Monday, September 11, 2017

Poltergeist (1982)

If you ever need to spark a conversation among horror fans, ask them who directed POLTERGEIST. My guess: Tobe Hooper was on the set every day calling “action” and “cut” and providing some creative input, but directing under hands-on supervision by producer/screenwriter Steven Spielberg, who used his clout as the boss to overrule Hooper when he didn’t agree. Hooper, who had recently been fired from THE DARK and VENOM, directed POLTERGEIST like Christian I. Nyby directed THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Despite whatever backstage confusions duelling directors may have caused, the result is one helluva good spook show.

What happens when a typical middle-class family of five builds a house over an ancient burial ground? T-bones crawl across the kitchen counter. The old dead tree in the side yard snatches the pre-teen son. Chairs slide around the floor on their own. And five-year-old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) is sucked through the television tube into the spirit world. Mom (JoBeth Williams), Dad (Craig T. Nelson), teen daughter (Dominique Dunne), and son (Oliver Robins) call in some non-comic ghostbusters (led by Beatrice Straight) to bust the poltergeists haunting the suburban home and rescue Carol Ann.

Occasionally gruesome for a PG film (Spielberg talked the MPAA down from an R), POLTERGEIST is the perfect family horror movie. Nobody dies or is seriously injured, and the actors do an outstanding job making the fantastic seem real. The characters act rationally and intelligently in the face of irrationality. The screenplay by Spielberg and collaborators Michael Grais and Mark Victor (MARKED FOR DEATH) is efficient, wasting no screen time on extraneous backstory and allowing the audience to fill in any necessary gaps. That it draws a great deal from Richard Matheson is obvious but unacknowledged.

POLTERGEIST opened the same weekend as STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, but in third place, two slots behind TREK. It earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith), as well as two sequels, a television series, and a 2015 remake that nobody remembers.

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