In lieu of Gil Kenan’s woefully undernourished 2015 remake, let us reconsider Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) to kick off a month-long tribute to scary movies. Despite changing times and tastes, the original Poltergeist continues to rank among a handful of true horror classics. In a genre usually devoted to the exaltation of the extremely grotesque, few visual artists have emerged to make deeper meaning of the ‘horrors’ that can truly frighten; tapping into our collective subconscious or exculpating from the hidden wellsprings of childhood anxieties that continue to linger and occasionally create havoc during our adult lives. All truly successful horror movies rely on a basic fundamental – to evoke shock, startle and jolt the audience from their relative and often jaded complacency. Viewing the mayhem from the relative safety of a darkened theater, we prep for the experience by repeatedly reminding ourselves ‘it’s only a movie’ – yet, hoping to discover an affecting and effective terror unexpectedly unleashed. Only the amateur film-maker relies on the thirty-second chill to create this illusion; usually hurling blood and guts ad nauseam at the screen. Thus, the hallmark of a true artist toiling in the macabre is how sustainable the overriding arc of dread remains throughout the piece. And Poltergeist is a very ominous and sustaining masterpiece indeed.
Poltergeist takes a relatively simple and time-honored premise – the haunting of a traditional American family (a.k.a. – the old dark house) – and stands most of its conventions on end; introducing us to Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein); a psychic medium, perhaps even more terrifying than the spirits whose eternal slumber has been disturbed by the slickly callous pursuits of housing developer, Mr. Teague (James Karen) and his unsuspecting architect, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson). Only Teague knows the truth; that his latest upper middle-class community of tomorrow, Questa Verdi, has been built on top of a cemetery without any of the bodies beneath it relocated to alternate ground. It will take both Freeling and the audience the better half of 114 minutes to deduce as much. Until this fateful revelation, Poltergeist enthralls with a steadily unsettling series of seemingly disjointed circumstances, cumulatively lumped together as ‘the unexplained’ (levitating furniture, violent thunderstorms that cause innocuous inanimate objects like trees and toy clowns to attack, glowing portholes to another dimension suddenly appearing from the darkened recesses of a child’s bedroom closet, etc. and et al).
That the original Poltergeist seamlessly blends both the light and the terrific is perhaps no great surprise, given Steven Spielberg as its’ executive producer and co-writer. Yet, it is Tobe Hooper’s involvement on the project, his darker vision coming a scant eight years after his foray into tasteless gore with the slasher touchstone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) that herein keeps Spielberg’s usual verve for SFX-laden whimsy well-grounded within the more sinister realm of truly palpable chills. Part of Poltergeist’s success today can be directly attributed to Hooper’s unfailing ability to lend credence to the not so subtle art of the good spook. The screenplay, co-written by Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor is a methodically plotted, though never plodding, deconstruction of one family’s seemingly normal lives; the way this unassuming brood suddenly finds themselves trapped and tortured by unseen forces who clearly desire them harm – though chiefly, their youngest, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), proves as disconcerting to the audience as our protagonists. Even more uncanny; the weird fallout after the picture’s success has only served generate an more menacing pall on the possibility Spielberg and Hooper were tapping into supernatural forces unbeknownst to them back in 1982.
Behind the scenes, the making of Poltergeist was as arduous and traumatic as anything seen on the screen; Hooper and Spielberg quickly clashing over artistic principles – Spielberg presumably wanting a less terrifying experience to emerge. Undeniably, Hooper won this coin toss, as Poltergeist remains bone-chilling. Production memos report actor, Oliver Robins was nearly strangled by his toy clown when the release apparatus suffered a malfunction and instead continued to constrict around his neck. Forgoing the documented precepts of a ‘legitimate’ poltergeist, as a noisily destructive, but otherwise generally mischievous, rather than malicious and harmful spirit, responsible for noises and the movement of objects, horror aficionados have long since ascribed a ‘damned’ quality or ‘curse’ to the production – primarily because two of its youngest cast members, Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne suffered gruesome deaths shortly thereafter. O’Rourke’s was particularly devastating; misdiagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and repeatedly falling ill on the set from a bowel obstruction; she would ultimately suffer cardiac arrest after completing Poltergeist III and undergo emergency surgery to correct her congenital intestinal abnormality, alas, to no avail: dead at the age of thirteen.
