← Back to Reviews


While it's not exactly my genre of choice, inspired by Halloween I've been watching some horror flicks over the last few days. This is my favourite so far


Year of release

Directed by
Tobe Hooper

Written by
Steven Spielberg
Michael Grais
Mark Victor

Craig T. Nelson
JoBeth Williams
Heather O'Rourke
Oliver Robins
Beatrice Straight
Zelda Rubinstein



Plot - The Freelings are a nice family. They live in a nice house in a nice neighbourhood. They have an exceptionally nice life. That is until Carol Anne (O'Rourke), the youngest member of the family, apparently begins to communicate with some kind of supernatural force within the house. Before long the whole family begin to experience mysterious goings-on that at first seem harmless enough, but before long start to become much darker and more terrifying. The hauntings reach their pinnacle when young Carol Anne is abducted by the spirits and disappears into some other kind of dimension. The whole family unite and stay strong, attempting to get her back with the help of a trio of paranormal investigators and even a spiritual medium.

Even before I had seen this film I was aware of the numerous rumours that it was Steven Spielberg who had 'really' directed this film. And having now seen Poltergeist it's easy to see why such stories would pop up; you can very much see the hand of Spielberg at work. In fact there are some camera moves and compositions that just scream of being a Spielberg shot. In the summer of 1982 Spielberg had two big projects on the go; Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. And with its sparking special effects, suburban setting, focus on family and a young child acting as the conduit to a fantastical, otherworldly being Poltergeist certainly shares much of the same DNA as Spielberg's extraterrestrial masterpiece. With it's child-like sense of wonder and showing us horror through the eyes of children this certainly feels more Amblin than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Well whoever it was that directed it deserves great credit as it's superbly well done. The pacing is expertly judged, delivering a gradual build of the terror that begins with light touches such as the dog looking to play fetch with the spirits and the family revelling in the novelty factor it provides; turning it into a game in the kitchen. And they do a nice job of juggling between the differing tones of humour and family issues, and the creepiness factor. On that front Jerry Goldsmith also deserves a lot of credit for his work on the score. It's almost like he wrote two scores for completely separate films and then smashed them together. So we get the light, spirited score for the lighter, more childish moments mashed up with the spookier side of things that sends a shiver up the spine.

Film Trivia Snippets - Over the years the belief in a Poltergeist curse has been propagated by many people. In the six years between the release of the first and third films in the Poltergeist franchise four of the cast members died. Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling) died in 1982 at the age of just 22 when she was strangled by her boyfriend. Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling) died in in 1988 at just 12 years of age from septic shock. While Julian Beck and Will Sampson (both from Poltergeist II) died from stomach cancer and kidney failure respectively. As for a cause many people point to the fact that during the sequence where JoBeth Williams is trapped in the pool with numerous skeletons, it was actually real human skeletons that were used. This was because it was cheaper to purchase real skeletons than plastic ones. For a film that deals with the remains of dead bodies being desecrated and their spirits being angered it perhaps wasn't the most tasteful or smartest of moves. /// As far as horror films go Poltergeist is surprisingly blood free. Indeed there is only one single death in the whole film, and that's Carol Anne's pet bird! /// Zelda Rubinsten, who plays eccentric medium Tangina in the film, apparently had genuine psychic ability. She claims to have had visions of things before they happened. /// Both of the objects that terrorise young Robbie actually came from Steven Spielberg's own fears when he was a child; a fear of clowns and of a tree outside his window. /// Stephen King was briefly approached to write the screenplay. It would have been the first written by King directly for the screen, but the parties could not agree on the terms.
The opening stretch I felt was very impressive at grounding the story and setting the stage for what's to come. This isn't about a group of sexy teenagers lost out in the woods. It's not about a group of dumb kids exploring a notoriously haunted house on a dare. Poltergeist is about the most normal of families in the most normal of places. In fact it's almost tedious in its normalcy. If the 80s taught us one thing it's that suburbia was a scary place (Gremlins, The 'Burbs, Nightmare on Elm Street) and so it proves once again with Poltergeist. So we open with images of immaculately clean streets, white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns accompanied by a whimsical and playful score as we see kids playing and riding their bikes. This is suburbia and Americana at its most Capra-esque. We even get the American anthem playing a couple of times when the TV station they are viewing signs off for the day. This is a place where the only problems are usually of the smallest and most trivial nature (minor squabbles with neighbours), and the only fears are inspired by everyday objects such as the tree outside your window and the clown puppet that resides in your bedroom. Although to be fair to the young boy the clown is the creepiest thing in the whole film. And that's before the f*cker even comes to life!

