Poltergeist (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Debate still rages over whether Tobe Hooper directed the movie by himself or, a la Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks with The Thing, had help from his producer, Steven Spielberg. (Spielberg was an uncredited editor and also wrote the screenplay, with Michael Grais and Mark Victor.) The movie does seem to have Spielberg’s fingerprints on it — the loving observations of suburbia, the blue light bisected by flashes of white — but whoever made it, it’s among the most stylish, and downright frightening, movies of its genre.

There’s a sly, benign humor here that’s unique among horror movies, and the scenes of (very) average middle-class California domestication are as keenly observed as similar scenes in Jaws and Close Encounters. (Curiously, and creepily, all three of the children — Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins and Heather O’Rourke — died young.) Craig T. Nelson is the dead-panned yet somehow jovial pater familias while JoBeth Williams gets to play Super Mom, which somehow suits her.

The great Beatrice Straight gives a lovely performance as a warm, kindly researcher of psychic phenomena; the scene in which she whispers to young Oliver Robbins about death and “The Light” is a classic of its kind.

And there’s no psychic more phenomenal than tiny Zelda Rubinstein as the “house cleaner.” She’s a move in herself.

The always-reliable James Karen is on hand as well, and with one notable exception (the scene with the young researcher and the bathroom mirror) the special effects are both beautiful and terrifying. There’s also a gorgeous, spectacularly effective score by Jerry Goldsmith that adds immeasurably to the effect of the movie itself. It ranks as one of his very finest — and for him, that’s going some.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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