When a malevolent force decides to claim their young daughter, pulling her into another dimension, everything the Freeling family knows about life, death, and the energies lingering between is forever changed.
Starring JoBeth Williams as Diane, Craig T. Nelson as Steven, Heather O’Rourke or Carol Anne, Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as Robbie, Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, and the indelible Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina, Poltergeist is directed by Tobe Hooper based on a story and screenplay by Steven Spielberg (along with Michael Grais and Mark Victor).
The Summer of 1982 belonged to Steven Spielberg. Released just a week apart in June, Spielberg’s E.T. and Poltergeist took the American movie going public by storm. Both films were family-centric at their heart with major plot points revolving around young children, but otherwise, the films were worlds apart.
Poltergeist is a darkly entertaining vision of modern day suburbia, in which a young family of five is pitted against an otherworldly protagonist. That the family turns to a team of collegiate paranormal investigators rather than the police in the wake of the abduction of their child speaks volumes about Diane and Steven and what their family has already experienced in their Cuesta Verde tract home.
The interactions with the paranormal forces inside their home begin as little more than playful pranks; chairs stacking themselves on the kitchen table and objects being slid across the floor. By the time the events begin to occur, we have already spent a significant amount of time with the Freelings, seeing their day-to-day life. They feel real to us, we can relate to them. By extension, the inexplicable events seem somehow easier to accept as real because they are happening to them.
Like any good horror film, this look into how these interactions are perceived, when the stakes are relatively low, reveals deeper truths at the heart of the family and the story.
Diane, who playfully engages with the forces by placing her own daughter on the floor to be slid across it, embraces the experience as a kind of miracle. Steven, who, even after witnessing the activity first-hand, refuses to openly accept what’s happening as paranormal, is shadowed by a kind of lurking hesitancy. It is Steven’s hesitancy and guardedness, and Diane’s unshakable belief and love that ultimately carry the family through the crisis about to unfold.
Poltergeist captured imaginations and terrified audiences, but it is not a film about a haunted house.
I cringe every time Poltergeist is referred to as a haunted house film, especially since the characters central to the plot repeatedly inform the audience to the contrary. The energy in the Freeling home is focused on Carol Anne (a plot point further explored in subsequent franchise sequels), not the house. Even after the home is destroyed at the end of Poltergeist and the Freelings move, the energy that plagued the family follows them.
It’s unfortunate that this plot point is often confused or muddled or ignored, because I think the idea that something as malevolent as what focuses its attention on the young Carol Anne would follow her, and not be restrained to one particular location, is far more dubious and terrifying.
There’s nowhere to run to, baby.
What brings me back to Poltergeist time and again is the intimate portrait of a pair of high school sweethearts, clearly still deeply in love, that pull together in the face of an ethereal threat – one that cannot be reasoned with, stopped, or even seen – and overcome everything that is thrown at them.
JoBeth Williams’ Diane was the mother every little girl dreamed of having; with a love pure enough to span an abyssal void in order to reclaim you from the clutches of evil. And Craig T. Nelson’s Steven was the strong, unshakable father we all wanted to sit with us during a thunderstorm. Steven and Diane are the heart of the film. And while a lot of focus on Poltergeist and the franchise now resides on the unfortunate passing of Heather Rourke, that she was such a powerful presence onscreen only sweetens with each viewing.