Poltergeist came out in 1982 and was an instant hit, commercially and critically. It was also the first time most of the American public had ever heard of poltergeists.
It’s the story of an average American family in Orange County California — Steven and Diane Freeling (played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) and their three kids, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Steven is a successful real estate developer and Diane is a stay-at-home mom. The kids are happy and the parents love each other. Life is good.
Then one night, Carol Anne wakes up and wanders into her parents’ room where the TV is still on, but the station has signed off for the night. She sits and stares at the static, talking to “the TV people.” The same thing happens the following night until a large, white apparition “hand” shoots out of the TV and smashes into the wall above Steven and Diane’s sleeping heads, triggering an earthquake. And that’s when things start to get really strange.
At first it’s just whimsical, slightly scary stuff, like the kitchen chairs stacking up by themselves when Diane’s back is turned, and the weird spot on the kitchen floor that, when sat on, can shoot you across the kitchen floor at a nice, little speed. But then, that night a huge thunderstorm rolls through the area. Suddenly, the creepy, gnarly tree outside Robbie’s and Carol Anne’s window crashes through the glass and snatches Robbie. While the family is out in the raging storm trying to help him, Carol Anne is sucked through a portal in the kids’ closet.
And that quickly, this average American family’s whole world changes. They are plunged into a strange world of part-time parapsychologists, rooms full of mysterious electronic equipment, and small, abrasive mediums. However, the medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein in her first major film role) is a paranormal badass. In the process of helping the family, she goes head to head with an entity she calls The Beast, who is holding Carol Anne hostage. She is tough, and if she had a battle cry it would be “There’s no crying in psychical research!”
Tangina, along with the parapsychology team, walk the Freelings through the nightmare and help them recover Carol Anne in one of the most intense, gooey rescue scenes ever. It was also one of the most satisfying conclusions movie goers had ever seen. So much so, that people actually started to get up from their seats and leave, anticipating that the credits would roll soon! (Being an old credit-reader from way back, I kept my seat. I’m very glad I did!)
Even though Tangina has declared, “This house is clean,” and Steven has left the family at home while he goes to the office one, last time it’s not over.
While Diane is taking her last bath in the house before they move out, and the kids are playing in their packed-up room, The Beast makes his final play for Carol Anne. Robbie is attacked by the hideous clown doll and dragged under his bed. Diane is dragged across the ceiling before being forced outside and into the new pool they were having dug. Skeletons pop up all around her in the muddy water, but she manages to drag herself out and rescue her children. Coffins are bursting up out of the ground everywhere they look, blocking their path. Then Steven arrives with his boss. Realization strikes and he yells at him, “You moved the headstones, but you didn’t move the graves!”
It doesn’t get much better than this, folks. It had many, many good scares in it that have stood the test of time. Which is pretty amazing all by itself. Anyone who hasn’t seen it definitely should. But just the first one. The sequels are all rubbish.