In the UK we do not have the PG-13 certificate. Up until 1989 we had U, PG, 15 and 18. When Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989 there was some furore that only those over 15 were allowed to view it at the cinema and a lot of young teens were disappointed at missing out. This led to the creation of the 12 rating which in 2002 became 12A.
By contrast, in the US, the ratings system up until 1984 went thus; G, PG, R and then the dreaded X which became NC-17. This changed in 1984, when certain films that were rated PG were being criticised for content that younger children could see and it was Steven Spielberg himself that suggested a rating be introduced between PG and R (which seems obvious in hindsight as that is quite a gap) which suggested the film was not really suitable for an unsupervised pre-teen audience. It was two films that Spielberg himself had been involved in (Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) that had been criticised for content though the first film to receive the new PG-13 was Red Dawn.
The reason for this long-winded preamble (which I will refer back to in later retrospectives) is that the classic horror movie Poltergeist from 1982 was rated PG in the US and, though it’s, to this day, rated 15 in the UK , was still seen by many of my age long before we were teenagers. It was one of those horror movies that we all saw as kids. Steven Spielberg’s name was attached and this was around the time of E.T. It might be a little spooky but it wouldn’t really be that scary for kids would it?
Short answer. Yep!!
Directed by Tobe Hooper (if our parents had known he directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre would that have delayed the age at which we’d been allowed to watch this film?) the movie does have a very “Spielbergy” feel to it throughout. There was speculation that his involvement extended far beyond contributing the story and acting as a producer and that he had, actually, directed the movie which isn’t true as he was concentrating on E.T at the time but, watching the movie, you can certainly see why people would think this.
The opening is memorable as the Star Spangled Banner plays and we cut to a TV channel signing off its broadcast for the night before switching to static and a little girl Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) pads down the stairs and talks to the TV screen and earns a collective “Awww” from the audience which is made so much more poignant by the tragic passing of the actress at only 12 years old.
Morning comes and, accompanied by a lively score from Jerry Goldsmith (who did similarly great work a couple of years later with Gremlins) we meet the rest of the Freeling family.
Steve (Craig T Nelson) is a real estate agent and is married to Diane (Jobeth Williams). Along with Carol Anne they have a teenage daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne – who again died tragically young at only 22 when she was murdered by an ex-boyfriend the same year as Poltergeist was released) and their middle child Robbie (Oliver Robins). They also have a dog called E. Buzz who, as in any haunted house movie, senses the presence before most of the humans.
What comes across early on and throughout the film is how “normal” and nice the Freelings are. There’s no sense of a strained marriage or out of control kids. We like the family and, therefore care about what happens to them.
The next night, a ghostly force of some kind bursts from the TV while Carol Anne is, again talking to it and the resulting tremors wake the household as Carol Anne delivers the most famous line of the movie. “They’re here“
“They” are indeed here and, at first, manifest themselves in ways that, while strange, are pretty harmless. A bit of spoon bending, a slice of chair stacking, helping you slide across the floor, that kind of thing.
Steve’s reaction is more in tune with ours than Diane’s. She doesn’t sense anything malevolent and, at that point, has no reason to. Steve is seeing something that he can’t explain and is uncomfortable with his families proximity to it.
The spirits don’t hang around in waiting to turn the dial up to 11 however. The next night, during a thunderstorm, the world’s most evil looking tree smashes through the window of the bedroom that is shared by the two younger children and drags a screaming Robbie outside. The tension doesn’t relent as, when Steve and Diane rush to help their son, a swirling vortex of paranormal activity kicks off in the kids bedroom as most of its contents are sucked into a bright light that is emanating from the closet.
Having rescued Robbie from the clutches of the demonic tree, the family search for the missing Carol Anne throughout the house as well as outside where a new swimming pool is being constructed. The search stops when Robbie hears his little sisters voice coming from the TV and we end Act 1.
We jump forward a period of time where Steve and Diane are clearly wearing the trauma of the recent events and, unable to go to the police, they seek the help of a team of parapsychologists led by Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight). Along with her assistants Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella) they agree to investigate the goings on at the Freelings.
One of my favourite moments in the film occurs shortly afterwards when they are approaching the younger childrens bedroom. Ryan tells them how he once witnessed a toy car move of its own accord across the floor over a period of seven hours. The slightly raised eyebrow that Steve gives before opening the bedroom door where they witness the contents flying around accompanied by other-worldly laughter is pretty funny. It’s a level far above anything the scientists have seen.
The parapsychologist team (can I just call them Ghostbusters from now; it’s a bit shorter to type) begin an investigation using all the technical apparatus they have at their disposal. They hear Carol Annes voice coming out of the TV as well as more traditional poltergeist activity.
