Long before Stranger Things, are imaginations were captured by a man named Steven Spielberg, and a loveable little guy known simply as “E.T.” The film became an immediate hit, and a staple for every ’80s kid such as myself (what kid back then didn’t want to be able to fly on their bikes with their friends, and after dark at that?!).
Originally released on June 11, 1982 (after premiering at Cannes on May 26), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial follows the story of Elliot (Henry Thomas), a suburban ten-year-old who discovers his newfound friend from another world in his backyard. Along with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and kid sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot keeps E.T. a secret from his single mom (Dee Wallace) and government agents hot on the trail, all while bonding with the little fella and incorporating some of his traits.
The film sways from Sci Fi/adventure to drama (with just a hint of horror in the beginning), and broke the record of highest grossing film of all time, knocking Star Wars out of the coveted spot and remaining there until another Steven Spielberg film, Jurassic Park, took the title of number one eleven years later in 1993.
It also spawned countless toys and merchandise, including the ill-fated Atari game, notoriously remembered as one of the worst video games of all time after being rushed for a Christmas 1982 release (to this day it still remains a topic of lore to many). There’s even been theme park rides, such as the original E.T. Adventure ride still operating at Universal Studios Florida to this day.
In a 2020 interview with the film’s star Dee Wallace, I had to ask her what made the film so endearing after all of these years. Her response was simple enough; “I still cry, I still laugh. As we all know it’s just a magical movie, and has become a part of our consciousness. I never get tired of it, or talking about it – and I can’t say that about all of my movies (laughs). It opens hearts and reminds people of what’s really important, and we just need a lot more of that these days.”
I couldn’t have possibly said it better myself if I tried. All these years later, instead of terrifying, this little green man from another planet still manages to pull at our heart strings. Spielberg has entertained us all and caught lightning in a bottle both before and since its release, yet there’s still just something special about E.T.
Few things can tap into our inner fears like ghost stories. Gothic ambience, supernatural mystery, and fears of the unknown often drive the fascination with the haunted house sub-genre popularized in books and films throughout the ages.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House remains a literary landmark of psychological horror finely adapted into The Haunting in 1963 and later a Netflix series directed by Mike Flanagan. The classic film House on Haunted Hill (1959) starred Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire, offering unsuspecting guests $10,000 to spend the night in his haunted mansion.
George C. Scott left his mark on the genre, starring in the 1980 thriller The Changeling. Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s The Shining into one of the most influential horror films of all time with his epic take on the modern ghost story. We’ve witnessed the mediocre fare of The Amityville Horror series, the found footage phenomenon of Paranormal Activity, Japanese imports like The Grudge, and a slew of others from the likes of Blumhouse and A24.
There are too many to mention, but one thing is clear, horror sometimes works best when it’s consigned to the familiar surroundings of home. No other film in recent memory captures this localized premise quite like the 1982 horror hit Poltergeist, where one family faces malevolent spirits from beyond.
The film’s opening credits impose over a closeup of an American flag on television with The Star-Spangled Banner playing, followed by white noise. The Freeling family sleeps soundly as their youngest daughter Carol Anne awakens and approaches a flashing television. She then engages in conversation with an unknown entity. After placing her hands on the screen, an apparition bursts from the TV and flows into the wall above her parents’ bed. The room rumbles, shaking the parents awake. They find their daughter unfazed and welcoming their new visitors with the now iconic line, “They’re herrre.”
Five-year-old Heather O’Rourke made movie history with that line. She was perfect for the role as was the entire cast. Since its release, Poltergeist has become a mainstay of our culture. It remains a timeless work, boasting impressive special effects courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Robert Edlund of Star Wars and Ghostbusters fame.
The movie embodies a uniquely idyllic time and place, centering on an average American family facing an unreal situation. Their plight intensifies after Carol Anne is sucked into parallel dimension, with little hope of getting her back. This frightful spectacle of suspense, drama, and horror was achieved through the combined forces of movie master Steven Spielberg and horror legend Tobe Hooper. Rarely would we ever experience such a film from two artistically opposite spectrums. Their differing sensibilities created a perfect balance of heart and horror amid a movie embroiled in controversy over creative control and the tragic fates that would later follow some key actors involved.
