Top Horror Films – #18 – Poltergeist

1982; directed by Tobe Hooper; story by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor

Ed: When asked about what’s the best haunted house movie, a whole generation of movie watchers cite this film. Carol Anne’s creepy talking with TV static and uttering the immortal line “They’re here” started us down a scary path of terrifying clown dolls, buried Native American burial grounds, and a portal to hell. Just plain fun.

Allen: Poltergeist may very well be one of the best haunted house movies ever made. What makes the film so effective is that it does not make the house spooky or creepy; it doesn’t have cobwebs hanging off the the walls or dark shadows lurking at every corner, just like in every other horror movie out there. Instead the house looks normal, one you would see in any regular all-American suburb. With a story developed by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, the ghosts of the house first start out as friendly, moving objects around while the family watches in amusement. But as Heather O’Rourke famously says “They’re Here,” the ghosts quickly become dangerous and threatening, with the reason for their existence being revealed in a great over-the-top climax.

John: The best ghost story around. I’m not sure who really directed it, but the credited director (Tobe Hooper) only made maybe two other good movies while the supposed director (Steven Spielberg) made over a dozen. The sequels were unnecessary and pretty lame.

Ben: The story goes, following the success of his directorial debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper gained the attention of Hollywood megaman, Steven Spielberg. Coming off two positive films about aliens (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.), Spielberg was looking for something to counter it and wanted to produce a movie with Hooper directing, about an isolated farmhouse fending off an evil alien invasion. It was to be called “Night Skies.” Hooper, however, who had had personal experiences, wanted to do a story about ghosts, particularly poltergeists, haunting a family.

With a story and script by Spielberg, Hooper deftly delivers not just a great, tautly paced horror film, but an almost outright critique of the contemporary suburban family lifestyle. The film opens on a television, which later acts as a conduit for the poltergeist to enter the Freeling’s home. Parents Steve and Diane at one point smoke marijuana while Steve reads a biography on Ronald Reagan. Then of course there is the biggest point of criticism, when the whole neighborhood development turns out to have been built on top of an Indian burial ground that, on company orders, only had the headstones relocated. One of my favorite touches of mise en scene is the bedroom in which the children Carol Anne and Robbie’s walls are adorned with product placement (namely Star Wars); however, amongst all this family friendly fare is a poster for the film Alien, indicating the horror in the middle of this place of otherwise safety. To cap it off, the film ends with a TV set being rejected from a hotel room as the camera pans back away from it.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite films, not just horror movies, of all time. The story cuts the fat of boring exposition and throws the audience right into the story. Tobe Hooper soars at controlling the escalating chaotic frenzy of the haunting; the movie never waivers from its methodical pacing. And, in a rare move for a family-aimed horror film, it never once winks at the audience. It never resorts to speaking down with moments of inane silliness to its potential younger viewers. Hands down, this is a solid movie, with great scares, and a true sense of character.

Team Rankings:
Ben – #3
Ed – #15
Allen – #19
Jeremy – #24
John – #27


Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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