The other death associated with the movie was an obvious case of murder; Dunne, who played teenage sister, Dana Freeling, succumbing after a fatal strangulation by her ex-lover, John Sweeney. Bizarrely, he only served a little over three years for this crime of passion. As if to gild these mourning lilies in a patina of Poe, costar, Jo Beth Williams (a.k.a., mom - Diane Freeling) held fast to a highly publicized claim, Spielberg had used actual human remains as props during the infamous swimming pool resurrection scene (at the time, real skeletons were presumably cheaper than fakes). Williams’ lore has never been corroborated. Nevertheless it endures, furthering Poltergeist’s reputation as a freakily strange and creepy picture, tempting the hands of fate one too many times.
Setting aside ‘the curse’ as an impossibly ghoulish point of interest, Poltergeist has remained ever-present in the minds of fans primarily because it is a piece of expertly played grand guignol. Costars, Craig T. Nelson and Jo Beth Williams are cast as marrieds, Steve and Diane Freeling. He is a successful architect. She is a very hip pot-smoking housewife with plenty of time to discover the growing maladies and oddities already begun to afflict their new – and otherwise ‘happy’ home. Tobe Hooper plies us with the prerequisite quirks to mildly rattle our nerves; just a bunch of stackable chairs regrouping themselves in the kitchen or some kinetic force of gravity that causes objects to slide across the floor. However, before long, the Freeling’s youngest child, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is hearing strange voices from out of the ‘white noise’ of the family’s TV. The Freeling’s only son, Robbie (Oliver Robins) is threatened during a violent thunderstorm; first by the ominous grinning toy clown lurking beneath his bed, and then, by a misshapen tree, its thick limbs bursting through the bedroom window. As signs of the supernatural become more life-threatening, the Freelings contact a paranormal psychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her psychic compatriot, Tangina Barron (Zelda Rubenstein) to unravel the secrets of their spirit-possessed abode. In the interim, Lesh’s videographers, Marty (Martin Caselli) and Ryan (Richard Lawson) experience frights of their own and Carol Anne is abducted into the dead zone; able to communicate only through veiled cries for help emanating from the TV static.
Eventually, Tangina deduces Carol Anne is a life force for the spirits trapped in this netherworld. They will never let her go without a fight. Tangina now devises a plan for Diane to reclaim her daughter by stepping into the ominous light emitted from Carol Anne’s closet. Steve is, of course, against this venture, forced to allow the experiment after all other options have miserably failed. Alas, only after Diane has been consumed into the dark side does Tangina strangely turns on her plan, encouraging mother and daughter to step into the light, previously thought to spell death for both women now trapped on the other side. Steve attempts to wrestle with the rope attached around Diane’s waist, to pull her back to safety; the poltergeist manifesting itself as a winged gargoyle, guarding against such a rescue. At the last possible moment, Diane and Carol Anne are flung from their alternate universe; unconscious and covered in gooey protoplasmic entrails, though otherwise unharmed. Lesh and her cohorts pack up; Tangina proudly – if prematurely – declaring, “this house is clean.”
