Poltergeist (1982)

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Synopsis: Life for the Freeling family couldn’t get any more ordinary, or better. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is the most successful real estate agent in town; his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) takes care of the kids and supervises construction on the new swimming pool the family is building in their backyard. Teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), son Robbie (Oliver Robins), and five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) get into the usual trouble and bouts of sibling rivalry, but are otherwise healthy, carefree kids. But everything changes late one night when the family awakens to find Carol Anne talking to the static on the television set. This sets off a chain of disturbing and inexplicable events in which utensils are discovered bent and distorted, chairs stack themselves on the dining room table, and the family experiences earthquakes that none of their neighbors can confirm. Then one night during a thunderstorm, a gnarled old tree comes to life and grabs Robbie through his bedroom window. The family manages to save the boy, thinking that the whole thing was caused by a freak tornado, but return to the house to find Carol Anne missing. Well – not completely missing. While the family can’t see Carol Anne, they can hear her calling out to them – through the static in the television set. Realizing that whatever is occurring in the house is beyond their understanding or control, and desperate for the return of their little girl, the family calls in Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team of paranormal investigators. But even these seasoned experts have never experienced anything like this before. And so, the task of rescuing Carol Anne from the clutches of the spirit realm is left up to the family’s one last hope: a diminutive medium by the name of Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) who doesn’t take guff from anybody – not even ghosts.

Zelda Rubinstein (May 28, 1933 – January 27, 2010) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the youngest child of Polish immigrants. She worked for twenty-two years as a registered nurse, until she awoke one morning at the age of forty-seven and realized that she was, in fact, an artist. Poltergeist was her first major film role, and she became iconic for her portrayal of Tangina in the original film as well as both sequels. She also appeared in Teen Witch (1989) and had a starring role on the television series “Picket Fences.” Rubinstein was an outspoken activist for the rights of short-statured actors, founding the Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater Company in Los Angeles in 1985 for the benefit and betterment of actors under 4’4″ in height. She also played the role of Mother in a memorable series of advertisements promoting safe sex and AIDS/HIV awareness in the 1980s. After appearing in over fifty film and television productions within the span of her thirty-year career, and lending her distinctive voice to countless promotions and commercials, Zelda Rubinstein announced her retirement from show business in 2008. She passed away in Los Angeles following a long illness on January 27, 2010, at the age of 76.

Hear me out, classic film fans! I know what you’re thinking. We already went through a whole month of horror films way back in October, and the 1980s is not generally considered a “classic” decade by us old souls. But this is going to have to be one of those “if you don’t like, don’t read it” situations, because I cannot dedicate a month to all the important people who died in 2010 and not include Zelda Rubinstein; it’s just not an option for me. For one thing, although she passed away over a month before the ceremony, she was excluded from the Academy Awards’ In Memoriam segment, and then further excluded from the lists everybody went around posting the next day of the people who were excluded from the segment. Secondly, and most importantly, Zelda Rubinstein had a very significant impact on me personally while she was alive, being the only well-known actor who would consent to be interviewed for my senior thesis on images of Little People in film and television. I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of Ms. Rubinstein’s graciousness, candor, and razor-sharp wit first-hand, and it’s an experience I will always treasure and never forget. It’s quite a unique and incredible thing to be able to talk to one of your childhood idols on the phone – and quite another to have it go so well they invite you to lunch at the end.

Poltergeist was one of two blockbuster hits released a week apart in June of 1982 by modern movie titan Steven Spielberg, along with the family-friendly E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. However, a clause in his contract with Universal Studios prevented Spielberg from acting as director on any other picture while working for them on E.T.; so Poltergeist, made at MGM, was credited to Texas Chainsaw Massacre mastermind Tobe Hooper, with writer and producer credits going to Spielberg – although reports vary on exactly how much directorial influence Hooper really had. Even with Hooper’s name slapped on it, Poltergeist is still very much a Spielberg film, with a touch of George Lucas thrown in through the participation of Industrial Light and Magic, earning the film an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Are you telling me none of this would have happened if these people had bothered to set the sleep timer?

