Poltergeist (1982) is a memorable supernatural horror film from co-producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg who teamed with director Tobe Hopper (known for his cult horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)). It was Spielberg's first smash hit as a co-producer, who was paired with Frank Marshall (who later produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)). It was the highest-grossing (domestic ) horror film of 1982 (bested by E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) at # 1), and the eighth highest-grossing film overall in the same year.
This classic 'haunted house ghost story' is fascinating to watch, with its extraordinary special effects created by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic team, and a screenplay by Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor. However, in the early 80s, it was criticized for only receiving a PG rating (after the filmmakers protested its original R rating), given its intense scenes of horror - accentuated by the new Dolby sound system technology. In reaction (in part), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1984 created a new ratings category in between PG and R ratings - PG-13.
This Spielberg production was released at the same time as another suburban tale with visitors: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It could also be interpreted as a threatening, scarier version of director Spielberg's pre-E.T. film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Compared to both films, Poltergeist was the dark flip side for Diane and Steve Freeling (Williams and Nelson) in the Cuesta Verde housing development of suburban California, with ordinary objects that turned threatening (for example, a suburban tract dream home, a backyard tree, a favorite doll, a closet, and a TV screen). The famous poster reflected one of the more memorable, spookier moments of the film, with young 5 year-old Carole Anne (Heather O'Rourke) pressed against a television showing nothing but white noise, and saying, "They're here." Another tremendous trick scene was the one in which the camera slowly panned away from a kitchen table - and then returned to view a stack of chairs.
There were two less successful sequels in subsequent years. The only actors to reprise their roles in all three films were Heather O'Rourke and Zelda Rubenstein (as psychic Tangina):
Poltergeist Trilogy of Films Film Title Director/Notes Poltergeist (1982) d. Tobe Hooper; with Steven Spielberg as co-producer and co-writer; the most commercially-successful film of all the Poltergeist films at $76.6 million; re-released in 1983 Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) d. Brian Gibson; with domestic revenue of $41 million, set one year after the original film Poltergeist III (1988) d. Gary Sherman (co-writer); with domestic revenue of $14.1 million; with the tagline: "He's Found Her" Poltergeist (title unknown) A "revisionist" re-make planned for release in 2014
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards without any wins: Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith), Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects (Richard Edlund, Michael Wood, Bruce Nicholson). All three of Poltergeist's nominations were lost to Spielberg's own E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Many filmgoers have been intrigued by the seemingly-tragic legacy of the film, with the unexpected deaths of two of the stars:
- Dominique Dunne (in her last film role before her tragic strangulation murder at the age of 22 in November, 1982 by her obsessed boyfriend)
- Heather O'Rourke (the 12 year-old star died six years later in February 1988 from surgical complications related to intestinal blockage just before the second sequel's release)
The film opens with the playing of the National Anthem during a TV station's sign-off. The highly-pixeled image is from a close-up, magnified shot of a television screen. The picture goes 'dead' - it is in the middle of the night. The head of the household, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) has fallen asleep in the downstairs living room in front of the tube. The family dog visits and introduces each of the members of the sleeping Freeling family in the upstairs bedrooms of their suburban home - thirty-two year old wife Diane (JoBeth Williams), sixteen year old Dana (Dominique Dunne), eight year old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and young, five year old blonde nursery-schooler Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke).
In the famous image that advertised the film, the youngest daughter comes down the serpentine staircase from the second floor, walking through the flickering, strobe-effect lighting that is cast over the room. She sits in front of the fuzzy, snowy image of the television and imaginatively converses with strange entities - she believes that every inanimate object is anthropomorphic:
Hello? What do you look like? Talk louder, I can't hear you! Hey, hello! Hello, I can't hear you! Five. Yes. Yes. I don't know. I don't know.
She awakens her parents and siblings, who stand in silence and watch her communicate with the grainy picture tube. She places her two palms on the glass.
They live in the peaceful Cuesta Verde Estates tract housing development - their house is indistinguishable from other subdivision homes. The bedroom of the two youngest children is decorated with other-worldly items - two Star Wars (1977) characters (R2D2 on the bedspread and a Darth Vader toy figure on the shelf), two related film posters, an Alien (1979) poster from the science fiction horror film, and CLUE - a classic who-dun-it board game.
