It's another quiet night in suburbia and in the home of Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) Freeling, everyone has fallen asleep: Steve has dozed off in front of the television and now, after the station has closed down, all that is being broadcast is the grey-blue snow of static. The family dog awakens and begins looking around for something to eat, in the process waking five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). She presently gets up, strangely drawn downstairs to that television which she settles in front of and starts talking to - then shouting, as if arguing. There's nothing there of course - is there...?
There are two enduring elements of Poltergeist that still are discussed today. One is whether the producer and co-writer (with Michael Grais and Mark Victor) Steven Spielberg was in fact the director, taking over from the hired Tobe Hooper to bend the production more to his trademark style. The other is whether the film is cursed, indeed whether the whole series of three films is cursed considering two of the cast members of the original died prematurely: distressingly, the actress playing the teenage daughter Dana, Dominique Dunne, was murdered shortly after the film was released.
And poor little Heather O'Rourke died during filming of the third instalment. It's unlikely that the film is truly damned, merely the subject of unfortunate coincidence, but Hooper must have been wondering about the effect on his career as he never helmed such a successful film again, and his filmography was littered with flops for the rest of the decade and beyond. As to the plot, it was unusual in being part of that excellent cycle of horror movies from the late seventies and early eighties in that none of the characters died, although that wasn't to say they didn't go through extreme trauma when the ghosts set about their haunting.
It begins with an exploitation of childhood fears: fears of the dark, toys that might in their imagination come to life, thunder and lightning, the possibilities of the "monster in the closet", but graduates to real adult fears about losing children or property. At first the supernatural business is teasing, such as the looming tree outside the two younger kids' window, or the kitchen chairs which move by themselves (in a great shot of trickery, they assemble into a pyramid mere seconds after Diane has rearranged them). But then things turn more sinister when Carol Anne, who has taken to staring at static on T.V. screens, announces "They're Here!" one night after some curious shapes appear as luminous mist in the parents' bedroom.
The family takes things far more seriously when the tree swallows young Robbie (Oliver Robins) and in the commotion to get him out, Carol Anne is sucked into the closet by forces unknown. Time to call in... no, not the police, the ghost hunters, and this film more than any other cemented in the public's mind the notion of a paranormal case being given credence by the presence of investigators (yes, even more than Ghost Busters). Fortunately these parapsychologists, led by Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight) have contacts - not in the afterlife, but with tiny, round psychic Tangina (the great Zelda Rubinstein, an inspired item of casting). There follow more terrific special effects sequences (the level of professionalism in Poltergeist is inarguable) as they try to retrieve Carol Anne, but just when they think it's all over... With its vividly modern setting, this captured its time better than most documentaries, and if it's admittedly one of the most sentimental of shockers, it still has the power to thrill. Music by John Williams.