Poltergeist was one of the first horror movies I saw as a kid, and, unlike some of the truly bizarre crap I liked as a small child – including a weird fascination with Predator and Congo – this one stands the test of time. What I like most about it is the lengths it goes to to make the Freeling family seem anything but perfect – and, in that way, completely and totally normal. They live in a subdivision made of pristine, cookie-cutter houses, they’ve got the 2.5 children and the Golden Retriever, but the kids curse and the parents spend their evenings smoking marijuana in their bedroom. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the parallels between the public face and the private truth, from the way the family behaves right down to the very founding of their community. This is a town that tries to promote values, morality, and, most of all, homogeneity – and yet it was built in a completely immoral and sacrilegious way, motivated by greed, bureaucracy, and a total disregard for the dignity of human life. This duality between appearance and truth serves as a biting social commentary, but also just plain makes the family relatable and the story more believable. These aren’t perfect plastic people: these could be your neighbors, your relatives, even you. This and the fact that everything bad that happens to the Freelings is through no fault of their own achieves exactly what any good horror movie should seek to achieve: creating fear by making the source of that fear personal, making you believe that, if these people are in danger, you yourself could be next.

To me Poltergeist achieves a fantastic blend of horror, humor, and pathos that makes for a complex and entertaining roller-coaster ride of emotions (if you’ll pardon the egregious cliché). There is humor in this film in the most unexpected places: when Carol Anne tearfully buries her pet bird and then perks right up and asks for a goldfish, and even in the film’s most climactic moment, when Diane tries to convince Tangina that she should be the one to go into the portal and rescue Carol Anne and Tangina gives in a bit too readily. But the pathos is what really gets to me. At times this is an extremely sad film, an intimate portrait of a family torn apart by the abduction of their youngest child. JoBeth Williams does a lot of crying, but it is the juxtaposition of this and her normal behavior as a mother who is not at all overbearing that makes her sadness so heartbreaking. Here is a parent who would do anything for her children, and she is put in a situation where she can do nothing. In a film where the use of special effects can sometimes make things feel a bit hokey, Williams’ performance is what really makes me care about this family, and allows me to relate to them on a human level.

“This house is clean. Except for the bathtub, that’s still covered in spirit goop. And the living room floor. Don’t slip!”

However, it is not without its faults, including some pretty dumb-looking ghosts and plot holes you could drive a tractor through. To their credit, the filmmakers use effects relatively sparingly, as if they know their primitive technology is going to take you right out of the movie and make you let out a snort at the exact moment you’re not supposed to. Although these may have been impressive effects at the time of release, as is evidenced by the Academy Award win, they do not stand the test of time, and really do ruin quite a few supposed-to-be-scary moments. (The rigid doll-version of Carol Anne getting sucked into the closet is, to me, the most hilarious example.) Furthermore, while the explanation as to why the Freeling house has been invaded by the poltergeist has become an iconic movie plot point, it just doesn’t work for me, and winds up feeling clumsy and tacked-on. Yeah, it maybe explains why there are lost souls wandering around, but who is The Beast and why is he holding them hostage? Furthermore, while I can begrudgingly accept that Carol Anne can be brought back from another dimension through the use of nothing but a rope and some tennis balls, everything that occurs following this “false ending” is pretty ridiculously counter-intuitive. After Carol Anne is rescued, Tangina triumphantly declares, “This house is clean;” well, no, you brought the kid back, but you didn’t do much to close that gaping hellmouth that exists in her closet. If the family is smart enough to realize that they should move out of the house as soon as possible, why the HELL would Diane allow Robbie and Carol Anne to return to their room, and why would she ever leave them alone in there?!? Why would the kids even want to go back? Sure, Carol Anne doesn’t remember, but Robbie does, and he almost died as well. These people, who have spent all this time convincing you that their behavior is realistic and believable, suddenly turn into complete buffoons for the last twenty minutes of the film. It’s not fair to the characters and it certainly isn’t fair to the audience. The final act, to me, completely spoils what is otherwise a near-perfect movie.

