STUDIO: Warner Home Video
MSRP: $19.98
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
The Real World of Poltergeists (Parts 1 & 2)

The Pitch

What life was like before Ghostbusters.

The Humans

Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, Zelda Rubinstein.

Hooper: "Heh, no really. Honest. Steven didn’t…I…okay, I was the craft service guy…"

The Nutshell

Life in a new suburban development is pretty ordinary for the Freeling family until strange occurrences start happening in and around their house involving parnormal phenomena that seem to be centered around Stephen and Diane’s (Nelson, Williams) youngest daughter, Carol Anne (O’Rourke). Carol Anne is able to hear voices through their television late at night when it’s tuned a "snowy" channel. At first innocuous, such as moving chairs in the kitchen, the phenomena quickly build to where the house comes alive with scary occurrences like the spooky tree near the house grabbing their son, Robbie (Robins), and the closet glowing with light and sucking all of the furniture out of Robbie and Carol Anne’s bedroom – and Carol Anne as well. With Carole Anne’s disappearance, and the growingly frightful nature of the disturbances, the Freelings are desperate to find their daughter and discover the source of the phenomena. They turn to a professor of the paranormal (Straight) and she turns to a psychic (Rubinstein). Together, they all attempt a risky incursion into the paranormal world that’s permeating their house to get Carol Anne back before she’s lost to them forever, even though the house is determined not to give her up.

Caption A: "$^%&* cable…"
Caption B: "Hey, Samara!"

The Lowdown

Even 25 years later, Poltergeist is still a thrilling and highly engaging supernatural film that, aside from the wall-to-wall ’80s memorabilia such as Star Wars toys and Rubiks Cubes, shows little signs of age and not only stands up to the majority of today’s thrillers, but still shames them. This movie was part of an unbelievable one-two punch from Stephen Spielberg in June of 1982 with E.T. (producer of Poltergeist, director of E.T.) and although the latter film gets all the kudos, I’ll hold Poltergeist up to it any day of the week and twice on Labor Day for the unbeleivably rare sense of dread it instills and the overall atmosphere of the film. One thing’s for certain: with aliens and spooks running around, 1982 was definitely the time to be in the Valley.

Soviet agents were soon forgotten about when everyone saw the freaky shit Osterman really liked to do on his little weekend gatherings…

Nelson and Williams are eminently likeable as Steven and Diane Freeling, a married couple of three raising their children in a loving environment filled with toys, pets, afternoon football…and weed. When they come across the paranormal events that are slowly invading their house, they could be any one of us, at first amazed and even amused by the occurrences, then terrified when their child is engulfed and ultimately abducted by them. Oliver Robins is also good as their son Robbie, who has the same interests and fears as any American Boy X: climbing trees, comic books and enough Star Wars action figures to choke a 40-year-old virgin. Dominique Dunne, in her most famous role before her tragic murder the same year, really doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she can give the finger and scream her lungs out as good as anybody.

"Oh my god! What did this to you?!"
"It was some kind of giant…I don’t know…shark creature! But that’s not even the worst part!"
"No? What could be worse than a giant shark creature?"
"It looked fake…"

Of course the real revelation of this movie is the equally tragic Heather O’Rourke who stars as Carol Anne. I’m generally not a fan of watching very young children act because the inevitable schmaltz of how cute they can be portrayed is ultimately stomach turning. But O’Rourke is a vision as this child who is caught up in terrifying events that she can scarcely understand, yet is nonetheless a pivotal figure in their development. O’Rourke was the only star of the film series to appear in all three movies, and her untimely death at the age of 12 from an acute bowel obstruction in relation to Crohn’s disease is nothing short of heartbreaking.

"Hey, uh, should we be looking at this? You know what Indy said."
"Aw that’s just bullshit…"

Much has been made about Poltergeist as to just exactly who was the director of this movie: Tobe Hooper, who got the gig because Spielberg was impressed with his work on Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Beard himself. Depends on whom you ask I suppose, but check out the following quote from Lord Stephen himself (courtesy of Wikipedia):

"Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that become the process of collaboration."

"…uh…maybe not…"

Or this quote attributed in the same article from Zelda Rubinstein through an interview conducted with our pals over at Aint It Cool News just this month:

"I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments. You’re not going to hear that from Tobe Hooper, you’ll hear it from Zelda, because that was my honest to God experience. I’m not a fan of Tobe Hooper. … I feel he allowed… I don’t know how to say this… he allowed some unacceptable chemical agents into his work. I felt that immediately. I felt that when I first interviewed for the job. Steven was there, Tobe was there, two casting people from MGM were there and I felt at that time Tobe was only partially there."

