(1982, Horror, color)
Cole Stratton and Janet Varney
This is what happens when Mary Poppins turns evil.
In a Nutshell:
A family tries to rescue the youngest daughter from a restless spirit.
The Freelings are, as their name subtly implies, free-spirited. Mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a stay-at-home mom who smokes pot on the sly. Father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson) sells massive amounts of real estate by day and hosts beer-soaked football-watching parties on the weekends. Teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) spends most of the movie visiting friends, while prepubescent son Robbie (Oliver Robins) distinguishes himself with his fear of clowns and spooky trees. The real star, though, is Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke), the preternaturally adorable youngest daughter.
The film begins when Carol Ann walks downstairs in the middle of the night to talk to a static-filled television screen. The foreshadowing-filled “ordinary life” section follows, taking up the first third of the film to teach us everything in the previous paragraph. One night, during a particularly scary lightning storm, Carol Ann gets up to talk to the TV again. Indistinct, spectral figures emerge, zapping into the opposite wall. The rest of the family wakes up moments later. “They’re here,” Carol Ann announces.
Diane figures out what she means by this later that morning, when the kitchen furniture starts to rearrange itself. Overjoyed, she maps out the pattern of furniture movement so that she can show Stephen how the ghosts can move chairs, Carol Ann, and Diane herself across the floor. Stephen is less than thrilled. He forbids the rest of the family from going into the kitchen until they know what’s going on.
Of the two parental reactions to the haunting, Stephen’s is the more appropriate, though even his precautions don’t turn out to be enough. That night the lightning storm returns and the aforementioned spooky tree becomes animate. It leans through Robbie’s window and snatches him from his bed. While Steve, Diane and Dana run out after him, it starts to swallow him whole. Steve climbs up and pulls him out, just before the whole tree is sucked into a vortex. There is some discussion as to whether what just happened was supernatural, or just a very localized tornado.
Meanwhile, Carol Ann has been left alone in her bed. Another vortex opens in her closet, sucking in toys, small furniture and finally Carol Ann herself. Unaware of what has occurred, the others return to the house. All the furniture is piled up in front of the bedroom closet; they dig through it but don’t find her. A subsequent search of the house turns up nothing. Finally, Robbie hears Carol Ann calling to him through a static-filled TV.
Jump forward a day or two, as Stephen tells his tale to a paranormal research team headed by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). They’re astonished by the level of supernatural activity at the house, and set up shop overnight to catch the phenomena on camera. They record floating objects, disgusting hallucinations and lights floating down the staircase. Having gathered evidence of the haunting and heard the voice of Carol Ann through the television, Dr. Lesh promises to come back the next night with more help.
Meanwhile, in a short but crucial bit of exposition, Stephen’s boss comes to check up on him. Stephen is his best salesman and the long leave of absence has him worried that he’s “entertaining other offers”. Though Stephen assures him this is not the case, his boss offers him a newer, better house higher up on the hill if he’ll stay. The bodies in the cemetery there will, of course, be moved prior to construction. Just like the bodies that were in the cemetery while his current house stands.
Dr. Lesh returns with a diminutive, chipmunk-voiced psychic named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein). Though somewhat given to pretentious, overdramatic pronouncements, she is otherwise competent, and soon figures out what’s going on. There’s a host of spirits in the house, she tells them, sad and confused but not really dangerous. They’re not yet aware of their deaths, and are thus drawn to the living, especially Carol Ann, who occupies the unique position of a living person in the world of the dead. There is, unfortunately, another entity to worry about. A creature Tangina refers to as The Beast, a malevolent spirit powerful enough to rip holes in the fabric of reality and steal Carol Ann from them. Tangina explains her plan to get her back.
Tangina has Stephen and Diane call up Carol Ann to distract The Beast while she works. She tosses tennis balls into the spectral hole in the closet to make sure it goes all the way through. This is confirmed when they emerge from the living room ceiling covered in slimy red ectoplasm. They put a rope through, so one end comes through the closet and the other through the living room ceiling. She starts to tie herself on, but Diane objects. Carol Ann doesn’t know her, and won’t come to her. They tie Diane to the rope instead. Stephen feeds her into the void while Dr. Lesh and her helper start to pull her through. A huge spectral head emerges to roar at Stephen, and the rope slips through his hands. Diane and Carol Ann fall through the living room ceiling. Stephen and Dr. Lesh wash off the slime and revive them while Tangina urges the spirits to “go towards the light”. When it’s all over, she dramatically pronounces the house “clean”.
But there’s too much running time left for that to truly be the case. A few days later, the Freelings prepare to move away. Stephen goes down to the office to clear a few things up with his boss while Dana goes to a friend’s house (again) and Diane dyes all the spirit world-induced gray streaks out of her hair. Robbie and Carol Ann go to bed and try to get some sleep before the move. At this point, Robbie’s clown doll comes alive to attack him while the spectral hole in the closet reopens, sucking everything in the room towards it. Invisible hands drag the newly dyed and bathed Diane around the walls and ceiling. She’s eventually ejected from the house where moldering coffins emerge from the soil to spit inanimate corpses at her.
Diane screams for help and runs back in. She drags Robbie and Carol Ann away from the vortex. They try to flee the house, but coffins pop up in every entrance, keeping the newly arrived Stephen and his boss from leaping to the rescue. Stephen shouts at his boss, “You moved the headstones, but you didn’t move the bodies!” while his family flees through a side entrance. Dana arrives from a friend’s house to scream “What’s happening?” until the rest of her family can urge her into the station wagon. They drive away while the entire house gets sucked into a vortex. Arriving at a hotel some time later, Stephen drags the television out into the hall before he shuts their door for the night.
I enjoyed Poltergeist far more than I expected to. I have, after all, made my distaste for competently made horror clear on several previous occasions. Poltergeist is horror, yes, and while it’s not especially complex or subtle, it’s certainly well-made. It has affection for its characters, attention to detail and fascination with the supernatural, all of which keep its tone far removed from the likes of Night of the Living Dead, Saw and Drag Me to Hell. Its fascination with the supernatural is particularly noteworthy when you consider that 99% of other horror films, good and bad, tend to view the supernatural in terms fear, dread and, well, horror. In fact, if you define a horror film as a film that attempts to horrify, Poltergeist might not qualify at all. Though directed by Tobe Hooper (who would never do anything this good again) it was written and produced by Stephen Spielberg, and it has his fingerprints all over it. It is, essentially, a ghost-centric adventure film in horror’s clothing. A bloodless suburban Jaws with an Indiana Jones-esque mythology.
Janet Varney and Cole Stratton dip into the world of ghosts a second time with this movie and get us through pretty well. When Carol Ann’s parents catch her with her hands on the TV at the beginning, Cole says, “This isn’t what it looks like. Wait, what does this look like?” As a kitchen chair slides across the floor, Janet says, “I know we bought this chair in Toontown, but still.” When Stephen shows Dr. Lesh the room full of possessed toys, Cole says, “This room is about as stable as Crispin Glover.” Throughout, Cole does an awesome “nerdy kid” voice that’s funny all by itself whenever Robbie is on screen. It’s an entertaining film, and the riffers insert their comments into it quite neatly, enhancing the experience as a whole.
(1982, Horror, color)