Steven Spielberg is going to be changing a lot of people’s lives this summer. His E.T. is the kind of movie everyone is going to wish he had seen at the age of ten; and Poltergeist is full of the affection and respect that has been missing from scary movies lately. Actually, Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Spielberg, although it seems Spielberg stepped in to direct some sequences himself (he also supervised the editing and provided the detailed design from which Hooper worked). Hooper is a good director—his Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interesting movie that is doomed forever to be a reference point for talkshow/cocktail-party critics who have never seen it—but almost everything about Poltergeist is recognizably Spielbergian.
After the first few entries in his disgustingly young career (The brilliant TV-movie Duel; one of the best “Columbo” episodes, Murder by the Book; The Sugarland Express; Jaws), the word on Steven Spielberg was that Yeah, the guy understood cinema, even if his movies were nothing more than well-crafted stimulus-response machines that didn’t really understand or care about people. Despite the disastrous 1941, Spielberg has managed to turn that too-pat analysis around, and in these first weeks of the summer has presented the public with a hugely entertaining pair of People movies.
Both films are set in solid, average suburbia; Poltergeist presents a normal, three-kid, one-dog family that gets hassled by some troubled spirits. Spielberg and Hooper establish their normalcy without any sense of rush or bother; as often happens in a Spielberg movie, scenes around kitchen tables are important in revealing intrafamily dynamics. The only unusual ripple we see is that little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has the disturbing tendency to stare into the static TV screen—after the day’s programming has gone off. It isn’t long before this leads us into a series of spaces—a cluttered closet, an unfinished swimming pool, an opening in a tree—that are just as pregnant with terrifying possibility as the humming, busy tube.
“It knows what scares you”—the ad line for Poltergeist is very true; Spielberg and Hooper have quite a knack for selecting objects and events that can turn from innocuous to sinister within seconds. Like the stuffed clown that sits in a chair in the kids’ room. When I was a kid, a clown was about the scariest thing around, and this one gets to be just as horrific as I always suspected. The audience is led to confrontations with other such basic childhood fears as: is that Something outside the window moving, or what? and Something is wrong and I’m going to look under the bed now but Please God don’t let there be anything down there! The filmmakers orchestrate the mayhem so fluidly—and the characters are so well-acted (by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, Oliver Robins as their son, Beatrice Straight as a phemonena expert) and are made to matter so much—that the audience is irresistibly drawn into a heady degree of involvement.
The special effects are nice—especially a white, long-limbed phantom who hovers outside a doorway and emits a growl not unlike that of the MGM lion who presides over this movie—but the best special effect of all is the levitation effect. That’s the one in which the filmmakers raise the audience members right out of their seats. At one point in Poltergeist a character warns a group of folks to “Get a good hold on yourselves.” Audiences all over would be well-advised to do just that.
First published in The Informer, June 1982
Calling them People movies seems not right, because E.T. and Poltergeist are just as rigorously composed as Spielberg’s previous films. Anyway Jaws is a People movie, too, when it comes to that. Boy, it was a good time seeing this in a theater full of shrieking people that summer. That scene involving a closed door and the slow movement to open it should be shown to all aspiring horror-movie directors as a model for how to stage and cut a scene. By the way, I’m looking at the ads in this issue of The Informer (monthly newsletter magazine of the Seattle Film Society) and both Poltergeist and Star Trek II were playing in 70 mm. (Poltergeist was at the late, not especially lamented Town theater). Remember 70 mm.? Why has that fallen off the movie-format discussion table?