Poltergeist was a surprise hit during the summer of '82. At the time of its release, it was rumored that Steven Spielberg (the film's producer and writer) contributed more than he was credited for.
Whatever the truth of the matter is, the movie really does appear to be a combination of both their talents. It is THE classic modern ghost movie...a great rollercoaster ride.
The Freelings are your typical American family. Steve and Diane (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams),
their three kids Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robbins)...and their dog live in the perfect town of Cuesta Verde.
One night...after everyone has gone to sleep and the national anthem has played on the TV, Carol Anne looks into the fizz of the TV and begins communicating with something. Steve and Diane are in their bedroom, smoking
pot and having a good laugh.
Shortly after, Robbie is afraid because there is a storm outside and he's having trouble sleeping. Steve tells him to count after he sees the lightning - until he hears the thunder. If he can count higher each time, it means the storm is moving away from them. Dad leaves and Robbie and Carol Anne begin counting. But they're still too scared
and they both end up in their parents' bed.
The television is on once again - and when the programming has ended, Carol Anne wakes up and walks over to it. She hears voices and puts her hand up towards the TV.
Suddenly, a strange light comes bolting out of it and goes straight through the wall of the bedroom. The commotion startles everyone and the rest of the family hears Carol Anne say, "They're here!"
The next morning, odd things start occuring. The dog barks at the wall and chairs move around by themselves.
When Steven comes home from work, Diane is able to prove it to him by showing him a chair move in the kitchen. That evening, there is another storm outside. Robbie is terrified again and begins counting the time between the lightning and thunder.
But the storm is actually getting closer...and a huge menacing tree outside the bedroom breaks
through the window and pulls him out. Things are flying all over the place.
The closet opens and there is a bright light that Carol Anne is sucked into. Steve, Diane and Dana manage to pull Robbie away from the tree...but the little girl is missing.
They search the house and swimming pool. Carol Anne's voice is heard - coming out of the television set.
Desperate, Steven and Diane go to see Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), an investigator of strange phenomena. She agrees to help them get Carol Anne back...and sets up equipment in the house with her assistants Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson).
Entering the kids' bedroom, they see just about everything flying around. Dr. Lesh explains to the family that she believes it's all being caused by a "poltergeist."
Describing the difference between a haunting and a poltergeist, she tells them that a poltergeist usually centers around an individual and lasts for a short while. A haunting (on the other hand) involves an entire house and can be indefinite.
While attempting to communicate with Carol Anne, they hear her voice. The little girl tells them that she's not alone and that she sees a light. Dr. Lesh advises her to stay away from it.
As Diane is ascending the staircase, a gust of wind passes through her. Diane says it was Carol Anne and that she can smell the child.
Marty goes into the kitchen and grabs a piece of chicken from the refrigerator. Looking at the countertop, he sees a steak move. He drops the chicken on the floor and when he looks down, he sees maggots crawling all over it.
Disgusted, Marty rushes to the bathroom to wash up...but sees a horrific vision in the mirror of his face peeling off.
Meanwhile, Ryan keeps an eye on the video monitor. He records a group of ghosts coming down the
stairs. When the tape is played back, a group of bright lights is what appears on the screen.
Steven's boss, Mr. Teague (James Karen), takes him to a plot of land near Cuesta Verde.
He tells Steven that he wants to expand the community. However, the land he's chosen includes a cemetery.
Steven says it would be sacrilegious to build over it but Teague informs him that it's been done before...the houses currently in Cuesta Verde were originally built over a cemetery that was relocated.
At the Freeling home, Dr. Lesh brings in a psyhic named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein)...who explains that there are spirits in the house who are not at rest. They don't realize that they have passed on and they are using Carol Anne to
guide them to the next plane.
But there is a danger. Along with the spirits is an evil presence. It has been using the little girl to restrain the others and is keeping Carol Anne away from the "spectral light."
In addition, Carol Anne can only hear her mother's voice. Diane tries communicating with her daughter and tells her to go towards the light. Tangina open's the children's bedroom and there is a bright light coming out of the closet. She throws a couple of tennis balls into it that end up on the floor below.
Carol Anne is being held in this dimension. Tangina
tosses a rope through it...and Dr. Lesh and Ryan grab it at the other end. Diane is tied to it and the others pull her into the light. Steven is afraid for his wife's safety and pulls on the rope prematurely, causing him to come face to face with the evil beast.
Diane and Carol Anne fall out of the dimension and through the ceiling. They are covered in a strange sticky substance but are otherwise okay. Tangina announces that the house "is clean."
After this experience, the family decides to move. On their final night in the house (while Steven is packing his things at the office) Diane takes a quiet bath. Robbie and Carol Anne are in their bedroom about to go to sleep.
Suddenly, a creepy toy clown comes to life and begins to choke the little boy. There is a white light behind the closet door and something is trying to get to the children.
Diane hears this but is prevented from getting to them. She runs out of the house screaming and falls into the pool in the back yard that has been under construction. It's raining and there are skeletons everywhere in the muddy water. The neighbors hear her cries for help but don't respond.
Diane finally makes it into the house and up to the bedroom. The closet door has opened and Diane and the kids are nearly sucked in. Steven comes home and helps free them.
There are coffins and corpses popping out all around and inside the house. Mr. Teague is nearby and Steven goes up to him and grabs him by the collar. "You son of a bitch, you moved the headstones but you didn't move the bodies!" he screams.
The eldest daughter Dana, who has been staying with friends, shows up in time to see her family fleeing and the house self destruct. They make it to their car and drive off. The home sends a final lightning bolt through Mr. Teague, before the structure disappears into the ground.
The Freelings end up at a motel...where an exasperated Steven throws the television out of the room.
Poltergeist is a modern spookfest masterpiece. Phrases such as "they're here," "what's happening?!," and "don't go into the light" became a part of pop culture. Unfortunately, director Tobe Hooper could never escape the ugly rumours that Steven Spielberg directed much of the film.
The cast is excellent all around. JoBeth Williams is particularly good...was ever a suburban mother played so thruthfully as here - and in a ghost/horror movie to boot? Heather O'Rourke is exceptionally sweet and creepy at the same time.
The special effects are strong and believable, yet because of the acting and family situations, the effects (even at their most outrageous) never dominate the movie.
On a somber note, several members of the cast met untimely deaths. Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne so well, died in 1988. According to the official report, the reason was cardiac arrest caused by septic shock brought on by intestinal stenosis.
Dominick Dunne (Dana) was murdered by her boyfriend shortly after the film's release.
Thankfully, Zelda Rubinstein...so memorable as diminutive yet feisty Tangina...led a full and productive life until her passing in January of 2010. She had been one of the first celebrities to fully engage in the combat against the AIDS crisis.