Archive Review: Poltergeist (1982)

A fitting archive review for this weekend with “Paranormal Activity 4” in theaters (and some news that Sam Raimi could direct the remake of this one). From August 23, 2010.

Some will say “Jaws” and other will say “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but the 1982 “Poltergeist” offers the Exhibit B for of the longevity of Steven Spielberg’s magic. Written and produced by the legendary filmmaker, this supernatural horror film evokes the imagination, despite the thin layer of cheese and the now-dated special effects. 

Standing unfairly in Spielberg’s shadow is “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” director Tobe Hooper, who makes “Poltergeist” eerie and suspenseful enough to keep the film engaging when the special effects are full-blown and the lid has been popped off in terms of realism. The subtle and effective camera movements at various moments will keep you on edge, some technique that draws slightly upon Hitchcock (as well as Spielberg, who undoubtedly had a hand or two in much of the production seeing as he was on set most of the time).

“Poltergeist” tells the story of a young family in California living in a development who experiences supernatural activity in its house starting with the youngest daughter hearing voices in the TV set and continuing with moving kitchen furniture. At first it seems like some fascinating paranormal activity, but soon it becomes anything but subtle.

Despite the film’s full-on embrace of the supernatural instead of sticking with minute suspense, there’s still a strong curiosity factor that makes the ghostly mayhem intriguing rather than scattered and unnecessarily chaotic. Much of the events happen before we have any true sense of what’s going on, which draws us in to figuring out what the events might signify and of course how they’ll be resolved. In this sense, “Poltergeist” remains suspenseful throughout, making it effective through the excessive use of strobe lights and wind machines.

The cast also possesses an anonymity that keeps the focus on what’s happening in the house and suggests that this could “happen to anyone.” Horror films started casting unknowns mostly to keep costs down, but the tradition certainly has value in films such as this because big-name stars would draw too much attention to the performances and not to the events. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as Steven and Diane are a fairly simplistic couple and they don’t overcompensate when it all goes down by freaking out any more than they have to freak out.

Haunted house films have always had some old-era Victorian feel to them, but “Poltergeist” brought the classic concept into the modern era by brilliantly crossing something as ordinary as a house with something as extraordinary as a supernatural terror.


3.5/5 Stars


Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins


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