Poltergeist (1982)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #66


Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: June 4, 1982
Sub-Genre: Haunted House
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $10,700,000
Box Office: $121,706,019
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producers: Stephen Spielberg, Frank Marshall
Screenplay: Stephen Spielberg, Mark Victor, Michael Grais
Special Effects: Craig Reardon
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Editing: Stephen Spielberg, Michael Kahn
Studio: SLM Production Group
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, James Karen, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Lou Perryman and Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina

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Suggested Audio Candy

Jerry Goldsmith “Poltergeist Theme”


“They’re heeere!”

What constitutes as scary? Is it ominous bumps in the night captured on film, anemic oriental pre-scholars with slick black locks and well-bitten fingernails, the hint of what goes on behind blood drenched sliding doors deep in the heart of Texas, a bleak oversight of a planet inhabited by flesh-eating zombies, or simply being locked in a padded cell with nothing else than Justin Bieber’s back catalogue on perpetual loop to keep you company? Personally I would stump for the latter without question as the prospect chills me to my very bones but there are plenty of other things that encourage me out of my pelt just as effortlessly.


While all of the above send shivers down my spleen, one thing springs to mind that is far more disconcerting. Wanna know what that is? Fucking clowns man. Sure, it’s all painted dimples and squirty flowers to start with, but these gruesome grinners embody untainted evil like few others;. Indeed, their faces alone can cause even the most stubborn anus to contract as it squeezes through an unexpected deposit into its hammock of cotton. I’m not just singling out horror clowns either. I’d perform a swift one-eighty if I discerned the reverberations of Ronald MacDonald’s clown shoes in a darkened hallway. Real life circuses perturb me and I love feeling perturbed. Shit, even Killer Klowns From Outta Space left an elongated footprint on my psyche. The soul mates for porcelain dolls and second cousins of mannequins, clowns have down to pat that smug “your liver would look good in a baguette” kind of glare and are the ultimate smiling assassins in my mind. Moreover, there’s one of ‘em in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.

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Tobe, pronounced Toby, had a pretty meteoric ascension through the ranks of horror filmmakers with a debut which turns me to jelly possibly more than any other in mean-spirited seventies classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He loves nothing more than to inhabit folk’s tormented dreamscapes and pay a visit to their deepest trepidation, with a proven track record of this being no fluke. His career has seen ups and downs but one fact always remains. A new venture from this man is always anticipated and you know damn well that he’s got another Texas in him should he see fit to book his return ticket.


Poltergeist is the bi-product of everything coming together at precisely the right time. In truth, Steven Spielberg was apparently responsible for virtually every key decision and had his beady eye set on directing this himself, but was hamstrung by a clause in his contract which didn’t allow him to shoot any other film whilst still working on E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which he shot concurrently on the very same street. I’m sure Hooper doesn’t mind too much as it went on to become the highest-grossing film of his career, although turning down an offer from Spielberg to helm the aforementioned film may be a decision he regrets.

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Then there are our tormented souls. Craig T. Nelson – whom I always envisage sharing a foot spa with Powers Boothe – as family man Steve Freeling, and JoBeth Williams – who we aspire to see in a continuous wind tunnel wearing that teasingly short baseball shirt – as his wife Diane. The Freelings also came packaged with two cute all-American kids and a hot teen. There was Dana played by Dominique Dunne and her younger siblings Carol Anne played by Heather O’Rourke – a child actor with real presence tragically pruned from her earthly existence at such a tragically inopportune age, and Robbie played by Oliver Robins – who was taunted by the Harlequin in one of the most terrifying moments of my entire pubescent expansion. Let’s not forget the late, great Zelda Rubenstein – who left behind her a true legacy with her performance as upstanding kook Tangina.


Pitch-perfect players aside, perhaps the dazzling star of this film possesses a row of buttons down one side of its face and an ominous glow that was far from warm and inviting. A good old-fashioned television set is where it’s all at; literally acting as our wormhole to a bogus dimension never seen but marvelously hinted at aurally. The disconcerting nature of Carol Anne’s cries, surrounded in white noise and concealing something no six-year old should ever bear witness to, is a soundbite that will stay with me until my dying day. If John Ritter and Pam Dawber had tuned into this frequency then Stay Tuned would have been a far, far darker movie.

