Poltergeist (1982) dir. Tobe Hooper
Starring: Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubenstein
By Alan Bacchus
Prior to the production of ET Universal Studios allegedly had a clause in Spielberg's contract which forbade him from directing another picture while prepping that seminal film. Thus emerged rumours that Poltergeist released a week apart from ET, produced and co-scripted by Spielberg, had used Tobe Hooper as the proxy though which he could author a film in within the boundaries of his contact.
Did Spielberg take control of the directorial duties of this film? Apparently Tobe Hooper and Spielberg both have denied the rumour, same with many of the crew, though some have admitted Spielberg had a strong hand in the onset decision making. Some say, half the storyboards were created by Spielberg. Whatever happened on the set, the Spielberg ‘magic touch’ is wholly palpable when watching this film.
It’s still a wonderful frightening piece of family horror, a classic ghost/haunted house story, set in Spielberg's favourite setting, the same type of suburban sprawl as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. Like Jaws, Duel, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg (and Hooper) managed to tap into some of those fundamental nightmares and fears we have as both children and adults. For parents, the fear of losing one’s child results in the disappearance of the innocent youngest child of the waspy Freeling family into the television. For kids Spielberg exploits our fears of inanimate objects such as a grotesque old tree perched beside young Robbie’s window, or his disturbing clown doll which overlooks him at the foot of his bed.
Spielberg essentially reworks the formula from The Exorcist to produce a friendlier and more mainstream version of Blatty/Friedkin’s chiller. Poltergeist is not 'chilling to the bones' like The Exorcist, nor will it leave any grown ups with nightmares, but it’ll still scare the shit out of children and it has enough memorable imagery to remain pop culturally relevant.
The plotting is structural perfection. First establishing the saccharine suburban community where the Freeling family have located. Then establishing the mysterious noises coming from the television, and young Carol Anne’s abilities to communicate with them. After the ghosts have some fun moving chairs around the house, things turn evil fast when Carol Anne, in a particularly evil thunderstorm disappears into the closet, only to be heard vaguely in the air and in the TV. The family employs a group of paranormal scientists to figure shit out, but eventually they realize they're in over their heads and to turn to the slight but effective soothsayer Tangina to bring Carol Anne back.
Craig T. Nelson plays the father figure much like how Richard Dreyfuss anchored his suburban family in Close Encounters. Unlike that film Spielberg makes sure the family unit stays together, and through their impenetrable bond, triumph over evil – distinctly 80’s-friendly conservative family values.
Visually the film is a stunner, in every department production value turned to the max.
As such it looks more like a ET than Texas Chainsaw Massacre that’s for sure. In fact, everything in the film points to Spielberg. The domestic naturalism of Craig T. Nelson, Jo Beth Williams and even the child performance of Heather O’Rourke have the Spielberg stamp. Same with the camera work and mise-en-scene. Watch the scene when the exit portal is released near the staircase and Carol Anne's spirit moves through her mother. The awestruck reaction shots of Nelson and the paranormal scientist evoke the same expressions of wonderment as the John Ford-influenced moments seen in almost every Spielberg film. And even though it’s a beautifully composed by Jerry Goldsmith, the score could double as John Williams.
The moment when Diane enters the light in the closet leave one breathless, like the emotional goodbye between Elliot and ET. The emergence of Dianne and Carol Anne from the supernatural world feels like a rebirth, or like the family born again and baptized in the tub in the water. Or maybe that’s too much of a stretch. In any case, it furthers the distinctly Christian values of his previous films.
As such, though it’s not a “Steven Spielberg film”, Poltergeist, in addition to ET and Close Encounters, works as an unofficial third part to a ‘suburban magic’ trilogy. Spielberg would try on numerous occasions recapture the feelings we got from these other films, and even though he's made some great films since then, they've never quite had this particular type of cinema 'magic'.
Poltergeist is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment