The American Film Institute named it number 84 on its top 100 list of the most thrilling movies ever made. Since its summer release in 1982, it has earned well-deserved placements on similar lists ranked by the Bravo Network, American Movie Classics, as well as anyone you have probably met.
For most people, the movie is immediately associated with that delightfully creepy and grossly imitated catchphrase spoken by Heather O'Rourke as Carol Anne: "They're here." For others, myself included, it will forever be remembered as That Movie Where the Clown Doll Went After The Little Kid. If you have already seen "Poltergeist", you know what I'm talking about it. If you haven't, sorry to spoil any surprise. All I can say further is never take your eyes off the clown.
And if you weren't startled by the shocking hallucinatory sequences or bothered by the missing child premise that navigates the entire movie, then maybe you were at least intrigued about the paranormal conspiracy theories regarding the deaths of two of the principal actresses. Almost everybody knows that the young and precocious O'Rourke died at the age of twelve in 1988 of a septic infection due to bowel blockage. But fewer people know about the death of Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, Dana. She was strangled by her ex-boyfriend shortly after her twenty-third birthday.
Is there any truth to the myth that the fates of these actresses were cursed due to their participation in the occult? That is a question for the conspiracy theorists to decide. For the sake of the movie fans, their sad and unfortunate stories certainly do not tarnish the movie's value as a horror film classic.
And that brings me to my next question. We have seen hundreds of haunted house stories in film, television, literature, comic books, and video games. What is it about "Poltergeist" that makes it such a memorable classic? Why is it so much better than any of the "Paranormal Activity" movies?
I think it is because, unlike typical ghost-story victims, the Freelings, under the loose but caring control of Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams), are generally likable people. And this is a quality likely attributed to Steven Spielberg, who co-wrote the screenplay, produced the movie, and arguably did much of the directing alongside Tobe Hooper. Since Spielberg was under contractual obligations to refrain from directing another picture during the summer of "E.T.", the studio gave directorial duties to Mr. Hooper, who probably spent much of the time getting out of Spielberg's way during production.
In fact, if you thing about it, "Poltergeist" is a much darker "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with ghosts in place of aliens. It is the story of a working class American family torn apart by a misunderstood supernatural entity. For the Freelings, the unquiet spirits are somewhat justified in their actions against the family, as we find out more about the history behind their housing development.
But what is it that makes the Freelings different from any of the forgettable families in countless other haunted house stories? For one thing, they are all good-looking people, either cute as children or attractive as adults. Compared to their overweight and dim-witted neighbors, the Freelings are the people you are more likely to approach at a neighborhood cookout.
For the most part, they are a lot like us: suburban fans of technology and pop culture aspiring to be part of a conformist nation. They do not know much about the history of their real estate because they don't need to, or so they thought.
And here, I would like to voice my criticism toward Craig T. Nelson's Steve, who supposedly was the top agent for Cuesta Verde, the real estate company that built all these homes on top of desecrated burial grounds. Did he not do any research about the integrity of this land that his company was developing? His boss, Mr. Teague, claims that Steve was responsible for forty-two percent of the homes built in the area. You would think with that kind of track record, he would have checked to make sure the land was safe (or, to borrow a specific adjective, "clean")? I'm glad he's not my real estate agent.
But aside from being a lackadaisical professional, Steve Freeling and his tormented family are are all respectable people. They cherish their pets, routinely crash out in front of the TV, and lavish each other with tons of attention. Unlike the characters in the "Paranormal Activity" movies, nobody is too busy fiddling with their cameras to come to the rescue of a family member in peril.
The most bothersome aspect of their family persona is not their sense of self-importance or consumerism, but their queer prioritization of behaving like a normal family despite the involvement of fantastic elements like a tree trying to swallow one of the children. It is understood that they keep the supernatural events quiet because they do not want to be sensationalized in the same media market that they so drastically worship. But as a parent, I just don't know how you could act nonchalant in front of others when your own child has been abducted by the television set.
The fact that we like these folks so much forces us to ask a dynamic question about ourselves: how would we react to such paranormal events if they were to happen in our home? Would we call the police? Would we sacrifice our own dignity and call the news stations? As my good friend once told me, one thing is certain: I am not sticking around much longer when I see my daughter slide across the kitchen floor wearing a football helmet.
Like most other horror classics, "Poltergeist" is followed by a number of subpar sequels. The first one, "The Other Side", is a dull and repetitive bore. The only reason to watch it is for the scene when Craig T. Nelson molests his wife while possessed by a demonic tequila worm. "Poltergeist III", the final film for Heather O'Rourke, is not worth watching either unless you are playing a drinking game with friends when you drink every time someone says Carol Anne's name. Drink.