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From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it is plain to see the fruits of such a strong creative pairing as Hooper and Spielberg. Every shot reflects a partnership in direct control of their vast skill set and the special effects are every bit as polished as we have come to expect from any feature bearing Spielberg’s moniker. Once our resident spook has had its fill of repositioning the family furniture, it decides to wreak the kind of havoc that a $10.7 million budget affords you. Confronting his own two biggest childhood fears, Spielberg has contiguous trees suddenly gaining appetites for pre-teens, that dastardly clown finding the pile of Robbie’s snatched father’s porn publications under his bed and, while the entire family run around flapping their wing feathers like ambitious ostriches, Carol Anne is catching some late-night TV unbeknownst to the lot of them.


The trouble with this television set is that after consuming our youngster, her static prison goes on the blink, and no amount of manual tweaking can tune in to her baleful frequency. Audio is the only means of communicating with the blonde babe-in-the-wood. Bearing in mind this is pre-Ghostbusters and Ron Silver will soon be left under piles of paperwork from The Entity, the only practicable solution presents itself in the stumpy form of the delightful Tangina. Like a paranormal pimp, she brings along her finest bitches to rid the house of its demons and return Carol Anne to her parents’ expectant arms.


With the fortifications bolted over an ancient Indian burial ground, the resistance is far greater than the three ghost grabbers have bargained for and they are run ragged by the spiteful entity. The banter between the tormented team is a highlight throughout the second act and there are some genuinely amusing exchanges between them, before the abode begins to wear their defenses down and the grim realization sets in that they are ill-prepared for dealing with this particular phantom. One memorably revolting scene sees Marty (Martin Casella) literally peeling the skin from his face with great alarm only to realize that he has been soundly pranked. I would imagine Hooper had his hand in this one.


Then there is the well-documented Poltergeist curse. Several of the professionals from the supposedly tainted franchise met untimely demises, with popular opinion being that the use of real on-set skeletons was in some way responsible. While this is likely no more than poppycock, it’s hard to quibble against the grim statistics. Both O’Rourke (Intestinal Stenosis aged twelve) and up-and-coming starlet Dunne (strangulation by her boyfriend) are buried in the same garden of remembrance, while I would imagine poor Robins must’ve been vigilantly looking over his shoulder for some time afterwards.


Director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti made the very most of the opportunities provided by our two colliding worlds and created a wonderfully ethereal playground using primarily blue tones. With distinguished composer Jerry Goldsmith pulling the strings and Hooper and Spielberg calling the shots, it was only ever going to end well for Poltergeist. However, it is the troubled Freeling clan’s solidarity in the face of the unthinkable that makes this such an affecting piece of cinema and, while both Nelson and Williams are excellent as mom and dad, the kids are every bit as responsible for making this family unit so easy to root for.


Whether Hooper or Spielberg is truly responsible for this glossy indulgence is not of any great relevance to me although I do regard this as a Hooper picture despite any suggestions to the contrary. In creating a motion picture accomplished enough to be considered the perfect companion piece to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they fused the two genres with no end of flamboyance and the resulting piece stands proud as one of the silver screen high points of a decade strewn with highlights. And yes, it does scare me more than Paranormal Activity. Perhaps if Oren Peli’s film had featured clowns it would have been a different story.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Originally rated X in the UK due to the BBFC dragging their heels introducing the 15 certificate in replacement of the defunct AA rating, this was eventually re-rated. In truth, there’s not a great deal of grue. Granted, we are provided with no shortage of ectoplasm and one bloody standout which made exquisite use of Craig Reardon’s SFX expertise but Hooper was never looking to run a bloodbath. Neither was he looking to titillate although watching Williams being blown from pillar to post in that skimpy baseball shirt is still enough to have us clutching our gym sock.

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Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Appraisal

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Richard Charles Stevens

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