events are nasty as they come, whether it's a tree trying to eat a child or meat crawling across the kitchen counter to only decay rapidly in seconds. Poltergeist kidnaps a seven year-old girl to an ethereal plane at the end of the first act. Poltergeist has a scene where a man hallucinates that he's ripping his own face off. Poltergeist feels mean in a way that other Spielberg styled films in the 80s don't, and that's really impressive when you consider that without giving too much away, the film's final bodycount is a lot lower than you might think considering this whole paragraph.
What counterbalances that mean streak are the sincere characters at Poltergeist's heart. Poltergeist has some dated elements, in particular its special effects. The aforementioned "face getting ripped off scene" hasn't aged well and looks particularly fake and some of the "floating objects" scenes are clearly optically printed back in the 80s. But you know what always ages well? Damn good acting, writing, and directing, and Poltergeist aces those elements. The Freeling family at the center of Poltergeist's events are sympathetic without coming off as schmaltzy or over-done. They may very well be cinema's greatest white family haunted by ghosts in suburbia.
The writing for the family is good, but the performances are great. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are phenomenal as the Freeling parents, their desperation and love for their children evident at every turn. And while the kids are pretty good, it needs to be said that Heather O'Rourke, the actress behind seven-year-old Carol Anne Freeling, is as iconic as actors in her age range come. There's a reason that when you look at lists like "100 Greatest Quotes in Cinema" you find "They're here!" from Carol Anne Freeling.
And then there's Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina, a medium that comes to assess the haunted home. Her voice might sound amusing at first, but she steals the movie from everyone and everything. In a film where a clown toy tries to strangle a child under his bed, it should speak volumes that a scene where Tangina just tells the Freeling family that a beast is hunting their daughter on another plane of existence is arguably more horrifying (unless you have a fear of clowns in which I'll freely admit, the scene where the clown toy tries to kill a child might stop your heart).
All of this on top some great scene compositions and staging of actors. Everything is exactly where it should be in any given frame, each scene feeling effortless in its construction. You know a film is really well-made when its cold-open prologue scene that feels like a joke to show you the family dog running around the house eating junk food is actually the film's way of introducing each family member and the overall geography of the house. And it works.
Poltergeist is a nearly perfect movie. For my own personal tastes in horror films- No, for my own personal taste in films overall, Poltergeist delivers on every front. Even the now dated effects are occasionally charming. Yes, even the scene where the guy rips his own face off. I don't think I could ask for more from an early 80s blockbuster budgeted horror film and it just rocks.