Poltergeist at 40: The success of Spielberg’s haunted house brought horror home | Horror films
In the summer of 1982, Steven Spielberg released two films in consecutive weeks, Poltergeist and ET the Extra Terrestrial, which now seem to be mirror images of each other. Both are about suburban enclaves visited by supernatural phenomena – one a haunting, the other a close encounter of the third kind – and both are ultimately storytelling affirmations of the American family, which is reinforced by the Crisis. The Californian suburbs were a playground for Spielberg, who grew up there, and these films were like new subdivisions in his personal colonization of Hollywood.
The nature of Spielberg’s involvement in Poltergeist has been controversial from the start. He’s credited as co-producer and co-writer on the film, which is based on his original story, but the director is the late Tobe Hooper, who was either a primary creative force or a looker on his own set, depending on who is. being requested. At a minimum, the two had a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration that resulted in a quintessentially Spielbergian horror flick, but with a hint of the malevolence of Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the spring-loaded shocks of his earlier film, the underrated slasher. from 1981 The Funhouse. It’s as if Spielberg wanted to scare audiences while maintaining his cuddly veneer, and Hooper was part of his alibi.
He also claimed, after Jaws, that PG-rated horror films had summer blockbuster potential, though 40 years later it’s remarkable that few have tried to emulate his success. (The 1999 Abysmal remake of The Haunting, from Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures, seems to have killed the idea forever.) Although The Amityville Horror was a hit in 1979, the slasher trend was in full swing by 1982, which allowed Poltergeist to stake a solitary claim to the haunted house movie, a subgenre that has always demanded more bumps and creaks than active bleeds. Even when the ghosts go haywire in the final act, it feels as wholesome as a Halloween wagon ride.
In the brilliant opening sequence, Poltergeist strikes at the heart of every suburban home: the television. As the man of the house, Steven Freeling (Craig T Nelson) dozes in his recliner, a TV channel ends for the night with The Star-Spangled Banner and the ghostly static that will carry it on until the next morning. The family dog fetches scraps upstairs, which is a neat way to introduce the other characters: Steven’s wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams) and their three children – 16-year-old Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and finally Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), an adorable six-year-old girl who wakes up and walks into the living room. The static speaks to him as the family watches. She calls her new friends “TV people”.
The image of Carol Anne sitting cross-handed against the snowy TV, announcing “They’re here” in her eerie, singsong voice, was such a powerful hook that it served as a poster and slogan. But in Poltergeist, it’s part of an effective strategy to step back into a horror movie through Spielberg’s wonder, as it’s not immediately clear that ‘they’ aren’t the friendly beings of Close Encounters. or and. A dead canary and bent silverware are signs of trouble, but when Diane discovers the kitchen chairs can move on their own, she’s thrilled. This could be a great party trick.
However, when Carol Anne is sucked into the bedroom closet, the film shifts gears and the Freelings are desperate to save her from the walls of the house, where her voice can still be heard from a distance. Is she walking towards the light or away from the light? Three local college parapsychologists are distraught, but they get help from Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), a spirit medium who assures Diane that her daughter is alive and home. At this point, Carol Anne’s bedroom is a weightless phantom zone, and a strange spectral birth canal has opened up between her closet and the living room ceiling. The mother will have to give birth to her child again, only covered in ectoplasm rather than amniotic fluid.
Williams is the glue that holds Poltergeist together – funny, sexy and assertive, with Diane far more active than her husband in putting herself in harm’s way. (A bedroom scene where she rolls a joint while he reads a biography of Ronald Reagan is a short story in itself.) When Tangina tells him, “I couldn’t do anything without your faith in this world and your love for children,” Williams shows motherly conviction in support. She and ET single mom Dee Wallace are cut from the same cloth. Their children can always count on them.
At the time, Poltergeist was a high-end showcase for Industrial Light & Magic, the effects house founded by George Lucas that liberates everything here from subtle streaks of white to full-screen spectra that suggest 3D without the red cellophane and blue glasses. Spielberg and Hooper round out the visual effects with the old-school analogue of a creepy clown doll, a malevolent leafless tree, and skeleton-filled coffins springing from the ground. Poltergeist was primarily designed as a scare machine, and it updates the classic haunted house movie without losing its mainstream appeal.
The revelation that the Freelings’ home and neighborhood were built on the dead – only the headstones were moved, not the bodies – suggests a darker message about American expansion, with families gobbling up land that was not theirs never. It also syncs with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is also about strangers being punished for trespassing on hostile terrain. Spielberg has often been optimistic about the magic and possibility of suburban life, but Poltergeist sees it from the other side of the lens.