Most ghost movies usually rely on subtlety to give an audience a taste of what lurks on the other side – take Robert Wise’s work on The Haunting (1963 version of course), a spellbinding mood piece that showcased innovative uses of sound and shadow to prove that it’s what you don’t see that will truly scare you. I guess no one gave Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg that memo because in the early 80’s, both these consummate showman pooled their resources to give us Poltergeist – a movie that hoped to do for the paranormal what Close Encounters Of The Third Kind did for alien abduction.
Despite the painful, less-is-more lessons Spielberg learned on the tortuous set of Jaws and the remarkable restraint shown by Hooper by a movie featuring one of the most lurid titles in cinema history (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, take a bow), both men, armed with a newly minted Industrial Light & Magic freshly released from Empire Strikes Back aimed to give us the most head-on, balls to the wall, ghost movie, blow out people had ever seen and some 40 years later, they’ve arguably still achieved it.
The Freelings are an all-American family living in a Californian planet community in Cuesta Verde. Husband Steven is a successful estate agent while Diane raises their three kids, teenage Dana, precocious 8 year old Robbie and an unfeasibly cute 5 year old named Carol Anne and as the family unit go about their typical lives, feuding with the neighbours or burying dead pets they are blissfully unaware of what awaits them over the next couple of days.
Carol Anne claims to be able to talk to people she claims live in their television set and while Steve and Diane write it off as childish imagination, it turns out that other worldly spirts have targeted the Freelings and have infiltrated their home laying in wait for the opportune moment. The Freelings initially treat the initial weirdness (moving furniture, hotspots for supernatural phenomena) as a bit of a giggle, but soon the poltergeists up their game substantially, sucking little Carol Anne into the realm of the paranormal while the family deals with a tree trying to eat their son.
Unsure where to go for help after they find they can still communicate with their blond-haired moppet via the television when is its switched to a channel showing nothing but static, they’re finally aided by a trio of parapsychologists who try to get to the bottom of this abnormal abduction and eventually bring in the big guns in the diminutive form of helium voiced medium Tangina Barrons. However, with Tangina comes some bad news – there’s a dark force lurking on the other side that needs Carol Anne to keep its influence on all the other lost spirits swirling around and even if the Freelings manage to get their daughter back, there’s no telling what the subsequent supernatural temper tantrum will unleash.
So, before I get down to the business of kissing Poltergeist’s ectoplasmic arse, I guess I should start by addressing the 40 year old, ghostly elephant in the room – that of the identity of the true director of the movie. There’s been a lingering rumour that it was a very controlling Spielberg and not Hooper who actually directed the majority of Poltergeist (something both directors have denied), but while there’s an undeniable sense that Spielberg, then in the midst of crafting E.T., had a massive effect on the film, anyone who has seen any of Hooper’s previous and subsequent work can easily tell that he was definitely at the helm. The evidence is literally in every frame and as a result we actually have an impressive merging of the styles of two noticably visionaries as a painfully Spielbergian family runs headlong into Tobe Hooper’s cruelly satirical sense of humour as all hell breaks loose. Yes, the effects and the approach are very Close Encounters (Spielberg did co-write the film after all), but all the angles, set-ups, scares and a noticable sense of the satirical (the movie audaciously starts with a blaring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and the movie cheekily exaggerates the dangers of television on impressionable children by literally having it be a portal to disaster) are defiantly Hooper – hell, if nothing else convinces you, that fact that Jerry Goldsmith and not John Williams scores the movie should count for something.
Anyway, now that we’ve put this belaboured point behind us, it’s my honoured duty to confirm that Poltergeist still kicks butt after all these years which alternates between genuine wonder (the spirits coming down the stairs) and some seriously hardcore horror set pieces that will seriously have you stunned that it was rated PG back in the day. PG! The memorable moments are legion, with the movie unraveling an almost non-stop procession of visual wonders that’s burned themselves indelibly into the psyche of generations. There are people to this day irreparably traumatised by Robbie’s possessed clown doll, or that bit where the dude hallucinates tearing his own face off (PG!) or even the bit where Diane takes an unwilling dip in the family’s unfinished swimming pool with a bunch of freshly unearthed skeletons which all successfully taps into multiple primal fears with ease. But it’s also a rare example of horror movie that manages to still be scary even when it goes big with showstopping images such as growling, spindly-limbed wraiths; giant, smoking faces exploding out of closets and entire houses imploding in front of your very eyes, but none of this would work if you didn’t feel for the more corporeal members of the cast.
Initially filled to the brim with 80’s levels of entitlement, the Freelings start the film ridiculously complacent, openly smoking weed in their bedroom while their kids sleep next door and happily having a swimming pool built despite being fully aware that their youngest sleepwalks, but as the film goes on, this likable, if slightly smug, unit find a sense of respect as they’re forced to square up to otherworldly forces in order to retrieve their child.
It’s powerful stuff and it’s insanely influential – after all, what is James Wan’s Indidious but Poltergeist with a grungier aesthetic – and while those who favor their ghost stories a tad more restrained than the hyperactive, 80’s, effects extravaganza the movie serves up when the brakes fully release during the last third, this is spectacular, genre fare regardless of who fully had control of this thing.
“They’re here…?” Guys, Poltergeist never left.