Just as I thought: Everybody except me.
My parents didn't like me watching horror movies, and we didn't have cable when I was a kid. Those were common enough complaints in the '80s, and most of the kids who had them also had friends at whose houses they could watch that stuff when mom and dad were away, but no such luck for me: my other friends didn't have cable either, and anyway, all of my friends were fonder of action movies, for some reason.
I've been putting Poltergeist on the back burner since I started doing this project four years ago, and tonight, by God, it was time.
Poltergeist, for those who don't know it, tells the story of the Freelings, a good ol' nuclear family living in a planned community called Cuesta Verde, Californa. Steven Freeling is a real estate agent for the company that developed Cuesta Verde, and Diane is a stay-at-home mom. They have thre kid. One night, after a day of Mystery Spot-esque phenomena around the house, a tree breaks into the bedroom and tries to eat their son, Robbie. While Steven and Diane are dealing that that, theyr youngest daughter Carol Anne gets eaten by the closet.
Parapsychologists get called in--imagine the Ghostbusters, but less quippy. Objects fly and a guy hallucinates that he's tearing his own face off, and they decide it's time to bring in the big guns: Tangina Barrons, a medium who declares that the house is under seige by "lingering spirits" who are "not at rest". This seems like splitting hairs to me; the house is haunted, and all Ms. Barrons has done is throw around a little jargon.
No matter. Through trial and error, they manage to locate the portal where Carol Anne is being held, and Diane performs a harrowing rescue. Ms. Barrons declares the house "clean", and the investigators all leave about five minutes before the restless spirits start their final attack. As the potential insurance claims pile up, we learn the awful truth: When Cuesta Verde was built on top of a Native American burial ground, the headstones were moved, but not the bodies. Where are the bodies? In the swimming pool out back, scaring the bejesus out of Diane.
This summary does not do the film justice. It's a hard film to describe in text, because it's mostly a showcase for special effects. The plot, frankly, is nonsense, so much that the definition of the term "poltergeist" is never actually explained. Did the average moviegoer know what a poltergeist was in 1982? I'm not sure--recall the 1997's Men In Black repeated the concept of its title ad nauseam, even though MiB had been all over pop culture for the two preceeding decades. Poltergeist treats its title concept with a certain fluid vagueness that allows it to mean anything.
The shortcomings of the plot are made up for by the special effects. And what special effects! These Damn Kids Today have no idea how lucky they are with their high-resolution, ultra-realistic CGI... Poltergeist was done the old-fashioned way with puppets and mirrors and raw hamburger and gallons of KY-jelly. It's all exceptionally impressive. I may be lukewarm on the story, but Poltergeist's practical effects are an incredible achievement, from the monstrous tree to the penultimate scene where the house implodes, swallowing itself up. I have often expressed a fondness for the skill and inventiveness that go into practical effects even when you can tell they're not real. Well, in Poltergeist they look incredibly real and really incredible.
That's probably mostly thanks to Steven Spielberg who served as producer and was rumored to have done quite a bit of the directing as well. The credited director, Tobe Hooper, was rumored to have been a little too wet behind the ears, mostly letting Spielberg take the reins. I think that's probably true, but it doesn't matter--Poltergeist got Hooper's name a bit more notice than his previous low-budget indie films (namely The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and within a couple of years he'd become a much more competent director (see Lifeforce, which I don't love, but the problems aren't Hooper's fault). The performances are fine--Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are credible as the Freelings, and Zelda Rubinstein more or less built her career on the role of Tangina Barrons, but this is not a movie you watch for its characters.
Here's the trailer.