Various events signal the greater threats to come. The family's canary bird "Tweety" unexpectedly expires - strangely, the only death in the film. The middle of a football game is suddenly switched to the 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood' children's show - Steve is having an on-going battle of 'remote controls' with his nearby neighbor Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus). Carol Anne saves "Tweety" from being unceremoniously flushed down the toilet. She carefully prepares a cigar box for its burial, adding items:
(a piece of red licorice) For when he's hungry.
(a polaroid picture of Carol Anne, Robbie, and the family dog) For when he's lonely.
(a yellow napkin) And for when it's nighttime.
At bedtime, a storm with thunder and lightning (signalled earlier by rolling cloud formations) strangely illuminates the gnarly, lifeless tree outside Carol Anne's and Robbie's window. Diane cautions her daughter about over-feeding the goldfish - an opportunity to mention co-producer Spielberg's earlier film, Jaws (1975): "They grow up to be sharks!" Scared of the dark, Carol Anne wants the closet light left on. That same evening, Steve is watching a film in their bedroom: A Guy Named Joe (1943). [It's an MGM fantasy film about an expired World War II pilot who comes back to Earth from heaven to help a young aviator. Years later, Spielberg directed the film's remake - Always (1989).] He's also rolling joints for Diane and reading Reagan:The Man The President. In the film, Spencer Tracy has just arrived in heaven and asked quizzically: "You mean this is for good?" Diane is smoking pot, getting high, reading a book on Jungian psychology and metaphysics, and pondering the dangers of sleep-walking:
Nocturnal somnambulism. You know what? You know what? I will bet you anything it's genetic. I mean, Carol Anne last night, and all last week, you know, and me when I was ten...You know, I once slept-walked four blocks. And I fell asleep in the back of this guy's car. He drove all the way to work before discovering me. Oh God, I woke up. I started screaming. People came running from everywhere. They called the cops. The cops came. They took this poor dude downtown. My father...Big Ed has me examined for like bruises and hickies. Oh you name it. Oh God, I was so embarrassed. Oh s--t, Steven, what if we, like, dig the pool, you know, and Carol Anne sleepwalks and she falls into it before there's any water?
A seemingly harmless, half-sized clown doll with a red bulbous nose and a malevolent grin sits in a chair in the middle of the children's room - it centralizes all Robbie's fears during the stormy night. He covers the doll with his jacket so its ominous stare won't scare him - the back of his jacket, with the Star Wars character Chewbacca, replaces the clown's grin. Fearful of the storm that's "getting closer," Robbie retreats to his parents' bedroom for reassurance. His father returns to his bedroom with him - the young boy is nervous that the tree may be alive:
Robbie: I don't like the tree, Dad.
Steve: It's an old tree. It's been around here a long time. I think it was here before my company built the neighborhood.
Robbie: I don't like its arms. (whispering) It knows I live here, doesn't it?
Steve: It knows everything about us, Rob. That's why I built the house next to it, so it could protect us...It's a very wise old tree.
Robbie: It looks at me. It knows I live here.
Both younger children eventually retreat to their parents' bed. Again, the television is left on - at 2:37 am, the National Anthem plays (accompanied by patriotic symbols of democracy in the nation's capital), followed by snowy static. [Note: Was the number 237 a reference to Room 237 in Kubrick's The Shining (1980)?] Carole Ann crawls across the bed toward the inviting screen and positions herself in its flickering glow. A eerie, mysterious, ghostly green strand of light emanates from the image - the TV screen becomes a gateway to the spirit world. The strip of light snatches out at her, snakes its way around the bed, and then blasts a beam of light at the opposite wall, burning a hole and creating violent shaking in the room. In a memorable line, Carol Anne turns back at everyone and announces a warning:
The next day, as a bulldozer prepares to dig a hole for their swimming pool, the machine unearths the cigar box grave of the canary bird - a foreshadowing of the future. Steve believes there was a damaging "6.5" earthquake during the night - Dana suggests: "Maybe the faultline runs just directly under our house." The children eat breakfast in a kitchen nook, while Diane half-watches Gene Shalit's 'Critic's Corner' on The Today Show. Carol Anne explains what she meant by "They're here" -
Diane: Well, who did you mean? Who's here?
