|Domestic disturbance: the Freeling family at home in Poltergeist (1982).|
Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), which has been one of my favorite horror films since childhood, could be considered a knockoff of Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979) in that it concerns an American family’s realization that their seemingly ordinary suburban home is a hotbed of paranormal activity. But Poltergeist is the vastly superior film, in part because it has a command of tone that The Amityville Horror lacks. Poltergeist seems to me one of the most convincing portrayals of suburban American life I’ve ever seen in a movie. Steve and Diane Freeling (played with a kind of quiet brilliance by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) are like two grown-up hippies who have suddenly found themselves looking after three kids, a dog, and a split-level; there’s a loose, messy, sunny-California vibe to the house, which is casually strewn with toys and food wrappers and where Mom and Dad are prone to smoking a joint together in bed in front of the TV before they turn in. The kids (played by Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robbins, and Dominique Dunne) are seventy-percent cute, thirty-percent annoying. And throughout the entire film—not only, it should be noted, at moments when it’s narratively required that the film to convey this—we’re never unconvinced that these people are tied to one another by bonds of love and commitment. Where The Amityville Horror is the story of a haunted house and the rather dour, miserable people who have the misfortune to live there, Poltergeist is the story of a family weathering a trauma together, in which the haunted house also bears memories of suburban bliss.