However, unbeknownst to Steve, his most recent housing development at Questa Verdi has been built on lands belonging to an old cemetery. Rather than relocate the bodies, his boss, Mr. Teague simply removed the headstones and bulldozed the corpses to make way for the subdivision. Tragically, Teague’s frugality does not necessarily mean the dead will remain buried for very long. Still unknowing of this truth, Steve has nevertheless decided to move his family away from Questa Verdi. But his house remains ground zero for these demonic forces. While Steve is out preparing for their departure, Diane experiences a very hostile spirit. At first, it attempts to rape her as she rests in bed. Then, it struggles to keep Diane separated from Robbie and Carol Anne. Steve confronts Teague about the cemetery and discovers the truth, racing home to find the poltergeist in full flourish and completely taken over his domicile. As Diane and Steve struggle to rescue their children, the muddy walls of the pit dug for their planned backyard in-ground swimming pool begin to fill with rainwater and corrupted bodies unearthed from their caskets; the corpses crowding in on all sides, but otherwise powerless to prevent their escape efforts. As the family, once again reunited, hurries to their car and drives away, the Freeling’s home is imploded by the poltergeist and wiped clean from the earth; leaving a bewildered Teague shell-shocked as the entire neighborhood looks on. In the final moments, Steve is seen checking his family into a nearby Holiday Inn, moments later tossing out the television as a precaution against any further supernatural manifestations.
Apart from its obvious focus as a horror movie, Poltergeist remains a ground-breaking potpourri of special effects; effectively utilizing all of the SFX tricks then currently available and in vogue: matte paintings, full-scale models, puppetry, clay-mation, pyrotechnics, mood lighting and good ole-fashioned sound effects to unleash these unearthly and thoroughly convincing spirits. In fact, visual effects artists, Richard Edlund, Michael Wood and Bruce Nicholson, as well as sound effects wizards, Stephen Hunter Flick and Richard L. Anderson were all Oscar-nominated for their efforts. Viewed today, their contributions continue to hold up remarkably well, possessing a tangible weight and merit. Only in hindsight does it remain a pity, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg did not collaborate on future projects, since Poltergeist remains a fright-fest with much to admire. In the end, both artists went their separate ways; Spielberg aggressively expanding his repertoire to include forays into ‘serious melodrama’; Hooper delving into more grotesque illusions that only sporadically lived up to the promises made on their lurid movie posters.
In retrospect, Poltergeist was on the cusp of a revolution; the horror genre gradually exploring the realms of sci-fi but steadily losing ground as a legitimate genre, what with a more fanciful army of successors devoted to the sort of blood and guts spectacles, the likes of which Spielberg decidedly abhorred. In hindsight, it is fascinating to reconsider Poltergeist and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial being made and released in the same year – the latter, an obvious culmination of themes Spielberg superficially explored in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the former, decidedly pointing the way to an even more kitschy era with ‘horror’ turning more rancid than ruthless, as the slasher flick took over as the preferred modus operandi by the end of the decade. Fans of ‘horror’ are still grappling with the fallout of Poltergeist today. Mercifully, while Poltergeist set a standard, it did not entirely conform to one, thanks in part to Spielberg’s careful meddling throughout the shoot. While some visual aspects of Poltergeist are decidedly too intense for younger audiences, the overall arc of the story remains firmly embedded in the telling of a tale about a close-knit family’s triumph over these forces of darkness. Nobody dies and nobody is irrevocably hurt by the experience of going through these trials by fire – at least, not in the first movie.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a reissue in 1080p, though worthy of both the re-release and the format; exhibiting bold colors and exceptional amounts of fine detail. Observing the original 2.40:1 ratio, the film’s complex and challenging optical composites have been digitally scrubbed all but free of age-related dirt and debris without sacrificing overall image clarity. Film grain has been lovingly preserved – a definite bonus. No waxy imagery here! Both color balancing and contrast levels are stable; blacks - deep, rich and satisfying/whites, mostly pristine. Poltergeist benefits from a newly re-purposed DTS 5.1 soundtrack, picking up subtler nuances, arguably, always a part of the original ground-breaking Dolby theatrical mix, but unheard since the original theatrical release. Bottom line: you won’t be disappointed with this release. Given Hooper and Spielberg were hardly on speaking terms by the time production wrapped, it really is not surprising we have no audio commentary from either creative on this Blu-ray – pity that! Instead, there is a very scant featurette on ‘real life’ hauntings and some junket press materials slapped together, though curiously, no theatrical trailer. Bottom line: for transfer quality alone, Poltergeist on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)