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Wednesday, February 08, 2017


After seeing Nosferatu and King Kong and the kids not feeling excited or scared, I realized I had to jazz up my after-school horror film class. I had to go modern, I had to go color. So I went with Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost story that is more pyrotechnics than chills, but still offers some genuine spookiness and made us, for the moment, wary of our television sets.

Nominally directed by Tobe Hooper, but written and produced by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist helped 1982 be a very good year for Spielberg, as it was released within a few weeks of E.T., the Extraterrestrial. Hooper had directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there are varying reports on whether he directed all of Poltergeist. Spielberg's fingerprints are all over it.

This was Spielberg's great suburbia period, when magical things happened in generic cul-de-sacs. This one is in a new neighborhood, Cuesta Verde. A salesman for the development (Craig T. Nelson) is living in one of the homes, along with his wife (Jobeth Williams) and three children. The youngest, Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) has a conversations with something coming from the TV set when it is static (I had to explain to my students that in 1982 TV was not a 24-hour enterprise).

Other things start happening--chairs rearrange themselves, lights flicker, and then a tree breaks through a window and tries to grab the son (Oliver Robins). While dealing with this, the parents leave Carol Ann alone to be sucked into her closet, where she disappears, except when the TV is on, then she can talk to them from some other dimension.

Parapsychologist Beatrice Straight is brought in, and the film skips the usual "nobody will believe us," as they open the door to the kids' room and find objects spinning around. Instead we move right along to a tiny psychic (Zelda Rubinstein) muttering mumbo jumbo but succeeding in pulling Carol Ann back. But don't you know it's not over--remember that clown doll sitting in the chair?

In a spin off the old "ancient Indian burial ground" plot, the houses in Poltergeist are built over a graveyard, but a modern one. But head man James Karen (I remember him from doing Pathmark commercials) saved some money by just moving headstones and leaving the bodies. Apparently they are the ones making mischief inside the house, but the plot is fuzzy because Rubinstein refers to "the Beast," and there's a couple of monsters that appear. Exactly what is happening is not clear.

The film was a big hit and spawned sequels and a remake in 2015 that completely escaped my radar. It's also become the stuff of legend as two of the children from the film died very young--O'Rourke at only 12, and Dominique Dunn was murdered at 22. Robins, happily, is still alive and well.

As for my student's reactions--they enjoyed it, and even had to hide their eyes during the clown scene. "No more clowns!" I was told.

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