Filmsite Movie Review
Poltergeist (1982)
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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 a suburban couple: Diane and Steve Freeling (Williams and Nelson), who lived in the brand-new Cuesta Verde housing development of suburban California. They became distressed when ordinary objects turned threatening (for example, a suburban tract dream home, a backyard tree, a favorite clown 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 of self-stacked chairs.

There were two less successful sequels in subsequent years, and a modern remake. 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, and a Remake
Film Title
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 (2015) d. Gil Kenan; a "revisionist" or "reimagined" re-make, starring Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as the parents (Eric and Amy Bowen) of three children: Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and Maddy (Kennedi Clements).

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 were 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 who died six years later in February 1988 from surgical complications related to intestinal blockage just before the second sequel's release)
Plot Synopsis

Prologue: The Introduction of Family Members, and a Foreshadowing Series of Dark Happenings

The film opened with the playing of the National Anthem during a TV station's sign-off. The highly-pixeled image was from a close-up, magnified shot of a television screen. The picture went 'dead' - it was in the middle of the night. The head of the household: athletic, affable Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) had fallen asleep in the downstairs living room in front of the tube. The family dog visited and introduced each of the members of the sleeping Freeling family in the upstairs bedrooms of their suburban home - thirty-two year old sturdy 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 descended down the serpentine staircase from the second floor, walking through the flickering, strobe-effect lighting that was cast over the room. She sat in front of the fuzzy, snowy image of the television and imaginatively conversed with strange entities - she believed that every inanimate object was 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 awakened her parents and siblings, who stood in silence and watched her communicate with the grainy picture tube. She placed her two palms on the glass.

The family lived in the peaceful Cuesta Verde Estates tract housing development - their house was indistinguishable from other subdivision homes. The bedroom of the two youngest children was decorated with other-worldly items - two Star Wars (1977) characters (R2D2 on the bedspread and an ominous 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 signaled the greater threats to come. The family's canary bird "Tweety" unexpectedly expired - strangely, the only death in the film. The middle of a football game was suddenly switched to the 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood' children's show - Steve was having an on-going battle of 'remote controls' with his nearby neighbor Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus). Carol Anne saved "Tweety" from being unceremoniously flushed down the toilet, and carefully prepared 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 illuminated the gnarly, lifeless, twisted tree outside Carol Anne's and Robbie's window. Diane cautioned 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 wanted the closet light left on. That same evening, Steve was watching a film in their bedroom: A Guy Named Joe (1943).

[Note: The return-from-the-dead MGM fantasy film was about an expired World War II pilot who came back to Earth from heaven to help a young aviator. Years later, Spielberg directed the film's remake - Always (1989).]

He was also rolling joints for Diane and reading Reagan:The Man The President. In the film, Spencer Tracy had just arrived in heaven and asked quizzically: "You mean this is for good?" Diane was 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?

More Eerie Paranormal Events and Supernatural Physical Disturbances - by Prank-Playing Poltergeists or Ghosts?:

A seemingly harmless, half-sized clown doll with a red bulbous nose and a malevolent grin sat in a chair in the middle of the children's room - it centralized all Robbie's fears during the stormy night. He covered the doll with his jacket so its ominous stare wouldn't scare him - the back of his jacket, with the Star Wars character Chewbacca, replaced the clown's grin. Fearful of the storm that was "getting closer," Robbie retreated to his parents' bedroom for reassurance. His father returned to his bedroom with him - the young boy was nervous that the tree might 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 retreated to their parents' bed. Again, the television was 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 crawled across the bed toward the inviting screen and positioned herself in its flickering glow. A eerie, mysterious, ghostly green strand of light emanated from the image - the TV screen became a gateway to the spirit world. The strip of light snatched out at her, snaked its way around the bed, and then blasted a beam of light at the opposite wall, burning a hole and creating violent shaking in the room. In a memorable line, Carol Anne turned back at everyone and announced a warning:

They're here.

