The Freeling family – Steven (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) and their kids Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) live in a large house within the new-build residential community Steven works as a real estate agent for. They lead a normal life dealing with everyday family problems, but shortly after work begins on the digging of a new swimming pool they begin to experience strange goings-on within the house. Carol Anne is found talking to the television static late at night. Chairs being to rearrange themselves in the kitchen. The tree outside Robbie’s bedroom window seems more menacing than usual. Then one day, when Robbie’s tree attacks him, Carol Anne is left alone in her room and, when her family goes to find her, it appears she has been sucked through a portal in her closet.
This review was nominated for me to watch by Jason Soto of Your Face! and The Lair Of The Unwanted. I’m not surprised it was picked for me, as this is one of those films that has garnered the biggest response of “You haven’t seen Poltergeist?” from people who’ve found out over the years. I didn’t even know there was a franchise. In fact, not only had I never seen it but I knew practically nothing about it. I knew at some point a young girl by the name of Carol Anne disappeared, and that it had something to do with the family TV, so my imagination had predicted that the girl would be sucked into the TV, and a parent, probably her father, would have to enter into the television set to find her, either battling through giant Honey I Shrunk The Kids-style electronics or facing off against fabled television characters or commercials. I feel like I’m describing an episode of Animaniacs, but that’s what I’d pictured in my head. Oh, and having listened to another podcast (The Film Vault, I don’t really recommend it but I’ve been listening for too long to quit) in which the hosts listed their most traumatising moments in film, one of them referenced a scene with a clown, so I knew something like that was coming.
So what is this film? Well, the girl does disappear, but instead of a mad dash through re-runs of Dukes of Hazzard and Columbo the family call in a series of paranormal investigators to research the problem, which leads to some scenes which whilst not being as terrifying as I’d been led to believe, were still more than a little off-putting. In particular, one scene during the overnight recording session sees one of the investigators (Martin Casella) going to the kitchen to grab a midnight snack (which you’d think would be a bag of crisps or at best a sandwich, but which turns out to be a piece of chicken and a whole damn steak, clearly being saved for dinner the next night) but going insane whilst there. How insane? Try imagining he was picking at a cut on his cheek, only to keep ripping the flesh away until he reached bone. I’m not a fan of body horror, so despite the oh-so-80s Terminator-esque special effects I still found these moments difficult to watch, because it’s a guy literally ripping his own face off. Ick.
Horror-wise the film didn’t have much of an effect on my other than that one moment of nausea, and that’s mainly because of the plot. I’m a very sceptical, and almost any plot that purports to involves ghosts, demons or any other such paranormal entity is immediately deemed ridiculous and non-threatening by me as soon as it gets brought up. If anything fantastical, implausible or just plain impossible begins to occur, I dismiss any notions that the film could be frightening on the grounds that it’s clearly not real, because no such exploits are possible. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the first Paranormal Activity, which scared me silly mainly because I watched it alone, in a dark bedroom, with my laptop screen set up almost exactly where the camera is in the majority of the bedroom scenes, which was just not very wise. The Shining, too, scared me enough on my first watch (aged about 15) to make me not watch it for a long time after that. Poltergeist, I’m afraid, was almost entirely devoid of scares because of this.
I say almost because of that fucking clown. I don’t suffer from coulrophobia, never have, but nor have I understood why clowns exist in the first place, because if it’s for entertainment value then every single one fails. The reason can only be to terrify kids, and Robbie’s parents must despise him for leaving that damn clown toy in his room at night, sat at the foot of his bed staring at him. There’s one scene, and it’s one I alluded to earlier, where things seem to have been resolved, but considering there was still 20 minutes of movie left I had a hunch something was going to go down. Robbie sees the clown at the bottom of his bed and, just as he did earlier in the film, he throws his Star Wars blanket over it, but this time he misses. Opting to man up rather than leave the warm confines of his bed he ignores the clown and goes to sleep. When he wakes up, guess who isn’t there? CLOWN NOT THERE. Never has an absence of clown been more terrifying. That’s a great scare right there, when something is horrifying because you can’t see it. When you can’t see it, it can be anywhere except where you’re looking. It could be hidden somewhere, or lurking right behind you, or about to fall from the ceiling and grab your face. And it’s never not terrifying, because no matter if you turn around, or look up, or run away, there’s still far more of your immediate surroundings that you’re not looking at than you are, and somewhere in that unknown is that mother-fucking clown doll, waiting, and grinning, and waiting.
Another thing this film does really well, and it’s probably a product of Steven Spielberg’s producing credit (which many believe could also be a directing credit in favour of Tobe Hooper’s, but that’s all speculation so I won’t go into it) is the establishing of the family. The film begins following their adorable dog around their house as they all lay asleep, setting up each character. Steven is asleep in front of the TV in the lounge, the older daughter is splayed out on her bed with an open bag of crisps everywhere, asleep on top of them. The younger kids share a room, with the boy being obsessed with popular culture – he’s maybe 10 years old but has an Alien poster, good lad. The family dynamics are set up to lull us into security but also just introduce their lifestyle, with the stay-at-home mother dealing with a pet bird funeral, contractors leering at her daughter, children ruining their parents’ drug-fuelled evening, that sort of thing. The characters are mostly well defined – I didn’t really feel like Dana brought much to the party, but a recent Lambcast episode proved I was maybe wrong on that front – and especially JoBeth Williams’ Diane does a terrific job.
I’m not sure why, but I’d assumed her role would be minimal, I think maybe because of how little I know her as an actress, in comparison to actually having heard of Craig T. Nelson before. Diane actually gets a great deal to do and a wide array of emotions and states of mental fragility to convey, and she performs it all admirably. All in all, other than some now very dated effects and my own personal anti-paranormal bias, I can see this as being a true classic from the genre. There are some decent humour beats – I love the exchange between Diane and Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), one of the paranormal specialists brought in, regarding which of them should enter the realm in search of Carol Anne – great performances and a plot that wasn’t wholly predictable.
Choose Film 8/10