The house looks just like the one next to it, and the one next to that, and the one next to that. A young couple live in it with their three children….and something more.
Its form is revealed, Its focus is clear and the games are over.
It knows what scares you.
Poltergeist is one of the earliest films Spielberg served as producer, and not director, as well as co-writer. Like Goonies and Gremlins, released the following three years, it sort of muddies the lines between family-friendly adventure and horror; Gremlins, for all it’s cute Gizmo moments and Holiday cheer, as well as the Gremlins themselves being used somewhat for comic relief, there’s still a horror element to the movie-the Gremlins clearly kill several people (although at least one family believed to be dead in the first film-the Futtermans-survive into the second although their fate is a bit ambiguous in the first).
Even Goonies, for all it’s Hardy Boys nature, has quite a few scares. Not only was there a recent victim of the Fratellis packed in one of the coolers of the restaurant hideout-which then proceeds to fall on the kids once they open it-but the caverns and traps leading to the Inferno have a few extra corpses-local treasure hunter Chester Copperpot, who got smashed by one of the traps in the 1930’s; and it seems like another pirate-or several-got made into a piano trap…and of course Willie’s own crew was extremely dead too.
Then there’s Sloth’s appearence and unknown intentions at first., but he turns out to be one of the good guys.
Poltergeist, like these, seems a bit family and PG friendly, but slips a bit more into the horror territory; while some of these ghosts and creatures appear benign at first, and there’s nice scenes of family and suburbia to begin with, things begin to take a dark turn about 45 minutes in.
The film begins with the National anthem, as it concludes the broadcast day (something that doesn’t happen anymore), and we get a little bit of the family sleeping soundly, including Craig T. Nelson’s (Coach, The Incredibles, CSI:Ny) Steven, who was watching TV and fell asleep at the remote. As it fades to static, the youngest daughter Carrie Ann is drawn to the TV, and seems to be answering it, despite just static coming from it.
In many ways, the character of Carrie Ann is similar to Barry from Close Encounters, although Carrie Ann soon seems far more horrified. At least the aliens in CE seem far more friendly, intelligent and benign, although they do cause a lot of hell for the humans that fail to understand their motives. The Poltergeists in “Poltergeist” however, seem to be largely confused and in part, under the control of the entity known as the Beast. (more on that later).
After this subtly creepy intro, we cut to more of a sort of ‘day in the life’ scene that’s kind of what we’ve seen in a lot of Spielberg films. There’s a big guy kind of awkwardly bike riding with a ton of beers, who then gets pranked by some kids using their remote-control cars, causing him to drop the beers, many of which start to leak all over the place.
He’s bringing them over-still leaking and half lost-to the Freeling house from earlier, where Steven and his friends are watching a football game. Also, upstairs, as the mother–Diane-is tending to the kid’s room, we have the film’s only real (current) casualty; Tweety, the bird. It’s unclear whether Tweety’s a victim of the ghosts somehow, or just happens to pass away some other way. In any case, he’s a bit of foreshadowing…
Downstairs, the football game suddenly turns into Mr. Rogers. However, like Tweety, this isn’t really something out of the ordinary, but mainly the Freeling’s remote being on the same frequency as their neighbors.
It should be noted, that apart from Mr. Rogers, the film’s got a lot of 80’s pop culture in it-in Robbie and Carol Anne room alone, there’s a ton of Star Wars, Toys R Us, Sesame Street and even Alien memorabilia, in addition of course to that creepy clown doll.
Meanwhile, Diane’s about to flush Tweety down the toilet but Carol Anne, catching her, insists on a proper burial and funeral in a cigar box. Although Diane’s teen daughter Diane, and son Robbie, aren’t really respectful at the funeral; elaborating in part why the ghost/beast choose Carol Anne-she seems perhaps somewhat more ‘pure of heart’ than her siblings and parents.
After buying Carol Anne some goldfish as a new pet, Diane puts the younger kids to sleep, although Robbie’s very wary of quite a few things-the massive tree that looks like it has a face outside, and the creepy clown doll of Carol Anne’s. He’ll have more reason to fear both by film’s end.
But for now, a Chewbacca jacket is sufficient protection.
We get a bit of goofiness with the parents, with Diane smoking some pot and musing a bit about Carol Anne’s sleepwalking and the potential danger (as they’re building a swimming pool out back) and Steve reading a Reagan book, as well as camping around with his gut, making a diving pose, and then talking in a Donald duck voice. It’s also worth noting the film that he’s watching is a guy named Joe, about a ghost pilot (Spielberg would later make a similar film, “Always”)
However, Robbie interrupts them about the storm, and after some reassurances it isn’t quite enough and they have to stay in their room. However, the TV does the static thing again, and we get one of the few visual aspects of the ghosts- a bony hand, which appears to try to grab Carol Anne, before shooting over the Freeling’s bed and causing a hole in the wall-and an Earthquake.
and of course the iconic line:
The next day the swimming pool dig’s going on outside (overturning Tweety’s grave-a kind of subtle hint as to the true nature of these ghosts), with the kids in general messing around at the breakfast table, although weird things are now starting to happen; Robbie’s glass breaks on the bottom (Which ruins Dana’s homework), and his silverware gets bent. Carol Anne says she’s been talking to the “TV people”. Steve’s also trying to figure out where the “Earthquake” came from on the phone.
Small note here, one of the guys who catcalls Diane outside (and gets the middle finger as a result) is Sonny Landham, also known for 48 Hours and most famously, Billy in Predator.
Now, further weird things start to happen at the house. The dog reacts to the hole in the wall, acting as it’s telling him to do tricks…much like the TV talking to Carol Anne.
And more visible, the chairs pulling themselves out and stacking within SECONDS, spooking the hell out of Diane. Diane begins their might be something to these “TV people” after all.
After Steve-who works for the real estate company who created their neighborhood-and has plans for expansion-shows a similar (but probably not haunted) house to a husband and wife, he comes home to learn that Diane’s discovered even more weird stuff-the kitchen floor acting as a makeshift slide, moving objects-first a chair, and later a helmeted Carol Anne-across a part of the floor without being pushed forward. Steve is suitably spooked by this. There’s a bit of a deleted scene here with Steve wondering if it’s some kind of natural thing related to the Earthquake from earlier, and Carol Anne saying she doesn’t like Pizza Hut. However, apparently Pizza Hut took offense at this late in the editing phase, and we get an awkward jump cut to Steven and Diane asking their obnoxious neighbors if they’ve seen any weird stuff like furniture moving around. They also suffer some nasty mosquito bites.
After some speculation on the nature of what’s going on, as well as some mosquito lotion, Steve decides he’s going to have the kitchen off-limits until they can figure out what’s going on….and now, things are about to get much, much worse.
Next: Trees, TVs, and the long-suffering Marty!