Poltergeist is one of those films that's famous for extracurricular reasons.
The first is the small matter of who directed it. Spielberg was the writer-producer, was getting ready to shoot E.T. and had a clause in his Universal contract preventing him until then from directing any other film. Officially the director was Tobe "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" Hooper. However as everyone knows, Spielberg is a colossus of his generation while Hooper, um, isn't. Soon enough stories were circulating about the production to make the Director's Guild of America open an investigation into whether Hooper's official credit was being denigrated by all these claims about Spielberg. In Spielberg's own words, they'd had a "rather unique, creative relationship".
E.T. and Poltergeist came out within a week of each other, incidentally. Time and Newsweek called it the Spielberg Summer.
The second concerns its rating. At first the MPAA saw Hooper's name and rated it R. Spielberg got this reduced on appeal, with no cuts, to a PG. In other words, he went in with a big smile and said, "Hey, guys, it's me." This is of course hilarious and gave the world probably its only out-and-out PG horror film, in a similar trick to that which Spielberg had already pulled with Jaws. No, really. Admittedly this is just a haunted house film and thus has no fatalities and only a single gore shot. Even that's just the equivalent of a dream sequence. However it's a pretty spectacular effect (a man's face being pulled off) and more importantly the overall film could certainly reduce an entire nation of ten-year-olds to insane gibbering wrecks. Hell, even I jumped once or twice. Clown under the bed. Gyaaah.
Third is the Poltergeist curse. Of course with so many movies being made every year, by the law of averages some will have a higher mortality rate than others. That's inevitable. However even leaving aside the sequels, the incidents associated with this film include:
1. Dominique Dunne (age 22), murdered by her boyfriend before the year was out. She played the elder Freeling daughter.
2. Heather O'Rourke, who died of intestinal stenosis in 1988 after appearing in all three Poltergeist films. She was twelve at the time and was buried in the same cemetery as Dunne.
3. JoBeth Williams would come home from the set each day to find pictures on her wall askew. She'd straighten them, only to find them crooked again the next day.
4. The house in Simi Valley, California, that they used for exterior shots of the Freeling home was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
5. Tobe Hooper says he experienced poltergeist activity when he was a teenager. For several weeks after his father died, he saw things like doors breaking in, dishes flying around the house and more. Okay, that's not really part of the curse, but it's still worth mentioning.
The film itself has Spielberg's name tattooed on its backside. This would make a fascinating double bill with E.T., in which another child comes face to face with the unknown. (Spielberg found Drew Barrymore in the Poltergeist auditions.) Both films are full of charm where you wouldn't expect it. Both are absolutely centred on their family, which is evoked with love, realism and some remarkably deft handling of child actors. Note the way in which we start with everyone being childish and shitty to each other. You'd expect it of the brats and their remote-controlled car, but check out Dad with his football game or Mum with her canary compassion bypass. I laughed when O'Rourke caught her about to flush it down the toilet. Naturally the deceased pet gets a proper burial after all, only to appear to suffer two completely different disinterral indignities. This is reflecting in miniature the backstory for the whole film, incidentally.
However after establishing that these people are real, we then go on to find that they're also charming. They're a lovely family. They care for each other. Dad knows things about thunderstorms. They have fun, non-cliched reactions like Mum's excitement on successfully demonstrating a moving chair to her husband. O'Rourke is the main focus of the poltergeist activity, but she's also offhand and even sometimes bored when talking about them. She calls them the "TV people" because they talk to her from the white noise of the TV. What's particularly remarkable about this cast is their effect on the film's tone. It's a positive experience, despite the fact that it's working in a genre that tends to be dour and unrelenting. Compare it with The Amityville Horror, for instance. Both films are outrageously silly, but Poltergeist manages to be scarier and yet also much more fun to watch.
Here's just one example of how much detail went into portraying the Freelings. How many films take the trouble to characterise the dog? It's always thinking with its stomach, but what's more they've chosen the right breed and made it a Golden Retriever. If you want a greedy dog, it's either them or Cocker Spaniels.
Back to the film. Did I call it "silly"? Make no mistake, the special effects are some of the biggest you'll ever see. It's not that they're going apeshit all over the place, because they're not. The number of effects-heavy scenes is less than it looks. It's just that almost every single one is mind-blowing, taking anything that might smack of subtlety and killing it with an axe. The tree! Oh my sainted aunt, the tree. It's doing what Carpenter also managed that year in The Thing, in that its special effects are so extreme that you soon decide that there are no limits whatsoever on what might happen next. Subtlety is good, but I can hardly imagine a better example of how to go the other way. Although having said that, even Spielberg can't stop the finale from tipping over into Goofyland.
If they remade this film, I dare say we'd all be calling it yet more CGI-laden silliness. Oh, I see they are. Might be a laugh.
The film isn't without problems. I've already mentioned the climax, which starts heading downhill around the time of the gigantic fleshy orifice. The psychic investigators talk a lot of hogwash, which I'm not sure even the scriptwriters really understood. Towards the light? Away from the light? Eh? If anyone can explain that to me, I'm all ears. It's also hard to hear anything said by the psychic dwarf, although, well, she's a psychic dwarf. Respect is due.
Overall, this film blew me away. I wouldn't say it's particularly good, but that's because at the end of the day it's telling a stupid story in the most outrageously unsubtle way imaginable. Nevertheless I adored that lack of subtlety. I love the way the film shortcuts the usual official scepticism from the psychic investigators, even if it's hard to suspend one's disbelief at phenomena that are so over-the-top and so willing to perform on cue for witnesses. If the world really operated like that, the Ghostbusters would be one of the regular emergency services. (That's a film that wouldn't exist without Poltergeist, incidentally. It came out two years later, you know.) There's no death or nudity, but I can live with that.
Despite what you'd expect this is Nice Spielberg, which is bizarre given what's pretty much the only no-questions horror film on his resume. You've got Jerry Goldsmith doing his best John Williams impersonation. However most importantly you've got a Spielberg Family and in this genre, that's something special.