Retrospective: Poltergeist: 40 Years of Suburban Terror By Shawn McKee

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.

Retrospective: 35 Years Since ‘Critters’ Invaded Theaters By Jesse Striewski

The ’80s were no doubt full with an abundance of creature feature flicks to choose from. Being younger at the time, Freddy and Jason were usually off the table unfortunately while I was growing up (though I still managed to sneak them in whenever and wherever I got the chance to). But slightly tamer, more “family-friendly” horror/Sci-Fi films like Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), and Critters (1986) were still fair game in our household, and I can vividly remember watching many of these titles on a couch with my siblings (and/or the other kids in the neighborhood) and a tub of popcorn, often times in awe.

Critters was originally released in the U.S. by New Line Cinema on April 11, 1986, and almost instantly drew comparisons to the previously-mentioned Spielberg romp Gremlins (although Director/Writer Stephen Herek has maintained that he and co-screenwritter Dominco Muir had the script in the works long before either of them had ever heard of or seen Gremlins). The film stared veteran actress Dee Wallace as Helen Brown, who was already known for her appearances in a sleuth of horror films including The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981), and Cujo (1983). M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, Nadine van der Velde, Don Keith Opper, Terrence Mann, and a young, then-unknown Billy Zane also rounded out the main cast.

The plot was simple enough; vicious creatures from another planet land in the middle of rural Kansas and wreak havoc on the Brown family farm. But two out-of-this-world bounty hunters (played by Mann, and eventually Opper as well in future installments) throw a monkey wrench in their gears, ultimately saving the day from the destructive vermin. In October of 2020, I interviewed Wallace on behalf of Rewind It Magazine, who declared of the film, “It was just such a simple, but harmlessly fun movie to be a part of. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Multiple follow-ups continued the original series, with only Opper and Mann reprising their roles in all of the next three films (although Grimes did return as Brad Brown in the first sequel). 1988’s Critters 2: The Main Course (which was one of the first times I can recall ever seeing so much, ahem – female anatomy – on screen while watching it on cable TV at a friend’s house) was the last film of the series to be released theatrically after a disappointing $3 million box office return (the first entry had grossed over $13 million on a budget nearly equivalent to the sequel’s intake), but remains a cult/Easter classic among many to this day. The next two additions to the franchise, 1991’s Critters 3 (notable for starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio in his first film role) and 1992’s Critters 4 (which featured Brad Dourif and Angela Bassett), promptly received straight-to-video treatment, and saw the titular monsters taking on the big city, and outer space itself, respectively.

It would be nearly three decades until the franchise would be revived, with a reboot film titled Critters Attack!, and a web series Critters: A New Binge, both dropping in 2019. Wallace returned for the former (in a role that may or may not have been the same as her character Helen Brown from the original). Regarding her return to the series, Wallace told Rewind It Magazine in the same 2020 interview; “It was a lot of fun. My first question for them was, ‘Are you doing the critters CGI?,’ because if they were I wouldn’t have done it, and I think the fans would have been disappointed. But I read the script, and met with the director, and I got to go to Cape Town, South Africa, so how bad could it be?!”

Critters have even found themselves as the punchline in random pop culture; the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features a scene where one of the turtles, Raphael, is seen walking out of a movie theater (with the film’s poster displayed in full view) and proclaiming in disgust, “Where do they come up with this stuff?!” The song used in the original film, “Power of the Night” by the fictional Johnny Steele (also played by Mann) has also taken on a small life of it’s own as well in some underground circuits and online (had it been released as an actual single at the time of it’s original release, it could’ve possibly even been a hit).

No matter where the franchise goes from here, there’s no denying the lasting impact this campy series has had on multiple generations of Sci-Fi/horror fans for well over three decades now. Thirty-five years on, the original still remains the perfect film for late night viewings as it ever has.