Poltergeist concerns the Freeling family who reside in a quaint California subdivision complex. The father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), is a realtor who sells homes among the very complex he lives in. His wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) spends her time raising Carol Anne, eight-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne). Their seemingly normal existence is upended upon the presence of an unexplained paranormal phenomenon. TV channels change on their own, glasses spontaneously break, chairs move, and the family dog seems fixated on the wall above the parents’ bed. These strange and subtle occurrences are only the beginning of an increasingly sinister threat determined to wreak havoc on all who occupy the home.
After Carole Anne’s inexplicable disappearance, her parents enlist the aid of an investigative parapsychologist team to provide answers and help recover their daughter. The sympathetic team soon determine that the house is besieged by the presence of a “poltergeist” that must be studied and recorded with video cameras and audio equipment. The stakes are raised, and the true nature of what they’re up against becomes more apparent (and frightening) as the story proceeds. Rescuing Carol Anne is the catalyst for a desperate family pushed to the brink. After bouts of sleepless nights, the father discovers matter-of-factly from his boss (James Karen) that their entire housing development was built on a former cemetery, where they moved the headstones but not the bodies underground.
Poltergeist is the kind of movie dominated by everlasting set pieces. I don’t find the movie “scary” in a traditional sense today, but there were moments as a child, where I was too frightened to watch. The giant oak tree crashing its branches through the children’s second-story bedroom window, the clown doll coming alive, skeletons spilling out of coffins, and the house imploding into another dimension are just a few memorable moments of macabre. And who can forget the hapless researcher tearing his face off in a bout of hallucinatory fervor?
It’s a gripping story, where everything on screen works, including Zelda Rubinstein’s turn as the predominant medium who attempts to “clean” the house once all hell breaks loose. All is not what it seems, and just when we think it’s over, the movie pulls us back in, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s heart-pounding score.
As viewers, we’re invested in the family’s plight because they’re down to earth and relatable. Such traits have always been Spielberg’s strong suit with characters. The movie feels very much like a Spielberg film, which fueled endless debate over who actually directed it. As writer and producer, Spielberg was contractually obligated to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)at the time and unable to direct. He hired Tobe Hooper based on the strength of Hooper’s landmark horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and his first studio film, The Fun House (1981). Hooper, in turn, wanted to emphasize the horror aspects over what was originally a science fiction story, with wondrous results.
During production, A Los Angeles Times article insinuated that Spielberg was the real director of the film based off comments Spielberg made about “taking charge.” This, coupled with marketing Poltergeist as a Spielberg film, further casted doubt on Hooper’s role, but the record has since been made repeatedly clear…mostly. Anyone who knows and admires Hooper’s work (as I do) can clearly see his directorial touches. It is undoubtedly a Tobe Hooper film. Despite it being his most commercially successful work, he never quite recovered from the implications following the film’s release, which has since become Hollywood lore.
Further infamy arose around the murder of actress Dominique Dunne by her ex-boyfriend shortly after the film’s release. Heather O’Rourke then succumbed to a rare form of intestinal septic shock after filming Poltergeist III in 1988. There has been countless speculation of a Poltergeist “curse” due to the use of real skeletons in the film’s climax and its overall exploration of the supernatural. Such notions are common but no less disrespectful to the talents lost and their families.
An entire piece could be written about the television symbolism portrayed throughout Poltergeist, for starters. The film’s endearing relevancy comes down to its realism, intelligence, and innovative take on the supernatural. Such rarity is further distinguished by its status as one of the most notable PG-rated horror films out there. Spielberg and Hooper successfully appealed the MPAA’s initial R rating. It’s a movie that left a huge impact on my childhood that can still be enjoyed and embraced by fans and newcomers alike. Just leave the light on after watching. You can never be too sure.
It speaks volumes for a show to still be as captivating as Stranger Things is four seasons in, and yet somehow this series only gets better with time. Within seconds of it starting, you’re instantly sucked into its world, and forgot about everything and anything else going on around you, the ingredients of not only great, meticulous writing, but flimmakers who actually care about their art.
