The Summer of ’82: Poltergeist

Fante’s Inferno revisits the Summer of 1982, considered the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist
MGM

Release Date: June 4, 1982

Directed by Tobe Hooper; Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein

View the original trailer here.

“The house looks just like the one next to it, and the one next to that, and the one next to that.”

I always remembered that line from the original trailer for Poltergeist.  Watching it again this week made me remember why it worked on so many levels.  Jaws could make people afraid of the water.  Poltergeist could make you afraid of your house (or clowns).

As I’ve pointed out in my previous posts on the films of The Summer of ’82, I have a preference for old school special effects over today’s CGI.  Watching Poltergeist 30 years later, I’m amazed at how little there was in terms of special effects for the first two-thirds of the film.  With the exception of an animated hand poking out of the television, it’s mostly flashing lights and invisible wires moving furniture until the cause of the disturbances make themselves known later in the film.  Funny thing is, these low tech effects still hold up very well.  Heck, for most of the movie TV static is one of main elements of the story line, even a character in the film.  Talk about a cheap special effect!

Tobe Hooper is credited as the director of Poltergeist, but there has been some debate over how much of the film he directed.  Produced by Steven Spielberg (he also has a writing credit), Poltergeist could easily be mistaken for one of his directorial efforts.  The Freeling’s neighborhood in the opening credit sequence of Poltergeist looked more like Elliot’s neighborhood in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and several close ups and the use of flashing lights in the film are reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Watching the film this week I noticed for the first time that A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne is playing on Steve and Diane’s bedroom TV early in the film.  Spielberg would remake this film into Always in 1989.

Poltergeist spawned two sequels (Poltergeist II: The Other Side) in 1986 and Poltergeist III in 1988).  Sadly, two members of the original cast suffered untimely deaths: Dominique Dunn (Dana Freeling), the daughter of Dominick Dunne, was murdered prior to her 23rd birthday several months after Poltergeist’s premiere, and Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling) died due to an illness in 1988 at the age of 12.

Watching Poltergeist brought me back to the Summer of ’82 more than the other films I’ve revisited.  It was one of my favorite films that year and I’ve lost track of how many times I watched it on cable TV.  Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams were perfect as Steve and Diane Freeling, and their son Robbie Freeling’s room could have easily been my room growing up with all of the Star Wars and NFL merchandise.  Thirty years later Poltergeist is not as dated as I thought it would be.  Two elements of the film that might be considered dated or confusing to a young viewer would be the opening shot of the Star Spangled Banner playing on a television late at night, and a household that doesn’t have cable TV.

One thing that did make me feel old watching Poltergeist is the fact that both Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams were younger than me when they played their roles in this film.  Sigh.

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