Steven Spielberg's ghost

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.

The messy-funny portrait of suburban domesticity that we get in Poltergeist, with its good-hearted, flawed, working-class parents and precocious kids, invites comparison to those that we find in films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Is it any surprise, then, that Poltergeist was co-written and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg?  Rumors abound that Spielberg also helped Hooper direct portions of the film.  The real ghost hanging over Poltergeist, then, is Spielberg himself, who keeps making his presence felt in the form of those details of suburban life that infuse the film.  As in E.T. and Close Encounters, the supernatural intrudes upon that world in ways that feel unsettling and driven by a nervous, absurd comedy.  That comedy is one of the ghostly Spielbergian touches in Poltergeist (along with a scene that repeats almost verbatim Karen Allen’s attack by skeletons in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released just one year before; see above).  Of all the ghostly spirits hanging over the Freeling household, Spielberg’s is certainly the most benign—and the most powerful.

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