I’ll admit, I did go about this the wrong way round, watching the remake when it came out in 2015 before I’d seen Tobe Hooper’s original. The story and imagery are both things that most are now familiar with. A family are haunted by a poltergeist; the static noise on the television; the house being built on an old gravesite. These have since become significant horror tropes that have been played to death in other pictures.
The fact it’s a PG rated horror film from Tobe Hooper, with Steven Spielberg attached as executive producer, almost goes by you without being noticed. It’s still a scary film, no matter what rating it received.
In context the Tobe Hooper original makes much more sense than the remake, what with it being from the age of VHS, television static and burgeoning commercialisation. It also plays out much better – in the 1980s the structure of the family unit hadn’t changed all that much, not when compared to its structure here and now in 2016.
The special effects, too, are impressive for the era. The touchy feely tree, as I shall now dub it, is particularly impressive, as is the similarly touchy feely clown doll. These are important set pieces, if nothing else than for setting up the horrors to come.
Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams are a strong and resilient presence as parents Steve and Diane Freeling, determined to protect their three children from whatever it is that is haunting them. Intrigue at the poltergeist’s ability to stack furniture and move objects from one side of the kitchen to the other is soon replaced by terror as youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is abducted and taken to the other side.
Communicating with Carol Anne through the television, a group of paranormal investigators are brought in to try and recover her and return her to her family. It’s another thing that has since become a genre trope, but here it feels fresh.
Zelda Rubinstein is a wonderful presence in the story, a tiny, squeaky voiced presence as the paranormal expert intending to get Carol Anne back to this world. As great as Jared Harris is (in general and in the remake), Rubinstein is just better for this character. Time hasn’t been kind in that she’s been parodied left, right and centre, but that if nothing else shows how important a role and a film this was.
It’s not necessary for us to travel through to the other side and see what lurks there – the power of the imagination makes it all the more horrifying a notion. It’s a classic Spielberg approach to the unknown.
And on that note it raises an interesting point. Historically there’s a discussion around who truly directed Poltergeist. Did Spielberg ghost direct the film (no pun intended), or was it a full-on Tobe Hooper venture? It’s an argument that’s inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account the tragically early deaths of both of the actors playing the daughters.
Still, with that unfortunate situation to one side, Poltergeist is a classic of the genre.