Not long after Steven Spielberg had displayed an aptitude for examing alien life-forms from the vantage point of surburbia (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET), he turned his pen to that other final frontier – the paranormal. Despite this being an exploration of inner rather than outer space, there are plenty of similar themes, including children who see things more clearly than adults, dads who don’t spend quite enough time with the kids, and money-grabbing corporations (embodied by the same sort of unscrupulous housing developers that also came in for flak in Jaws).

Equally, although Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper is nominally at the reins this still bears a heavy stamp of Spielberg. The ET director had a clause in his contract specifically barring him from helming anything else while working on the alien feature, but there is a strong suggestion that Poltergeist was a collaborative effort, with Spielberg heavily involved in the production throughout and holding almost all the cards during post-production.

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If the direction issues are complex, the story is simple enough. A white-bread middle American family move to their dream home in a new development – only to discover fear lurking behind their picket fence. First the furniture begins to move around, but what mum Diane (JoBeth Williams) initially views as little more than a parlour trick, soon becomes a lot more ominous when son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) is almost swallowed by a tree during a storm and their youngest child Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) disappears. Soon Diane and hubby Steve (Craig T Nelson) are calling in the psychic detectives after they hear Carol Anne’s voice through the TV set static and become convinced she is trapped somewhere inside the house with a lot of dubious spirits for company. Once ensconced, Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and their team try to locate the source of the trouble and get back the girl.

Twenty-five years on, the film is still looking remarkably good – and, I’m betting sales of clown dolls have never quite recovered. The special effects – heralded as groundbreaking at the time – stand up pretty well to modern scrutiny, since many rely heavily on lighting techniques and sound-effects as well as techno-wizardry. The first part of the film retains an air of growing menace as the happy haven of family life is gradually disrupted. Little Robbie’s fear of the storm is handled particularly well to ensure the creak of tension. Once Carol Anne has been got by the ghoulies, as it were, things take something of a downturn, as Tobe and Steven sneak out for afternoon tea and let the special effects guys throw a party.

From careful deployment of effects – culminating in a particularly sinister interlude in which a slab of steak inches its way across a kitchen worktop and Marty (Martin Casella) loses his face in a scene which surely influenced a similar moment in Cronenberg’s The Fly – things become more super, less natural. Monsters begin to fall out of closets and everything – except, possibly, the kitchen sink – is thrown about in an attempt to be scary. The result is that disturbing slips into daft. Also, the story has problems. The idea of the spirits and the poltergeist are never really explored to any great effect and why one of them should be particularly malevolent forever remains a mystery. This scarcely matters in the great scheme of things, however, since once you’re on the rollercoaster you rarely stop to consider the physics.

Poltergeist – as with much of Spielberg’s output – succeeds best where films such as The Amityville Horror failed, in making you genuinely care about the characters. By keeping the audience always on the side of the good guys and investing us in the minutae of their lives, he keeps us rooting for the team, even when the effects threaten to submerge the story. Poltergeist still has a spooky attraction, even on its silver anniversary.

Reviewed on: 23 Oct 2007
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Story of spooks in suburbia gets a silver anniversary DVD release.
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James Gracey ****

Director: Tobe Hooper

Writer: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

Starring: Craig T Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson

Year: 1982

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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