The next day, as a bulldozer prepared to dig a hole for their swimming pool, the machine unearthed the cigar box grave of the canary bird - a foreshadowing of the future. Steve believed there was a damaging "6.5" earthquake during the night - Dana suggests: "Maybe the faultline runs just directly under our house." The children ate breakfast in a kitchen nook, while Diane half-watched Gene Shalit's 'Critic's Corner' on The Today Show. Carol Anne explained 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 began to occur in their house. Robbie's milk glass broke in his hand. Robbie's fork and spoon were unusually bent and twisted. Carol Anne switched the TV channel to a station with static, and stared at the snow. Her mother thought her habit was unhealthy: "Oh honey, you're gonna ruin your eyes. This is no good for you." She turned the channel back to another channel playing a violent combat film. When Diane returned to the kitchen, all the breakfast chairs had been mischievously pushed away from the table. Her daughter startled her and Diane reacted: "Don't do that honey! You wanna see Mommy lying in a cigar box covered with licorice?" She turned her back for just a few moments, walked to the cabinet under the sink, [the panning camera followed her with one long take], and then turned back toward the table - the chairs had repositioned themselves in a balanced configuration atop the table.

The next scene transition was crisp and neat - Steve was showing a prospective couple of buyers the same kitchen configuration in "Phase Four" of the housing development. He was the "best rep" of the real estate company that had cleared the land. As part of his sales pitch, he explained how he himself lived 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 had occurred and Diane excitedly demonstrated for her shocked husband how the paranormal forces could first slide furniture, and then Carol Anne, across the kitchen floor. To her, the phenomenon was 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 spoke to their neighbors the Tuthills, the Freelings were the only ones being attacked by biting mosquitos. They felt foolish explaining what was 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 decided that they would call for help, but weren't quite sure where to turn: "I already looked in the Yellow Pages. Furniture movers we got. Strange phenomenon, there's no listing."

More Malevolent and Abnormal Happenings - Robbie Was Violently Seized by Tree and Carol Anne Was Kidnapped Into Closet:

Another dramatic storm threatened the community that evening - the arm branches of the tree outside Robbie's window became animated, crashed through the glass, and seized him from his bed. [Note: This scene was inspired by Spielberg's own childhood memories.] As the Freelings were 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) approached. Strange noises emanated from the blinding brightness of Carol Anne's closet - toys, stuffed dolls, furniture, and other objects were sucked into the white-light. As she held onto her bedboard, her legs dangled vertically in mid-air. The grinning doll was pulled through the air into the void - Carol Anne couldn't resist the strong forces and she was sucked in too. The bedroom was stripped bare. Outside, the tree half-devoured Robbie, but he was rescued by his father, just as the gnarly tree was whisked away in the swirling eye of the tornado.

When the family returned upstairs, Carol Anne had disappeared - she had been kidnapped into the spirit world which had found a gateway through the bedroom closet. The parents panicked, fearing that she had been drowned in the muddy hole being dug for a swimming pool next to the house. Her metallic, echoing voice could be heard from behind the walls and from the ceiling, and also from 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 consulted with Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) who headed 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 college parapsychologists were told that Carol Anne's room had been "locked up from the rest of the house...We don't go in the room anymore." Before they entered the locked room, the investigators described other modest paranormal episodes they had 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 opened the door to the children's bedroom, their discussion abruptly halted. The bedroom's inside space was swirling with psychotronic energy displayed with marvelous special effects - a lamp, lampshade, records, books, and toys were in mid-air circling around the beds. The base of a table lamp inserted itself into a lampshade and the bulb turned itself on. A book fluttered its pages at them. A student's circle-drawing tool flew dangerously into Dr. Lesh's awe-struck face. A spinning record played.

A trembling Dr. Lesh struggled 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 slid 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 extended his hand to feel the energy: "It's electrical. You can smell the charge." The researchers described other-worldly poltergeist - malevolent, supernatural spirits that infested the house and were responsible for physical disturbances:

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 wished to record the spirits with automatic video cameras and audio recorders, to find some scientific reason for the disturbances, but they had little luck and heard mostly garbled noises. Diane and Steve attempted to speak to Carol Anne's voice through a particular channel on their television. Their daughter responded and described the presence of some kind of light: "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 warned: "Stay away from the light. The light is dangerous. Don't go near it. Don't even look at the light." Objects were 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 fell to the floor.

Even more disturbing was 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 felt ecstasy as her young daughter moved through her and left 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 moved powerfully through the room. Marty, who had gone upstairs to check if the voice emanated from a CB transmitter somewhere in the house, emerged from the upstairs with a bruise on his side: "Something took a bite out of me."

Later that night, the three researchers whispered 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 pointed up at the living room ceiling), then maybe somewhere in this house, there's a way in.

To Diane, Dr. Lesh admitted embarrassingly her primitive fear of the forces she didn't understand but was 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.

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