My reviews often contain spoilers. So consider yourself warned.
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I’ve never been a big Tobe Hooper fan. Which is rather shocking, actually, because I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is probably the purest, most perfect example of horror ever put to film. But his work following that brilliant debut have always left me cold and disinterested – it seems almost as if the director was declawed. Poltergeist is an especially odd duck. At times it plays like a feel good family friendly horror film – it definitely feels like a Steven Spielberg film. Not that shocking, considering S.S. contributed to the screenplay and worked on the editing – and many have also argued that he actually directed the movie, the “A Tobe Hooper Film” title card of the opening credits notwithstanding.
I find I do like the family this centers on – the Freelings – pot smoking mother and father Diane and Steve (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson, respectively) clownphobic young son, Robbie (Oliver Robbins) blond moppet Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) and teenage daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne). For the most part they’re a wholesome Nuclear unit and there are strong performances all around that have a lived in, authentic feel. Even Carol Anne is allowed to be creepy and cute at the same time.
The Freelings reside in a model home tract in Suburban California and Steve works as a real estate agent for for the subdivision. Strange incidents begin to manifest themselves in their household – subtly at first and then with a much stronger force. The development of the ghostly activity is done well, especially in the beginning – later on the film makes some jarring leaps – as soon as Diane has discovered the oddity in the kitchen all hell breaks loose, with a tree trying to eat their son and a tornado touching down. It goes from thirteen to three-sixty in a very short amount of time and as disorienting as this is at first, I also think it was a wise decision. The transition is abrupt but serves the audience and the film well – we don’t have to wade through drawn out cliches and a slow build up until we reach the inevitable big bang finale. This makes the movie seem not only that it is doing something new with a familiar formula but also makes us feel that our intelligence isn’t being insulted and our patience isn’t being tested.
JoBeth Williams is remarkable. Zelda Rubinstein, too, is marvelous – she brings her A-game and knocks it out of the park. I also enjoyed Beatrice Straight as one of the parapsychology investigators who comes to the home after Carol Anne has vanished. That plot point directly references the Richard Matheson short story The Shores of Space which was later turned into the Twilight Zone episode, Little Girl Lost. There are a lot of beneficial small touches and humor woven throughout that helps it all to seem less lightweight than it really is. B