Are you sure that’s a hellmouth? Looks more like a hellcolon.

And as for Tangina… This is an iconic horror film, due in large part to an exceptional performance by Zelda Rubinstein. Although she gets less than twenty minutes total screen time, Poltergeist made Rubinstein a household name, made her voice and resemblance unforgettable, and single-handedly made a tiny unknown actress into a pop culture icon. The first appearance of Tangina Barrons is a pivotal moment in the film; the paranormal investigators have so far achieved nothing and have only fallen victim themselves to the evil spirit’s trickery, so Tangina is really the very first glimmer, the first sign of a resolution and of a way out of this supernatural nightmare. She is a beacon of hope and the first person to show confidence in the face of The Beast’s terrifying power. She not only acts as a calming agent for the spirits of the dead, but also for the spirits of the living. It is incredibly moving to watch Tangina’s speech to Diane on the nature of death now that Ms. Rubinstein herself has passed on. In a film that has been plagued since the beginning with horrific tragedy – with the murder of Dominique Dunne only months after the film’s release, and the untimely death of Heather O’Rourke at the age of twelve – Tangina’s words have hopefully served as a comfort to those connected to this film who have lost their loved ones, and may even serve as solace to those who are now mourning the loss of Zelda herself.

There is no death. It is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness. . . . Inside the spectral light is salvation, a window to the next plane. [Souls] must pass through this membrane, where friends are waiting to guide them to new destinies.

This plane is sure gonna miss you, Zelda. We wish you the best of luck in all your new destinies, and we can’t wait to see you again on the other side.

Poltergeist (1982) – 4/5 stars

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  1. Brandie

     /  December 5, 2010

    I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of Poltergeist (I have issues with most horror films, seeing as how I’m the biggest chicken this side of the Pecos), but I loved Zelda Rubinstein. One of my favorite movies as a kid (admitting Big Dark Secret) was Teen Witch, in which Rubinstein played Madame Serena. Ohh, the memories: the whitewashed denim … the teased hair … the horrible white-girl rapping.

    It is beyond cool that she was willing to speak to you for your thesis!

  2. Kim (the zombie variety)

     /  December 12, 2010

    That’s amazing that you got to meet Zelda Rubinstein.
    In a completely unrelated note–Congo. My laundromat in Monterey had what was probably the last remaining Congo pinball machine in America. They only got rid of it this year. I loved that pinball machine and everything it stood for.

  3. Excellent review. That was so incredible that you actually interview Zelda over the phone. Must have been a privilege to talk with her. I had to laugh at this part…

    “why the HELL would Diane allow Robbie and Carol Anne to return to their room, and why would she ever leave them alone in there?!? Why would the kids even want to go back? Sure, Carol Anne doesn’t remember, but Robbie does, and he almost died as well.”

    ROFL i thought the same thing after all that havoc why the hell did she do that!? aghhh. I am guessing you have seen the other 2 films as well?? not nearly as classic as the first, but i think the addition of the character “Kane” was in fact pretty creepy. The guy just gave me the creeps when he came to the door! O_O

    • It was definitely a privilege to talk to her, especially because she was just helping me out of the goodness of her heart. I learned a lot from her perspective and it really made the research more legitimate to have her unique point of view included.

      I hate that part of the movie, it makes NO DAMN SENSE at all, especially when the first half seems really well-crafted. I actually haven’t seen the other two yet but I probably should, although Heather O’Rourke depresses me a bit. :(

      • Oh you should watch them! I am warning you though, like i said they aren’t as good as the first one but they are all right.. The third one was bit repetitive, yet its also seriously depressing to know what happened to Heather O’Rourke during the making of the last Poltergeist. T_T

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