The impact and influence of Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost story co-written and co-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, reaches far beyond that of most early-‘80s genre movies. Between the catchphrases (“They’re here!” and “They’re back!”), the “Poltergeist Curse” (actresses Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne both died tragically after their involvement with the movie), and the controversy over who “really” directed it, Poltergeist has lived on in ways its makers probably never dreamed of.
The story is well known: the Freelings are a typical suburban family thrust into very atypical circumstances when ghosts begin communicating with their young daughter Carol Anne. When Carol Anne disappears during a horrific storm, only to be heard speaking through the static of the family’s television set, the Freelings are forced to confront their own beliefs and greatest fears in order to save her. What follows is a visit by a team of parapsychologists, a diminutive clairvoyant, and some extremely unhappy spirits.
Watching the recent Blu-ray release, it struck me that the reason this movie has always resonated with me is that it has more heart than most horror movies. The Freelings feel like a real family, and their home feels like a real home. It makes the invasion and threat all the more impactful. These people aren’t just fodder set up for some wisecracking villain to cut down in creatively gory fashion; they are everyday people thrust into otherworldy circumstances, and we the viewers just want everything to turn out alright.
It’s that feeling that I believe fuels the “who really directed it?” controversy to this day. Poltergiest has Spielberg’s stamp all over it. This could easily be the suburban home that E.T. took refuge in, and it could not be further from the ramshackle slaughterhouse of Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre. If Spielberg didn’t outright direct it then he had a very heavy hand in the production. Personally, I think it’s telling that none of Hooper’s work after Poltergeist has come close to being this good.
I was a little worried that Blu-ray perfection was going to make the effects show their age, but for the most part things hold up well. The regurgitating steak, the disintegrating man, the demon at the door – yes, the seams are showing, but they still look better than some effects produced in 2008. There is one spot where an effect is cringeworthy, and that’s the “tornado” that swirls above the Freeling house during the storm. It didn’t look good in ’82, and it looks worse now – like a child with a black crayon scribbled directly on the film. Otherwise, the effects are, well, effective – a checkmark in my book to the power of practical effects over computer generated.
There are lots of great scenes tucked away here and there, and that damn clown still scares the bejeesus out of me. If all you know about Poltergeist comes from a Direct TV ad, grab up the new Blu-ray and give it a look.