HUMANITY AND HORROR MIX PERFECTLY IN 'POLTERGEIST
HUMANITY AND HORROR MIX PERFECTLY IN 'POLTERGEIST'
Miami Herald, The (FL) - June 7, 1982
Author: BILL COSFORD Herald Movie Critic
The kids know first. Carol Anne likes to wander down to listen to the voices that come from the TV after all the programs have ended, and her brother Robbie has begun to have nightmares about the tree outside his window.
The parents, being adults, are a bit slower to sniff the change in their house, at least until Diane has that trouble with the kitchen chairs. Once the chairs begin to rearrange themselves, right there in broad daylight, while the construction gang out back is still goofing off around the swimming-pool site and the neighbors are going about their business as if there is nothing new under the sun in the suburbs, only then does the Freeling family get the gist of things. The idea is, they are not the only people living in their own house. Something, some things, are in there with them. What things could these be? And what are their intentions?
Ooh-eeh-ooh. It's Poltergeist, the story of a very haunted house. It's a great big scary movie for the summer, and it's a good one. Poltergeist (the "noisy ghosts," the Germans called them when they coined the word centuries ago) seems designed to show us that the horror movie is still Hollywood's prime genre. As a piece of entertainment, it is nearly everything that most of the potboilers since The Exorcist have not been, and as a piece of art it is a grand thumbing of the nose at filmmakers whose creative vision isn't quite so keen as that of Steven Spielberg and his collaborators. And though the movie has its fancy moments, what sets it apart is simple storytelling. It's a solid movie in every way, and it's best when it is simplest.
We can't be sure whom to credit. Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper, who was allowed to graduate from Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive to this, the bigtime, but producer and cowriter Steven Spielberg has been receiving most of the praise so far. Reportedly, Hooper and Spielberg did not get along well; reportedly, Spielberg stepped in to "supervise" the production of Poltergeist. Certainly, it has his mark on it, a deadeye fix on what pleases audiences and keeps them in thrall. It's an all- American movie , and the temptation is to lay it all on Spielberg, the Jack Armstrong of filmmakers.
As has always been true, what makes such films work is the care taken to set things up. We'll want to see those special effects sooner or later, and a few shock scenes are de rigeur. But first, the family and its milieu; once we have accepted the Freeling family as real people in a real place, then we will be scared of almost anything that happens to them. And here is where Poltergeist works the real movie magic.
Spielberg and Hooper create an ordinary family in an ordinary suburb with impeccable detail, without a trace of condescension. Everything here is familiar, all the totems invoked: It's a family with a mom and a dad, two girls and a boy, a dog and a canary, a couple of TV sets. It's a middle- tech family with all the labor-saving conveniences, and a Sunday afternoon in their neighborhood, established by 10 minutes of gently funny vignettes, is an almost universal time and place. At the Freeling house, the neighborhood men are watching the Rams game. Out in the street, the neighborhood kids are curbsitting, waiting for a chance to pull a prank with a pair of remote-controlled model cars. Lawns are green, sun is warm, houses are neat as pins and expensive-looking, if maybe a bit too close together.
That's the problem with these planned communities, and the biggest disturbance of this or any other Sunday afternoon is that Freeling's television set, the one on which the men are depending for the Rams resolution, is of the same brand and remote-control frequency as that of the guy next door, who doesn't much care about the Rams and whose kid wants to watch "Mister Rogers." So for this day, the Freelings' biggest problem is the remote-control war, by which a long curl pattern, Rams driving, is replaced without warning by a smiling face and kiddie patter. It's funny, and it's familiar. Wherever it is that the Freelings live, we think we've been there.
The next day, there is the trouble with the chairs, and in the days after that all hell breaks loose, literally, in the very same house. The details are secrets that belong to the movie , but its success owes to the careful establishment of ordinary circumstance, and to the performances of the no-name cast playing the various Freelings. Craig T. Nelson is Dad, a real-estate salesman and a nice guy; Oliver Robins is Robbie, the boy whose tree seems to have turned scary; Dominique Dunne is the teenager, Dana; Heather O'Rourke is the angel-faced little girl, Carol Anne, who hears the "TV people"; and Jobeth Williams is mom, whose house is suddenly an amusement park. They're all-Americans, and they're all good.
Poltergiest is no nonstop scream express; at times it pulls its punches (Spielberg wants that PG rating), and at times its effects are bigger than life and less than terrifying. But like Spielberg's Jaws, which was a perfect genre movie , Poltergeist does what it's supposed to do about as well as it can be done. You want to see a movie about the house next door that turns out to be haunted? Here it is, done just right.
MOVIE REVIEW Poltergeist (PG) CAST:Craig T. Nelson, Jobeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O'Rourke CREDITS:Director: TobeHooper;Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall Screenwriters: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor Based on a story by Steven Spielberg.Cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti; Music: Jerry Goldsmith. An MGM/UAEntertainment Co. release.