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Kill Your Television: 'Poltergeist' Turns 40

By Jen Maravegias | Film | June 16, 2022 |

By Jen Maravegias | Film | June 16, 2022 |

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I was only seven years old when Poltergeist was released in 1982. I did not see it in the theaters nor was it the first scary movie I ever saw. I think that honor goes to The Exorcist, which my dad brought home from the (pre-Blockbuster) video rental store one day when I was sick at home. But Poltergeist is the movie that scared me the most and left the longest-lasting impression on my psyche.

Poltergeist is the story of the Freelings, a family of five living in fictional Cuesta Verde, California. It’s a new development and dad, Steven (Craig T Nelson), is a salesman on the project. It’s idyllic: New houses, wide streets, big trees; the Freelings are putting in a pool. Life is good! But what is a poltergeist other than a metaphor for all of the imperfections and secrets that lurk beneath the surface of scenic, suburban life?

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The movie opens on the family sleeping through the network television sign-off and switches over to static at the end of the broadcast day. (Show of hands: who’s old enough to remember this in real life? I tried to explain it to my kid the other day and he thought I was crazy.) Five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) creeps downstairs, where her father is sacked out in the recliner, and starts talking to an unknown and unseen entity communicating with her through the television. Her seeming one-sided conversation wakes up the rest of the family, but everyone assumes she’s sleepwalking and thinks very little of it.  The events of Poltergeist happen in rapid succession from here. Everything snowballs out of control in the first forty minutes of the movie — the pet bird dies, the kitchen chairs move on their own, and then that night the storm comes. The monstrous tree outside the house tries to eat Robbie (Oliver Robins,) and Carol Anne disappears into the space between worlds through the portal in her bedroom closet leaving behind that damn clown doll.

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Steve and Diane reach out to a trio of paranormal investigators, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), who show remarkably little hesitation in helping them and are quickly overwhelmed by all of the activity in the house. After one particularly terrifying night in which one of the investigators is attacked and the spirits manifest themselves quite clearly, Dr. Lesh wisely decides to call in more help. Enter Zelda Rubinstein’s iconic Tangina Barrons, a psychic and medium who explains the nature of the afterlife and how these spirits don’t understand that they’re dead. They’re drawn to Carol Anne’s very strong life force, and she’s being used, BY THE DEVIL, as a distraction to keep them from entering the true light of heaven.

To be honest, I did not remember the explanation being as woo-woo as it was. Tangina lost me more than once during this monologue. It seems overly complicated, but when you view it in the context provided by the two sequels, it’s one of the less confusing bits of mythos created for this world.

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Tangina, Dr. Lesh, her assistant Ryan, and the adult Freelings come up with a plan use Robbie’s plan from earlier in the movie to send someone into the portal with a rope tied around their waist to guide Carol Anne back to their world. The plan is a success! Tangina declares, “This house is clean.” The family lives happily ever after. Just kidding! Poltergeist has one more trick up its sleeve and one more ghost attack the family must survive before they depart Cuesta Verde. The movie ends with a spectacular, practical effect of the whole house collapsing in on itself, like a dying star, as the Freelings drive away.

This movie also has the most perfect button of all time. Steve and Diane check the family into a Holiday Inn for the night and just before the credits roll, Steve wheels the room’s TV onto the balcony with a dirty look and closes the door on it. The End.

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In 1982, White Flight out of the urban decay taking over America’s cities was still going strong and the type of development the Freelings lived in was popping up all over the place. That explains some of the underlying urgency of the Cuesta Verde development corporation’s (no good, very bad) decision to build on top of cemeteries.  Meanwhile, the divorce rate was beginning a steady incline that didn’t level out until the mid-’90s. Everywhere you turned in the early ’80s, it felt like someone was divorcing, some family was coming apart, someone was moving. Steven Spielberg’s script taps into both of these phenomena along with about a dozen childhood fears — some of which you didn’t even have until after you watched this movie. (Super creepy clown doll, I’m looking at you!)

Poltergeist is a spiritual partner of the first two Indiana Jones movies. If Indy walked through the front door of their house fell from the supernatural hole in the universe they have hanging in their living room (which defeats ghosts and exposes their secret treasures), I would not have been surprised. While the horror aspects of the movie don’t hold up, owing mostly to advances in effects technology, Poltergeist is still a heck of an adventure movie in the same vein as Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Re-watching it now, the scary moments are those that are centered around the idea of losing your child during a catastrophic event. Robbie screaming for his mommy as the tree swallows him, Carol Anne crying out for help as she’s pulled into the swirling chaos that is drawing her into the other world. This idea of your child disappearing into thin air feels more realistic these days when every morning as we kiss them goodbye we worry about school shooters and other random acts of gun violence.

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This, of course, isn’t at all surprising. Although Tobe Hooper is credited as the director of Poltergiest, it has Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it. There has been controversy and questions about who really directed the film since it was released. Spielberg was legally bound to direct E.T. The Extraterrestrial at the time. According to rumors, he was a close collaborator with Hooper on Poltergeist, as well. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck … well, it’s probably a Steven Spielberg movie. Which is fine! Add to that Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing and sentimental score, and these are the reasons why it’s still so re-watchable despite the outdated effects.

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Of course, you cannot watch Poltergeist without thinking about the terrible tragedies that befell two of its young cast members. Dominique Dunne played the eldest Freeling sibling, Dana. She was 23 when the movie was released in June of 1982 and was murdered by her boyfriend later that year. Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Ann in all three Poltergeist movies, died of septic shock when an abscess in her intestines ruptured during filming of the third movie. She was 13 at the time. The third film was only released under duress from the studio. The director, Gary Sherman, didn’t want to finish it or release it without Heather. But, according to the episode of Shudder’s Cursed Films about The Poltergeist Curse, he was forced to complete it with a stand-in for the little girl. The surviving cast members refused to show up to promote the movie. Sherman, in that same episode, says he hates the movie and hates that he had to release it. Will Sampson, who played Taylor in the second movie (and was also in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, also died young at the age of 53 from malnutrition, kidney failure, and a post-operative infection after a heart-lung transplant. Julian Beck, who played Cane the super scary preacher in the second movie, died of stomach cancer. A different actor was cast as Cane in Poltergeist III and they wore a mask of Beck’s face for their scenes in the movie. That’s a lot of deaths. Everyone attached to the franchise is quick to shoot down the idea of any sort of curse. Zelda Rubenstein famously went on television and called the idea of a “jinx” crap.

I can’t imagine kids finding the original Poltergeist as scary as we did back in the day. Its PG rating holds strong. I guess it’s the first (only?) family-friendly horror movie? The practical effects look ridiculous in this age of digital editing. But it’s worth a re-watch to revel in those same effects. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. There are good reasons Poltergeist was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards and made it onto the New York Times’ list of 1000 best movies ever made. Sure, I used to hide my eyes from the scene where the paranormal researcher, Marty, hallucinates peeling his face off in the bathroom mirror. Now it’s more of a giggle and nod to Craig Reardon’s special effects makeup work. It didn’t keep me up with nightmares all night like it used to, so I’m safe to put it into rotation with all of the other Speilberg films I love to watch over and over again.

Poltergeist is currently streaming on AMC+

Header Image Source: AMC+