"Oh you F&%KIN’ racist pieces o’ shit Poltergeists! You think this rope shit is funny don’t ya?!!"

It looks as though Spielberg tried to ameliorate the situation in an open letter to Hooper that was run by Variety in 1982:

"Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me… a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project."

This was the first – and very last – time Nelson tried to roust Shelley Fabares out of her dressing room for rehearsal before she was ready…

The same article attributes that Spielberg was the "de facto director" and for me that is at least the case. Poltergeist has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over the film, from the atmosphere, to the staging, the characterization, tone, everything. To me it’s about as "early Spielberg" as E.T. itself was. They’re so similar in so many ways as to be nigh unto fraternal twins. In fact I’d say they’re damn near the same movie, only with different intentions: E.T. is Spielberg pulling at your heart strings, Poltergeist is Spielberg scaring the shit out of you. Different sides of the same coin. The only huge advantage that E.T. had over Poltergeist is John Williams’ Oscar winning score, although Jerry Goldsmith’s work on this film is extraordinary in its own right. Hooper may have been behind the camera, but it’s safe to say who was behind the movie.

Yes Spielberg has a lot of connections, but getting a guest cameo by The Entity was still quite a coup…

Also much has been made about the "Poltergeist curse", with the aforementioned deaths of stars Dunne and O’Rourke, as well as other stars of the series including Julian Beck (Kane in Poltergeist II) from stomach cancer, Will Sampson (Taylor the medicine man in the same movie) from post-operative kidney failure, and director of Poltergeist II, Brian Gibson from bone cancer. Much of this is attributed to the legit fact that real human skeltons were used in the climax of the first film, a fact which has been confirmed by JoBeth Williams herself, who spent a hair raising scene skinny dipping in a muddy pool excavation with them. Who knows if there’s anything to this or not. Curses in Hollywood pretty much go hand in hand. I only know that it takes real balls – and I mean brass orbs – to use bona fide dead folk in a movie. You’ll probably never see that kind of shit again.

…as well as getting Rosie O’Donnell’s vagina…

One last thing to note about Poltergeist is the fantastic visual effects that were used in the film. This was of course pre-CGI and when ILM was already hitting on all cylinders. The ghosts in this film look so much better even today when measured up against the often times awful CGI that dominates modern movies. Aside from the tree being sucked up into Oz by the tornado, the visuals in this movie are just stunning. You look at the ghosts walking down the stairs accompanied by the spectral light images that are akin to the "opening the Ark" climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the giant angry closet skull and tell me that you prefer Van Helsing’s Dracula vs. Wolfman or The Mummy Returns’ Scorpion King over that. Sure we have simply incredible CGI also, but after awhile it can all just start to run together. New York getting destroyed in Deep Impact looks damn similar to New York getting destroyed in The Day After Tomorrow. Poltergeist is iconic in its look, its setting, its execution. Truly one of the best films of its kind ever made.

…to say nothing of snagging Joan Rivers…

The Package

Unfortunately, as excellent as the movie itself is, this 25th Anniversary Edition is equally disappointing. Visually and audio-wise, the presentation is top notch. But for the special features, all you get is a two-part, 30-minute featurette, The Real World of Poltergeists, about real-life spooks with copious use of footage from the film and talking heads. It’s not that this featurette is disappointing…okay it is that. But what is truly disappointing is that there’s no commentary by Hooper nor any of the stars: particularly Nelson, Williams or Rubinstein. Hell, give me Richard Lawson at least. I’m sure he could offer a few choice anecdotes at least. For a 25th anniversary, I’m gonna need at least one commentary, a hour-long documentary covering everything from the craft service to the Poltergeist curse to the director controversy to the ILM effects. I’m going to require an interview with Flaming Closet Skull and some of the deceased extras who were skinny dipping in mud with JoBeth. Did they get to see her in a wet T-shirt? Was she easy to work with? Did they get SAG Cadaver Rates? These are the things I must know, yet I’m not going to find those things out in this edition. Not even a trailer. Ridiculous. Maybe the other special features where in the Freeling house when it got crumpled up into Dimension X.

Williams: "Hey uh, Tobe, this thing really looks like the real deal. I’m kind of unnerved here."
Hooper: "Uh, that’s just your imagination, JoBeth. Our F/X guys are…really really good at their jobs."
Williams: "Yeah but is it supposed to smell like this?"
Hooper: "Uh…I uh…farted…yeah, farted…sorry. Okay, ready and….ACTION!"
7.3 out of 10