This latest season contains so many subplots, I’m not sure if I can even sum it all up accurately without giving too much away. Long story short, a new evil in the form of a demon named Vecna is threatening Hawkins, and after the popular school cheerleader (Grace Van Dien) is killed in the house of local metal head and leader of the local D&D club, Eddie (Joseph Quinn), the kids get wrapped up in solving the mystery while trying to stay alive.
Meanwhile, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has since lost her powers and struggling to adjust to living a “normal” life, is brought back to a facility by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) to help regain her strength back. And while all this is going on, Hopper (David Harbour), who survived the events of season three but has since been imprisoned in a Russian hell, is plotting his escape while Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murrary (Brett Gelman) get tangled up in a kidnapping while attempting to free him.
While the show has always paid homage to ’80s films like E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial (among many others), this particular season has a strong influence from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, with dream-like sequences similar to those from said franchise (there’s even a brief appearance from Freddy Kruger himself, Robert Englund). And the tributes to such metal bands as Dio and W.A.S.P. via the Eddie character are a nice touch as well.
Since the show first started in 2016, it’s caused an unprecedented pop culture phenomenon, and rightfully so, considering the care and attention to detail put into Stranger Things is immaculate. There’s an artistic integrity often not found elsewhere these days, and I find myself wanting to go back to revisit the earlier seasons each time a new one emerges. There’s a simple reason why we respond so strongly to ‘throwbacks’ like Stranger Things; maybe it just reminds us of a time when the world – and life itself – was just a simpler place.
Long before the countless spin-offs, Sci Fi conventions, and overly complex storylines, Star Wars was simply just another rite of passage for an average kid growing up in the ’80s such as myself. Back then, we didn’t see it as the crowning achievement of filmmaking that it has since come to be known as today; we just thought it was really…cool.
I was not around yet when George Lucas’ landmark film was originally released to theaters on May 25, 1977, but I was caught up with a quickness, having an older brother and cousins who were already savvy to the series before I was. Original action figures from the toyline were already firmly in place in my household, and each and every time any of the films were shown on TV, it became an event for everyone.
The original film/space opera, which has retroactively come to be known as Episode IV: A NewHope in many circles, introduced the world to some of pop cultures most iconic figures; Mark Hamill as the everyday hero Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as the lovely Princess Leia, and Harrison Ford as badass smuggler Han Solo. Then of course there were the unforgettable, non-human characters like droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the evil Darth Vadar (voiced by James Earl Jones).
Star Wars became the highest grossest film ever at the time, earning over $775 million at the box office, and clinging to that title until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial eventually surpassed it a few years later in 1982. The film’s success spawned two initial sequels, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (largely viewed by many as superior to the original) and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, each equally essential viewing for kids from my era.
Even without anymore films being released throughout the rest of the decade, various action figures and other media sources kept the franchise alive throughout the ’80s; two made-for-TV spin-off films based off the Ewoks were released in 1984 and 1985, respectively, and an animated series based off them, as well as StarWars: Droids, also kept the material alive from 1985-86.
Then of course the late ’90s brought on the remastered versions of the first three films, which found them with newly added footage thanks to George Lucas (I still despise these versions to this day), and the even lesser-received prequel trilogy, beginning with Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999 (my least favorite entry of all the Star Wars films, yet ironically the first one of the series I ever saw on the “big screen”), which in turn spawned several animated shows, as well as the theatrically-released The Clone Wars in 2008.
In 2012, Lucas relinquished his ownership and sold the rights to Disney, who revived the franchise with yet another sequel trilogy, starting with 2015’s The Force Awakens. Since then there’s been numerous spin-off films in the form of 2016’s Rogue One and 2018’s Solo, as well as a host of new shows like The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and the upcoming Obi-WanKenobi.
It’s been forty five years now since one man’s imagination took us to a galaxy far, far away, and while the material that has come since may not be quite on par with the original film and trilogy, I still watch with anticipation each and every time something new comes along in the name of Star Wars. I can’t imagine having had to endure a childhood without something as whimsical, and feel genuine pity for those who have missed out. May the force be with you, always.