Carol Anne: The TV people.
Suddenly, other odd paranormal events begin to occur in their house. Robbie's milk glass breaks in his hand. Robbie's fork and spoon are unusually bent and twisted. Carol Anne switches the TV channel to a station with static, and stares at the snow. Her mother thinks her habit is unhealthy: "Oh honey, you're gonna ruin your eyes. This is no good for you." She turns the channel back to another channel playing a violent combat film. When Diane returns to the kitchen, all the breakfast chairs have been mischievously pushed away from the table. Her daughter startles her and Diane reacts: "Don't do that honey! You wanna see Mommy lying in a cigar box covered with licorice?" She turns her back for just a few moments, walks to the cabinet under the sink, [the panning camera follows her with one long take], and then turns back toward the table - the chairs have repositioned themselves in a balanced configuration atop the table.
The next scene transition is crisp and neat - Steve is showing an prospective couple of buyers the same kitchen configuration in "Phase Four" of the housing development. He is the "best rep" of the real estate company that cleared the land. As part of his sales pitch, he explains how he himself lives in Phase One, built earlier: "We were the first family to set up housekeeping in the Cuesta Verde Estates...We had to pass through my neighborhood to get here."
By evening, more unusual events have occurred and Diane excitedly demonstrates for her shocked husband how the paranormal forces can first slide furniture, and then Carol Anne, across the kitchen floor. To her, the phenomenon is amusing and entertaining:
It's like, it's like, there's this tickling, you know, right in here. And it starts to pull you. The tickling pulls you. And all of a sudden, it's like there's no air except that you can breathe.
When they speak to their neighbors the Tuthills, the Freelings are the only ones being attacked by biting mosquitos. They feel foolish explaining what's happening in their home: "Somethin's funny goin' on here next door. Somethin', uh,...We were wondering if maybe you had experienced any disturbances lately?...Oh you know, like dishes or furniture moving around by themselves." They decide that they will call for help, but aren't quite sure where to turn: "I already looked in the Yellow Pages. Furniture movers we got. Strange phenomenon, there's no listing."
Another dramatic storm threatens the community that evening - the arm branches of the tree outside Robbie's window become animated, crash through the glass, and seize him from his bed. [This scene was inspired by Spielberg's own childhood memories.] As the Freelings are diverted from the bedroom to go outside to rescue their son from the grasp of the tree, a menacing tornado similar to the one in The Wizard of Oz (1939) approaches. Strange noises emanate from the blinding brightness of Carol Anne's closet - toys, stuffed dolls, furniture, and other objects are sucked into the white-light. As she holds onto her bedboard, her legs dangle vertically in mid-air. The grinning doll is pulled through the air into the void - Carol Anne can't resist the strong forces and she is sucked in too. The bedroom is stripped bare. Outside, the tree half-devours Robbie, but he is rescued by his father, just as the gnarly tree is whisked away in the swirling eye of the tornado.
When the family returns upstairs, Carol Anne has disappeared - she has been kidnapped into the spirit world which has found a gateway through the bedroom closet. The parents panic, fearing that she has been drowned in the muddy hole being dug for a swimming pool next to the house. Her metallic, echoing voice can be heard behind the grainy picture screen of the television in their bedroom: "I can hear you Mommy. Where are you?"
With a psychotic look on his face and with dark circles under his eyes, Steve consults with Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) who heads a team of parapsychologists at a local college: Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella):
Dr. Lesh: Would your family welcome a serious investigation of these disturbances by someone who can make first-hand observations?
Steve: Dr. Lesh, I don't care about the disturbance, the pounding and the flash, the screaming, music. I just want you to find our little girl.
In a first-hand observational tour of the Freeling house, the team of parapsychologists are told that Carol Anne's room is "locked up from the rest of the house...We don't go in the room anymore." Before they enter the locked room, the investigators describe other modest paranormal episodes they have observed and witnessed for themselves:
Ryan: Mr. Freeling, we'll record any psycho-tronic energy or event.
Dr. Lesh: Yes. Ryan photographed an extraordinary episode on a case in Redlands.
