There’s somehow still some debate over whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost fable. The influence of Spielberg is clear. He produced the film and wrote the screenplay with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, plus the movie features many of his trademark touches. But Hooper has the credit, even if some claim he’s not the “creative force.”
Poltergeist moves Hooper far from the swamps of Eaten Alive and the economic wasteland of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It plunks him in suburbia and sets him loose in what is effectively Spielberg’s world. This picture is sleek and punched with whimsy. It doesn’t pack a subtle bone in its body. It’s often garish and overzealous, but there are some moments of warped precision.
The action opens on the Freeling family. They live in Orange County. The patriarch Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a real estate developer and the matriarch Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife who occasionally rocks the ganja. They have three kids: Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke).
One night, Carol Anne is drawn to the television by what she describes as “TV people.” She starts communicating with them and eventually a giant earthquake-like event strikes. Bizarre events follow and things are cute at first, with objects moving and whatnot. But it stops being funny when Carol Anne is sucked through a portal and winds up in the world of the so-called TV people.
Poltergeist details the process by which the Freelings try to get their daughter back from the supernatural unknown. They seek the assistance of parapsychologists (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella) and learn that there’s some sort of burial ground below. They also hire a medium (Zelda Rubinstein) to come cleanse the haunted house.
Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti does well to evoke a sense of tension in the opening minutes. He lingers in close-up on the television and then observes the family in a sort of hovering state, like the spirits are biding their time before they strike. Later, Leonetti becomes more chaotic as the action spirals out of control.
There are a lot of explanations in Poltergeist, with characters talking about the demons and waxing philosophical about another plane of existence. Rubinstein’s character is in charge of setting the Freelings straight on matters of the paranormal and a hilariously practical plan is devised to rope Carol Anne out of the portal.
In Spielberg’s screenplay, there’s no such thing as refinement when the cat’s out of the bag. Things start to come unglued right around the time the tree attacks poor Robbie. While Leonetti uses some scary angles and the story plays on childhood fears of eerie objects lurking inside the dark rubble of stormy nights, it’s hard to take the scene all that seriously.
Of course, Poltergeist draws a fairly stable dividing line. While Hooper’s previous pictures contained plenty of disconcerting sound and fury, this energetic ghost story is more blatant. There’s less atmosphere, less context, less character. But there’s more of everything else, which finds Spielberg in full fairy tale mode as he charges up a redemption narrative through globs of ectoplasm.
Without a doubt, Poltergeist uses its resources well and turns out an amusing product. Even when it loses control and starts swamping the screen with white stuff and killer clowns, there’s a level of fun to be had. Spielberg and Hooper nod to the stuff that goes bump in the night, the stuff that bashes through the windows when kids still need nightlights and mom and dad are fooling around.
Poltergeist is a kitchen sink horror film and that’s not a bad thing. Spielberg’s script weaves impressive magic over the suburban family, skirting rhyme and reason for unconcealed haunts. And Hooper mines it for the goopy stuff, finding his most intense moments in the hollows and in the one or two face-shredding scenes that really make the audience cringe.