Poltergeist (1982)

Rating: B-

Dir: Tobe Hooper
Star: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight

Even now, three decades on, there’s still debate over whether the credited director is responsible; was it really Stephen Spielberg, who was contractually forbidden from directing anything else at the time, as he was working on E.T.? Put another way, “Tobe or not Tobe, that is the question…” Sorry: had to get that out of the way. There is no doubt Spielberg was influential in lobbying the MPAA to get its original R-rating reduced to a PG: even now, that seems very, very generous given the drug use, language and, in particular, scene where a guy claws his own face off in the bathroom – even if the effects there haven’t stood the test of time well.

Actually, I’m a bit surprised no-one has remade this; seems like just about every other successful horror film has been. The story – family house suffers initially benign, then increasing unpleasant actions from the titular spirit – wouldn’t need much updating, and the optical effects could benefit from an upgrade. Maybe they’re scared of the curse. Certainly curious about why there’s an Alien poster hanging on the bedroom wall, of kids aged 5 + 8. No wonder they had nightmares. But the slowly-escalating nature of things helps allay the usual problem with “haunted house” movies: why the inhabitants don’t just leave. Here, it’s kinda cool – at first, it’s furniture being moved (not least in one of the most memorable scenes from any horror film).

But it suddenly accelerates out of control, with the littlest daughter (O’Rourke) being abducted by the ‘TV people’, her voice still coming through on a dead channel. Enter the parapsychologists, who don’t really have much to offer, and it’s not until medium Tangina Barnes (Zelda Rubinstein in her first major role, and doing very well too) shows up, that there’s hope. Who knew tennis-balls and rope were part of an exorcist’s tool-kit? This is certainly a topic which has been done to death a million times – and continues to be, as the Paranormal Activity series shows. However, done right, it still can generate chills: regardless of whether Hooper or Spielberg was calling the shots, this remains a good example.