Original release: June 4th, 1982
Running time: 114 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein
“The soul that has conceived one wickedness
can nurse no good thereafter.”
We like to think evil comes from a far away place, a place other than here and apart from us. But Evil, like Good, is all around us and within us, existing in a delicate balance, and every so often something happens that ends up disrupting that balance, swinging it in our favour — or against it.
When such a disturbance occurs, a battle for the soul can ensue, and everything in its path is collateral damage as that fight rages, especially if at its centre there’s something that Evil values more than anything else… an innocent it can corrupt.
In Tobe Hooper’s 1982 supernatural shocker, we meet the Freelings. They’re an all-American family who’ve recently moved into a house on the Cuesta Verde development estate. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a realtor and Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife. Together they have three kids, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and their youngest, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke).
Soon after settling in, strange things start happening but no one really thinks it’s anything out of the ordinary. First Tweety, the family bird, drops dead, much to Diane’s annoyance, “Oh, shit, Tweety! Couldn’t you have waited for a school day!” and they bury the much-loved pet in the garden.
Meanwhile Robbie is terrified of the huge tree that stands outside his bedroom window and feels it knows things about him and watches his family. Carol Anne then develops a fascination with the static on the blank television channels and says she’s talking to the “TV people”.
On a stormy night the kids pile into their parents’ bed and they all doze off, but around 2am Carol Anne wakes to the noise of the static from the television that’s been left on. The spirits communicating with her burst out of it and fly across the room into the bedroom walls, waking everyone up. They assume it’s an earthquake as the entire house shakes, but Carol Anne says “They’re heeeeeeeere”.
The next day is particularly troubling for Diane as she can’t quite wrap her head around what Carol Anne meant. The five-ear-old explains to her mother it’s the TV people. The morning continues to get weirder as Bobby notices his breakfast cutlery bending and folding on its own, and Diane witnesses the spontaneous re-arranging of the kitchen furniture. Carol Anne nods — it’s the TV people. Their dog fetches his toy and brings it to the bed. Staring at the wall, he’s waiting for the TV people to play with him.
When Steve arrives home, Diane’s eager to show him what’s going on. Excited at first, she thinks the TV people they’re sharing their house with are playful and says to her husband,
The TV people don’t stay playful for long though. The following night is stormy again, and this time a tornado descends on the Cuesta Verde area. The tree outside Bobby’s window launches its attack and everyone runs outside to save him. Meanwhile Carol Anne is left alone in her bedroom where she’s terrorised by invisible forces. Despite holding on for her life, she’s sucked into the closet through to another dimension.
When the family come back inside after the tornado, there’s no trace of Carol Anne anywhere. They search high and low for her, and then Bobby hears her calling from inside the television set. Diane comes back in and hears her daughter through the static…
After these harrowing events, Carol Anne’s parents call in paranormal investigators to examine the house and advise them on the best course of action to get their daughter back, but even these experts are stumped. They’ve never witnessed anything like this before. They bring in Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to cleanse the house of the Evil within it and bring the little girl back from the dimension she refers to as “a different sphere of consciousness”.
Poltergeist remains one of the most affecting supernatural films of all time, along with The Exorcist (1973) and The Entity (1981). These films tell us something very frightening about the nature of Evil — it’s inescapable and it’s always there.
The main difference with this film is the soul which Evil is trying to claim is a young innocent. Whereas Reagan in The Exorcist was almost a teenager and Carla Moran in The Entity was a single mother, Carol Anne is only five years old and her plight is much more terrifying, especially as we hear her crying for her mother who begs her to stay away from the light.
One of the film’s most moving scenes takes place in the living room with Steve, Diane, Bobby, Dana and the investigators all present. As Diane moves to head upstairs to confront the TV people and get her daughter back, she experiences a surge of energy that takes her back. Turning to face the others, her face is filled with emotion and her eyes with tears:
Diane felt Carol Anne’s soul. Who better to know the soul of someone than a mother? The situation becomes even more urgent as they realise what’s at stake. Tangina explains to them that sometimes these spirits are lost and don’t know what’s happened to them, but when they see someone like Carol Anne, they’re drawn to her because of her soul and want to be with her.
Though it relies on many of our childhood fears, Poltergeist also plays heavily with the idea that Good and Evil are tied to nature — human nature and nature that’s around us. It’s in the elements of air, fire, water, earth and space, and when something’s not right, such as when developers build over an ancient burial ground, disturbing the souls that lie there, nature can take its revenge out on us. In the case of Carol Anne, these forces gravitate toward her because of the girl’s innocence, light and energy emitting from her.
It’s a beautifully written and visualised story that’s heartbreaking, terrifying and rather unique in the way it portrays the susceptible balance of nature and the struggle between Good and Evil.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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