A classic tale of suburban horror, Poltergeist is just one of those films that most people of my generation saw 101 times during the 1980s, and deservedly so. It’s a polished thrill-ride of a movie, an entertaining horror film that mixes humour in with the scares and blends jumps with atmosphere (and some great special effects) for a fantastic package. To many true horror fans it may be viewed as “horror-lite” but it’s pretty bloody good horror-lite.
The Freeling family are a normal, everyday American family. Mum and dad look after two daughters and a son and breakfast revolves around the usual minor squabbles and family disputes. Things change when they find that their house has some strange power within it, something that starts off by harmlessly moving furniture (and people, when placed in the right spot). The harmless soon becomes a nightmare, however, when young Carol Anne disappears and her voice is heard coming from the TV. Energy and strange activity builds in the house and the Freeling family have no choice but to call in some specialist investigators to help them with their unique problem.
Based on an idea by Steven Spielberg (who also produced the movie), Poltergeist is directed by Tobe Hooper but you’d hardly be able to tell that. Hooper hasn’t exactly held himself up as a master of cinema, with the exception of his phenomenal horror movie that revolved around a certain chainsaw-wielding maniac, and all of the main choices here just look like they were made by Spielberg. The shots of suburban Americana, the wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith, the smooth and quick push-in shot up to a character’s face, etc, etc.
But just who did what behind the scenes is irrelevant anyway, when it comes to the viewing experience. What matters is just how enjoyable the thing is. The cast are all fantastic. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson remain likeable and believable throughout experiences that grow increasingly far-fetched. Heather O’Rourke is angelic and wholly innocent as Carol Anne. Oliver Robins is great as Robbie, the middle child, and Dominique Dunn is just fine as the eldest, the one who fully realises how crazy everything is and just wants to get the hell out of the house ASAP. Everyone else onscreen is just fine but James Karen deserves a special mention as an unscrupulous businessman and Zelda Rubinstein will always be remembered for her turn as Tangina.