By taking considerable time (a good 25-30 minutes) to familiarise us with this family and their lives it allows us to get to know them and makes us care for these characters and their well-being. So when the spiritual goings-on begin to haunt the family and place them in danger it has much more of an emotional impact. This is also why having the young daughter be kidnapped by these vengeful spirits is such a great move on the film's part. I'm never going to head out into the woods with a video camera in search of a witch and I'm never going to do battle with zombies (at least unless my life takes a dramatic twist! ), but fretting about the safety of someone you love, in this case a young child, is something that we can all imagine. It grounds the film in some semblance of reality; we can easily place ourselves in their situation and sympathise with their plight. The writing of the dialogue that the family members share is really well written.

Poltergeist benefits from a very strong series of performances, in fact as horror films go they're rather excellent. As the parents, both Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are great. Initially they display a very breezy, natural quality in the opening stretch which establishes who they are, and then once things start to take a dark turn they do an excellent job at portraying the effects it has on them. Nelson expertly depicts the physical detriment that the whole event has on him; he looks absolutely exhausted and drained of all energy and displays some truly haunted eyes. And when the occasion calls for it he also shows off fine comic timing. As his better half Williams is also very strong, making for a very endearing presence. And that endearing quality is heightened by the script which gifts her with a bit of an atypical character for a horror film. She is not your standard scream queen, in fact to begin with she is not even scared by the fantastical occurrences that begin to effect them, instead being rather entertained and downright giddy about them. And then even when she is asked to fulfil the duties of the scream queen she does so with aplomb. When they lose little Carol Anne however she shows the harrowing impact it has on her, while at the same time displaying the character's great power. All of the young actors playing their children are also very good, especially when they are interacting with each other in a very natural manner. The same can also be said for the trio of paranormal investigators, particularly Beatrice Straight who is very warm and compassionate. And then there is the unique presence that is Zelda Rubinstein as psychic medium Tangina. What a bizarre, eccentric individual; so full of character.

Film Trivia Snippets - There is a very strong connection between this film and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial beyond Spielberg's involvement. Initially Spielberg had actually offered Tobe Hooper the script of E.T. but he declined. When he did Spielberg decided to direct E.T. himself and gave him the script for Poltergeist instead. Both films went into production at the same time and hit US cinema screens just a week apart in June of 1982. And with Spielberg involved in the making of both films they were actually filmed on the same street. Drew Barrymore was actually considered for the role of Carol Anne, but Spielberg wanted someone more angelic and went with O'Rourke. Barrymore's audition did however lead to her being cast in E.T.. The two films also butted heads at the 1983 Academy Awards. Both Poltergeist and E.T. were nominated in the best special effects, best sound effects and best score categories, with E.T. triumphing on all three occasions.
I have to say that the special effects of Poltergeist are really quite fantastic. Even today, over 30 years since it first hit the big screen they still hold up as being both impressive and immersive. Through a mixture of excellent make-up and lighting, and some ingenious practical effects the film is able to create moments that are both highly entertaining and on occasion downright creepy! Having to work so hard on the effects just seems to breed a creativity and imagination that is often lacking these days in the big CGI-fests that hit the big screen. So we get wonderful scenes such as the tree coming to life and snatching Robbie from his room and the fantastic make-up effects that create the disturbing image of one of the paranormal investigators clawing off his face. With them largely being practical effects it helps to further ground the film and make it believable. There is apparently a remake of Poltergeist heading our way next year, and I'm sure it will be chock-full of impressive, state-of-the-art CGI that will create all sorts of incredible images. And yet I doubt they will be anywhere near as effective as the practical, 'ancient' effects that populate this film.

Towards the end of the film I felt the filmmakers had rather screwed up a little and dragged the film on too long and beyond logic. After they are able to rescue Carol Anne back from the realm in which she was being held, the fact that they stayed in the house seemed to be just beyond stupid to me. After everything that has happened to them surely they would just get out of that house as quickly as they could. So having them hang around, taking baths and then attempting to sleep there as if nothing had happened seemed ridiculous to me. So the logic of it seemed very flawed to me but it was made to be worth it due to some great effects and exceptionally cool moments as we see JoBethe Williams thrashing about in water with skeletons, countless coffins popping out of the ground and springing open and the sheer obliteration of the house. While I originally had some qualms about it, it turned out be a great spectacle of a finale.

Conclusion - E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan. All great films of Steven Spielberg. And perhaps Poltergeist should be added to that list. But whether this is a Spielberg film or a Tobe Hooper film doesn't change the fact that it certainly is a great film in its own right. Impressively written and directed it is a whole lot of fun with some fine performances and thrilling special effects. A wonderfully ghoulish adventure.