Directed By: Tobe Hopper
Written By: Steven Spielberg
Staring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robbins, and Michael McMannus
At the age of twenty-nine I can still strongly attest that Poltergeist is the scariest movie I have ever seen. In it’s best moments it feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from, with characters that could easily be you, special effects that still maintain their dignity, and an open curiosity about the paranormal and it’s affects on the living. The balance of realism Spielberg’s writing gave the story, and Hopper’s ability to emote mood and tension, letting the situation manifest in your head more than scare you with visuals is what really gives the story it’s timeless ability to repetitively terrify generations long after it’s release. Human curiosity becomes the catalyst for what seems impossible, and what’s impossible suddenly is reality. Poltergeist stands with many as one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
Immediately we are whisked into a world of suburban reality. Every house is a cookie cut out of another, but the neighborhood continues to grow and grow. A typical family that is clearly happy, yet humanly flawed begins to experience strange events out of nowhere. When their youngest daughter Carol Ann begins talking to the TV and the dog begins to act manic the parents and family don’t suspect anything in particular. In parallel with the behavior of the family dog and Carol Ann’s behavior is strange electrical currents seem to be having an effect on the house, while nastier than usual summer storms are also plaguing the neighborhood. All things of basic normality seem just slightly out of whack, but nothing that would raise more than an eyebrow when suddenly the furniture in the families home begins to move around. By itself. Suddenly lives are in peril, and a darkness invades the house.
Poltergeist was cleverly written and structured, but the content that sucks you into all of the unimaginable events is characters that are quite real. Once the family realizes something supernatural is wrong with the house, they make plans to leave or evade it, but before they can do that, Carol Ann is taken. There couldn’t be a more logical reason to be forced to stay in the house. The biggest problem is finding someone who believes their story and is willing to help them get their daughter back, who is somehow attached to their world, able to communicate threw the TV. This ingenious way of webbing the situation doesn’t give the viewer the option of saying, “They are so stupid.” There really isn’t a stupid move in Poltergeist where you want to scream at the family, if anything you empathize and feel their pain and fear. It differs from so many other movies and the actors deliver such enigmatic performances that the movie could easily have been a drama about a child kidnapped.
At the time the technology used was pretty impressive and even stands up today, but it still wasn’t overused in a way that took away from the story. Sure, we got some pretty horrific images, but they lasted only briefly, like a smidgen of terror that one can remember from their own nightmare, but that was in it’s essence what Poltergeist exuded: a living nightmare. The lingering effects of those terrifying images is what is going to play in my mind and seem plausible, something that goats my own imagination, and a lot of movies today ignore that tactic. Maybe people don’t have the imaginations they used to, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that we revert to the seventies and early eighties around Halloween each year to get spooked out. Very few contemporary films are actually considered scary.
An excellent cast including Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams really amplify the already eerie mood with their tangible performances. Even the little boy, Oliver Robbins, plays his part terrifically. When he’s freaking out in front of the TV because he hears his sisters voice talking, it’s a genuine moment of shock and terror that transcends into the audience. If the actors didn’t give such authentic performances some of the fear would have been lost. Even the casting of Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne is genius. She looks like a cherub and has the sweet and innocent voice of an Angel. Could people possibly be more attached to her or fear for her even more?
This is one of my favorite movies of all time, and while it’s fun to watch around this spooky time of year, it’s a great thriller for any time. Of course, you’ll start to get goosebumps when your lights flicker or if your TV turns to the fuzzy station. The realism and honesty of the characters is what makes the heart of this film resonate, but the journey of the characters isn’t the only amazing thing about Poltergeist. The execution of it visually, along with an intense script makes this film a classic creeper.