[box cover]


MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Craig T. Nelson, Jo Beth Williams, Heather O'Rourke,
and Oliver Robins

Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor
Directed by Tobe Hooper

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Cuesta Verde is a suburban paradise. Nestled in a spacious southwestern valley, its streets are teeming with barking dogs, bicycling children, and the steady hum of lawn mowers. The Freeling family has lived there since the beginning — dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson) works for a developer, selling homes in the neighborhood — and they are quite happy. But there are drawbacks to this tightly manufactured community. The houses all look alike, and the neighbors are slightly too close for comfort — Steve and his neighbor can change channels on each other's TVs because their remote controls are on the same frequency. But overall, this middle class oasis is a haven for young families.

Then the Freelings begin to notice strange occurrences. Youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O' Rourke) stares at and talks to the static of off-air TV stations. Mom Diane (Jo Beth Williams) finds that the kitchen chairs move on their own accord. There is an otherworldly presence in their house, and its benign beginnings provoke no greater feelings than mystery. When son Robbie (Oliver Robins) is attacked by the scary tree outside his bedroom window and Carol Anne disappears into her closet, they learn this force is a malevolent power to be reckoned with.

Poltergeist was one of the first movies churned out by the Steven Spielberg blockbuster production machine that wasn't directed by the man himself (although Hollywood legend has it producer Spielberg replaced director Tobe Hooper [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] after seeing some early rushes), and gives credence to the perspective that while his empire was formula-driven, it was a formula that — initially, at least — relied on character as much as (and maybe more than) special effects.

Poltergeist works because the onset of ghostly happenings at the Freeling house progresses slowly, from small gestures to grand ones, and — in between the moving furniture and the flying toys — the characters act like actual people. The tiny details they reveal about themselves are not exaggerated for comic purposes, nor are they aggressively pushed in the audience's face as "character." Some of them whisk by so quickly you hardly notice what you're learning about this besieged family. The result is, when their daughter is ghostnapped and their son is attacked by a clown doll, you care. Spielberg's other great films succeed for the same reason. The scar scene in Jaws, for instance, turned that movie from a quickly forgettable genre effort into an enduring classic.

Poltergeist is by no means a classic in the ghost story genre (for that see 1965's The Haunting, soon to be butchered in an effects-laden remake). Poltergeist's most effective paranormal scenes seem taken straight from real-believer reports, but when the movie strays from common haunting lore and indulges in dramatic hyperbole, the tension gives way to silliness. It almost feels as if the film makers themselves believe in ghosts, but don't believe that ghosts alone can earn respectable box office. For that, apparently, you need giant, screaming, phantom-like devil heads and scary trees that eat children. Oh well.

Great credit goes to the cast, who keep their performances real when everything around them turns into an E-ticket ride at Disneyland. Nelson and Williams are perfect as the parents, as is Beatrice Straight as a paranormal expert and diminutive Zelda Rubenstein as a powerful psychic. Poltergeist also stars Dominique Dunne as the Freeling's teenage daughter, Dana. Adding an air of mystery to the film, Dunne was murdered in 1982, and O'Rourke died from health problems in 1988.

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen or pan-and-scan, and Dolby Digital 5.1. The source print is not exactly pristine, but its defects are only obvious at the beginning. Textual supplements.

— Gregory P. Dorr

Get it at Reel.com

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Back to Main Page

© 1999, The DVD Journal