Ryan: That's right. It was a child's toy. A very small matchbox vehicle just rolled seven feet across a linoleum surface. The duration of the event was seven hours.
Steve: Seven hours for what?
Ryan: For the vehicle to complete the distance. Of course, this would never register on the naked eye. But I have it recorded on a time-lapse camera. It's fantastic.
When Steve opens the door to the children's bedroom, the space is swirling with psychotronic energy displayed with marvelous special effects - a lamp, lampshade, records, books, and toys are in mid-air circling around the beds. The base of a table lamp inserts itself into a lampshade and turns itself on. A book flutters its pages at them. A student's circle-drawing tool flies dangerously into Dr. Lesh's awe-struck face. A spinning record plays.
A trembling Dr. Lesh struggles to drink tea from a teacup after their tour. According to her, "the determination as to whether your home is haunted is not very easy." A heavy teapot slides across the table in front of her, mocking her statement. "What I meant to say was, it might very well be a poltergeist intrusion instead of a classic haunting." Ryan extends his hand to feel the energy: "It's electrical. You can smell the charge." The researchers describe other-worldly poltergeist - malevolent spirits that infest the house:
Dr. Lesh: Poltergeist are usually associated with an individual. Hauntings seem to be connected with an area, a house usually.
Marty: Poltergeist disturbances are of fairly short duration, perhaps a couple of months. Hauntings can go on for years.
Diane: Are you telling me that all of this could just suddenly end at any time?
Dr. Lesh: Yes, it could, unless it's a haunting. But hauntings don't usually revolve around living people.
Diane: Then we don't have much time, Dr. Lesh, because my daughter is alive somewhere inside this house.
The half-skeptical researchers want to record the spirits with video cameras and audio recorders, and find some scientific reason for the disturbances, but they have little luck. Diane and Steve attempt to speak to Carol Anne's voice through a particular channel on their television. Their daughter responds: "Mommy, where are you?...I can't find you, I can't! I'm afraid of the light, Mommy. I'm afraid of the light." With Dr. Lesh's urgings about the danger of the 'light,' Diane warns: "Stay away from the light. The light is dangerous. Don't go near it. Don't even look at the light." Objects are regurgitated from a spot on the living room ceiling with accompanying clouds of smoke and light - wristwatches and other items of jewelry covered with dusty slime fall to the floor.
Even more disturbing is Carol Anne's next horrible revelation: "Mommy, there's somebody here...Mommy, somebody's coming. Mommy, Help me, please!...Get away from me. Leave me alone." At the foot of the stairs, Diane feels ecstasy as her young daughter moves through her and leaves an imprint: "She just moved through me. My god, I felt her. I can smell her. It's her...She's all over me...She went through my soul." A loud pounding and growling noise followed by a blast of wind move powerfully through the room. Marty, who has gone upstairs to check if the voice emanates from a CB transmitter somewhere in the house, emerges from the upstairs with a bruise on his side: "Something took a bite out of me."
Later that night, the three researchers whisper to each other about the passageway that brought the supernatural, unfriendly spirit into the house:
There's been some ionization flux. I'd like to make sure they're not caused by humidity coming from structural leakage, but I'm not goin' up there to find out. We have got much more than the paranormal episode taking place here. There's measurable physical signs in this house that goes far beyond any of the creaking doors or cold spots I've ever experienced. The voices on television - where is it coming from? The absence of a signal on the channel that is not receiving a broadcast means that it is free to receive a lot of noise from all sorts of things - like short wave, solar disturbances, car ignition sparkings, outer space - or inner space. Yes, what if these people had an aerial by location in their own living room. If that is the way out (he points up at the living room ceiling), then maybe somewhere in this house, there's a way in.
To Diane, Dr. Lesh admits embarrassingly her primitive fear of the forces she doesn't understand but is attracted to in her profession:
Parapsychology isn't something you master in. There are no certificates of graduation. No licenses to practice. I am a professional psychologist who spent most of my time engaged in this ghostly hobby, which makes me I suppose the most irresponsible woman of my age that I know...I'm absolutely terrified. It's all the things that we don't understand. I feel like the proto-human coming out of the forest primeval and seeing the moon for the first time and throwing rocks at it.