The presence or presences become even more aggressive when Marty is bitten by something large when in the bedroom and the poor man continues to be targeted by the forces in the house when he suffers a hallucination wherein he rips his own face off. As a child, this was one of the most horrible things I could remember seeing (It seemed so much worse than what happened at the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark when the Nazis opened the box and….we all know how that worked out for them) and I imagine I wasn’t alone at that time.
Marty chooses not to come back to the house after this as the investigation continues. Dana leaves to go to stay with her friends and Robbie takes E Buzz with him to stay at his grandmothers.
When the team return, they bring assistance in the diminutive form of Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein ) a medium who wastes little time in addressing the problem and offering a solution.
She explains how there are a number of spirits in the house and that they are unable to move into the “Light” as they are being held back by an evil entity called “The Beast” which is using Carol Annes strong life force to aid it.
The dimension that Carol Anne, the spirits and the Beast are in is accessed via the kids bedroom closet and a tethered Diane enters to rescue her little girl.
Even though Steve ends up panicking and pulling on the rope too soon, despite Tanginas instructions, he is able to bring his wife and daughter back from the other dimension, though not before having a, thankfully, brief face to face with a manifestation of the Beast.
This whole sequence of events that began when Tangina entered the house and ended with the safe return of Diane and Carol Anne takes less than 20 minutes of screen time and I’d forgotten that Tangina was only in the film for this relatively short amount of time. She is a memorable character and would appear in the sequels.
Declaring “This house is clean”, Tangina and the parapsychologists leave and we move forward to a clear bright day to see that the Freelings have decided to leave their home and move to a slightly less bothersome location.
Steve isn’t with them as evening sets in. He is meeting with his boss, Teague (James Karen) who had told him in an earlier scene that the Freelings home had been built on the site of a former graveyard which had been relocated.
Back at the house the rest of the family are settling in for their final night with the exception of Dana who is, as always seemingly, staying with friends (she is a teenager so this doesn’t come across as too much of a plot contrivance).
Robbie, who has already suffered the trauma of a tree attack is uncomfortable at the way his freaky clown doll is looking at him. In a scene that was, for young impressionable kids, the scariest of the entire film and one that inspired a fear of clowns in many of us, long before Pennywise danced his way into our subconscious, the clown comes to life in the best jump scare in the movie and drags a screaming Robbie under the bed as a terrified Carol Anne looks on.
Diane isn’t faring much better. Having had a lovely soak in a nice warm bath she is relaxing on her bed when the cries of her children ring out. Before she can reach them she is attacked by an invisible force which drags her up the wall in a similar way Tina would be in A Nightmare on Elm Street, two years later. Thankfully Diane doesn’t meet a similar fate and escapes from her bedroom.
She cannot reach her children and, within their room, the dimensional doorway is open again. She heads outside to seek help from her neighbours but falls into the swimming pool where coffins rise and disgorge their rotting contents. Her neighbours save her from a very unpleasant fate and she races back into the house and manages to save her children before they’re dragged to the elsewhere.
Steve arrives with Teague and realises that the graveyard was not relocated and only the gravestones were moved. This, for me, was my introduction to the “buried on sacred land or variation” trope which has been seen in many a horror movie since, and likely before.
Dana arrives in time to get into the Freelings station wagon with the rest of her family and, as they leave, the gathering onlookers get to witness the house imploding and vanishing into the other dimension along with the Beasts wrath.
The final scene shows the Freelings, disheveled and weary, checking into a hotel room but, not before Steve make sure that the TV stays outside on the balcony.
With that the credits roll and Jerry Goldsmiths beautiful score plays out and we, the audience breathe easily again.
Poltergeist was an early foray into horror for my generation. It may seem very tame to a young audience today but myself and my friends remember this film vividly and still find ourselves recalling how uncomfortable we were when Marty took his face off or when the clown doll attacked Robbie.
The performances are strong throughout because the Freelings come across as real people. Horror works best when we truly empathise with the people being subjected to the terrors on screen and a normal, suburban family life is something many of us are gratefully familiar with.
We care about this family because we could be this family and, when bad things happen to good people, it affects us more than any disposable teen slaughterfest ever can.
Poltergeist is a genuine favourite of mine from its memorable score to its believable cast and scary set pieces.
A strong entry point for any novice horror fan I cannot recommend this film strongly enough.
It did have two sequels. Poltergeist 2: The Other Side reunites the cast with the exception of the sadly deceased Dominque Dunne and is pretty good as it expands on the lore from the first film. Poltergeist 3 only brings back Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein and is pretty forgettable and hard to watch knowing that the actress playing little Carol Anne died before the film could be completed despite it still being released at the studios insistence.
There are stories regarding a “curse” attached to these films but I think that they can be a sensationalised distraction from, what is, ultimately, a series of tragic coincidences.
In my next retrospective I’m looking to stay off the moors and indulge in some carnivorous lunar activities.