a critiQal film review Poltergeist (1982)

Plot: Strange and creepy happenings beset an average California family, the Freelings - Steve (Nelson), Diane (Williams), teenaged Dana (Dunne), eight-year-old Robbie (Robins), and five-year-old Carol Ann (O'Rourke) - when ghosts commune with them through the television set. Initially friendly and playful, the spirits turn unexpectedly menacing, and, when Carol Ann goes missing, Steve and Diane turn to a parapsychologist and eventually an exorcist for help.

Reviewed
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  • ...with a surprisingly strong performance by Craig T. Nelson leading the way, Spielberg and Hooper craft a horror classic that will still stick with viewers of today

With Halloween fast approaching, it seemed like an appropriate time to go back and watch a few horror flicks I may have missed over the years.  First up:  Poltergeist.  Haunted by it’s “curse” (a cast member died after filming each of the three films in the trilogy), this is one of those films that has gained notoriety almost as much for its backstory as for its visual appeal.

Would Poltergeist (a rare horror classic that’s rated PG) be worth revisiting after all this time?  Or has the golden age of this film passed us by?

The cast is decent enough in Poltergeist.  Craig T. Nelson (of “Coach” (TV) fame) leads the household, and leads the cast with some solid acting as well.  While his wife (JoBeth Williams) is a bit flighty, and spends a lot of time screaming, Craig’s Steven holds the family together through some trying times.  Reigning in his wife a bit while still providing the all-important strong father figure for his kids, he’s on point.  The listless way he communicates with his boss later in the film is just one indication of how trying this time has been on him, and the viewer can feel it all through his performance.

The kids in Poltergeist are a bit hit or miss.  While Heather O’Rourke’s cherubic face leads the way, her brother (Oliver Robins) steals the scene himself a couple of times (most notably when facing off against a clown – eat your heart out, new IT).  Her sister, Dominique Dunne, on the other hand, is pretty much useless, and viewers will wonder why her character is in there at all.

The story line goes above and beyond the typical haunted house story.  And, unlike in this day and age where paranormal investigators are all the rage (and so haughty about it), the folks called in to help the family in Poltergeist are clearly out of their depth.  While they are still earnest in their willingness to help, they are clearly stunned by the phenomena they are witnessing, and with that comes lots of unexpected laughs.  Intentional to be sure, but a refreshing surprise from a horror thriller like this one.

Some of the special effects in Poltergeist, unfortunately, aren’t quite up to the quality that viewers these days expect, with some sequences (the “man in the mirror” is a glaring example) looking like so much claymation.  Still, there are many more sequences that still work, so the viewer won’t be totally put off by the less-than-stellar effects that occasionally are too noticeable to ignore.

While some of the special effects have not favored well since the film’s release, Poltergeist, with a surprisingly strong performance by Craig T. Nelson helping to lead the way, Hooper (of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame) and Spielberg (who co-wrote the script with Hooper) craft a horror classic that will still stick with viewers of today.  Sure, the terror factor isn’t nearly as high anymore, but with the solid storyline and direction, this still film provides a thrill ride with just the right doses of heart and humor.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it’s still pretty darn good.

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