Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) Freeling, and their children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), are living a quiet life in a California suburb, when a group of seemingly benign ghosts begin communicating with five-year-old Carol Anne through the static on the family's television sets. A number of other bizarre occurrences follow, including an earthquake that only the Freelings feel, glasses and utensils that spontaneously break or bend, and the ominous announcement by Carol Anne that the ghosts are there with them. Diane begins to realize the presence of beings in her home, which fascinates her. But when she brings these things to Steven's attention, he is disturbed and worried.

One night, during a rainstorm, a gnarled tree comes to life and grabs Robbie through his bedroom window. However, this is merely a distraction used by the ghosts to get Carol Anne's parents to leave her unattended. While Diane and Steven rescue Robbie, Carol Anne is sucked through a portal in her closet. The horrified Freelings realize she has been taken after they begin to hear her communicating through a television set.

A group of parapsychologists from UC Irvine, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella), come to the Freeling house to investigate. They determine that the Freelings are experiencing a poltergeist, rather than a true haunting. Dr. Lesh explains that the spirits have not moved on to "the light" after death, but are stuck between dimensions. They have taken Carol Anne, Lesh says, because as an innocent 5-year-old, her "life force" is as bright to them as the light, and they believe she is their salvation.

During the investigation, Steven, a real estate agent for the subdivision development he lives in, is approached by his boss, Lewis Teague (James Karen), about a promotion. The new project will involve selling lots on a newly acquired hilltop parcel of land that currently houses a cemetery. When Steven balks at the idea of relocating the graveyard, his boss shrugs it off, explaining that the company had done it before, in the very neighborhood where Steven now lives.

After a series of frightening paranormal episodes, Robbie and Dana are sent away for their safety. The parapsychologists leave with the data they collected, but Dr. Lesh and Ryan soon return with a spiritual medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), who informs Diane that Carol Anne is alive and in the house. She also explains that, in addition to the peaceful lost souls inhabiting the house, there is a single malevolent spirit she calls the ‘Beast’, that is using Carol Anne to keep the spirits away from the light.

The assembled group discovers that while the entrance to the other dimension is through the children's bedroom closet, the exit is through the living room ceiling. They send Diane to rescue Carol Anne, tying her to a rope that they've managed to thread through both portals. As Tangina coaxes the agonized spirits away from Carol Anne, Diane retrieves her daughter and they emerge through the living room ceiling, falling unconscious to the floor. Tangina announces that the spirits are gone.

However, while the spirits have moved on, the ‘Beast’ has not. On the family's final night in the house, the ‘Beast’ attacks Diane and the children. Diane runs to her neighbors for help, and in the process, slips and falls into the unfinished swimming pool, from which coffins and rotting corpses erupt. Her neighbors, terrified by the ghostly energy blazing from the house, refuse to help. Diane pulls out Robbie and Carol Anne from the house, and Dana returns from a date to find coffins and dead bodies exploding from the ground throughout the neighborhood.

As Steven returns home to this mayhem, he realizes that when Teague relocated the cemetery under the subdivision, he merely moved the headstones in order to save money. Teague appears soon after, joining the Freelings' neighbors in their horror at the Freeling house's explosive possession. An enraged Steven confronts him with the fact that by leaving the bodies in unmarked graves and building houses on top of them, Teague had desecrated their burial grounds. As the Freelings drive away in terror, the house itself implodes into another dimension, to the astonishment of onlookers. After fleeing the house, the family checks into a Holiday Inn for the night. Taking no chances, Steven puts the room's television outside.

Oscar
3 Nominations
0 Awards

Golden Globes
0 Nominations
0 Awards
“Poltergeist” is a perfect example of a modern horror movie that is truly terrifying without any deaths and only one minor scene of gore. It trucks along with plenty of shocks, but the beauty of the film is how much we come to care about the family as the terror unfolds. The film works on several levels simultaneously, and can be a different experience depending on your age. It taps in to childhood fears of dolls, monsters in the closet, and thunderstorms. At the same time it's every parent's nightmare to lose a child and not be able to fight back, and there's a spectral rape scene to get women gnashing their teeth. It's even a smartly constructed satire on American consumerism, how we've sold our soul for cheap housing in good locales.

It's a slick film, and it fits easily into the Steven Spielberg cannon. It looks like he directed it, but Tobe Hooper gets his name right above the title. Spielberg was only credited with producing the film, as he was forbidden by contract with Universal not to direct anything the same year he was working on “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”. It's been a subject of long debate how much control Spielberg actually handed to the credited director, or if he was a name only by the end of the process. Suffice it to say, Spielberg wrote, edited (he wasn't credited with this, but he did), and produced the film while Hooper shot the sequences.

Some claim Spielberg story boarded every scene and made adjustments after Tobe did the initial setup. Yet Hooper to this day claims he did at least half the storyboards, and the two were collaborative. Whatever happened with the directing controversy, you can see both Spielberg and Hooper's fingerprints on the film negatives. We get all the glossy family fun of one of Steve's blockbusters, but there are some raw scenes, which imply Hooper's bombast wasn't completely stifled. Though the movie plays out like a Spielberg fantasia, Tobe Hooper seems to be haunting the set enough to shake things up and make it feel slightly more dangerous. Yet the rumors persist even today, and actress Zelda Rubinstein once claimed in an interview that Spielberg directed her all six days she was on set.

The casting of the film was purposefully done to showcase some faces that weren't too familiar at the time. In 1982 JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson were the perfect couple to play the Freeling parents. Both were attractive and relatable, and, by not being big Hollywood stars, would appear normal. The production team wanted the film to be about a typical American family, and felt like big-name stars would distract from this. The kids were cast perfectly as well. Dominique Dunne and Oliver Robins were the oldest girl and only boy. Unfortunately, Dunne tragically died shortly after filming wrapped at the hands of a spurned abusive boyfriend. Robins went to film school; he now works behind the camera.

The real find was Heather O'Rourke, who beat out Drew Barrymore for the role of Carol Anne. Heather died after filming “Poltergeist III” from Crohn's Disease, a chronic inflammation of the intestine. She will always be remembered for her signature blend of innocence and wonder, the perfect child for a Spielberg production. And who can forget her creepy "They're here!" proclamation at the foot of her parent's bed?

Poltergeist is an astounding cinematic feature, both visually and conceptually. This classic ghost story will long be remembered in the film community for its unique and entertaining blend of humor, drama, and raw horror. It is a great movie in its own right, and I urge all interested in the art of cinema to view it at least once.