The film “Poltergeist” centers on the Freeling family: The family is comprised of the father Steven, portrayed by Emmy winner and four time Golden Globe nominee Craig T. Nelson (Coach); the mother Diane, played by Oscar nominee JoBeth Williams (Our Hope); the son Robbie (Oliver Robins) and daughters Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Carol Anne (Heather O’ Rourke). The family resides in Cuesta Verde, California, where Steve is a very successful real estate agent and Diane is a stay at home mother. One evening, while the members of the household are asleep, Carol Anne leaves her bedroom and walks down to the living room. There in front of the television, which has finished broadcasting the national anthem and is now just black and white static, she begins talking to the voices she hears in the television set. This is much to the surprise to the rest of the members of the family that are bewildered as to what is transpiring. Little do any of them know, that Carol Anne’s conversation with the voices in the television is merely the start of a nightmarish ordeal for the family. (As an aside: The word Poltergeist in German means noisy ghost. Emmy winner Joe Spano who played Henry Goldblume on Hill Street Blues was offered the part of Steve Freeling, but had to pass because of scheduling conflicts. Furthermore, while twenty four hour cable television has been the norm for many years now, during the 1960s through the early part of the 1980s, many television networks would sign off nightly with the playing of the national anthem, which would lead to the television showing nothing, but black and white static).
Life in the Freeling’s new home is going well, but as soon as a work crew begins to dig to put in a swimming pool, strange things start to occur. Furniture is rearranged; what can only be described as an unseen magnetic force, can pull things across the kitchen floor; but the first true indicator that the Freeling family is dealing with dangerous otherworldly forces, is when a disturbing looking tree comes to life and attempts to kill Robbie. While Steven tries to rescue Robbie, Carol Anne is under attack by powerful forces in her bedroom, which suck her into an unseen netherworld. Only after a frantic search by the family ensues, do they hear Carol Anne’s voice and know that she is still alive.
At wits end, Steven sets up a meeting with a team of paranormal investigators, who teach at the local college. The team is led by Dr. Lesh who is portrayed by Oscar winner Beatrice Straight (Network). Additional members of the team, who handle the technical equipment, are Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella). The problem at the Freeling house is worse than the team first anticipated, so Dr. Lesh calls in backup in the form of Tangina a clairvoyant and psychic played by Zelda Rubinstein (Scariest Places on Earth). She also will have her work cut out for her, once she confronts what is truly going on in the house. Can Carol Anne be saved? (As an aside: Zelda Rubinstein won a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work on Poltergeist. The Saturn Awards have been given since 1973. The award is given by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films).
“Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe Hooper (Salem’s Lot). The film was written by three time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), Michael Grais (Marked for Death) and Mark Victor (Secrets of the Unknown). The screenplay was based on a story written by Spielberg, who also produced the film along with five time Oscar nominee and Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award winner Frank Marshall (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and eight time Oscar nominee Kathleen Kennedy (Lincoln) who is also a recipient of the Thalberg award. The movie premiered on July 1, 1982. Parts horror and thriller it has a runtime of 114 minutes. The film was nominated for three Oscars: Best Effects, Visual Effects; Best Effects, Sound Editing; and Best Music, Original Score. The music for the film was conducted by Oscar winner and five time Emmy winner Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: Voyager). (As an aside: The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award was first presented at the 10th Annual Academy Awards in 1938. The award is given to producers whose work reflects a history of consistent excellence in film production).
Trivia buffs take note: Stephen King was approached to write the screenplay, but he and the filmmakers couldn’t agree on costs. Originally Steven Spielberg wrote the script as a proposed sequel to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Additionally, Spielberg wanted to direct “Poltergeist” and offered the script for “E.T.” to Tobe Hopper, who passed, in order to direct “Poltergeist” instead. Golden Globe winner Drew Barrymore (Grey Gardens) was considered for the role of Carol Anne, when she didn’t get the part, Spielberg cast her as Gertie in “E.T.”
“Poltergeist” has a tremendous horror atmosphere. One of the aspects of the film that makes it impactful, is that the Freeling family is portrayed in a realistic manner. The plight of the horror that the family is dealing with, especially considering it revolves around the welfare of a child, leads to a sympathetic connection with the viewer. The special effects for the film, which were not done with the use of CGI, were very well executed. The success of the film led to two sequels, as well as an unnecessary remake of the original in 2015. The original “Poltergeist” as of the writing of this post is available to be streamed on Netflix. The film is an absolute horror classic that should, if you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t seen it, immediately be put on your to be watched list.