Oddly enough, the first startling thing in this pretty startling movie was remembering that TV stations used to sign off early in the morning! No kidding, for you youngsters out there. They would play the national anthem and we would see images of the flag waving, the Lincoln Memorial, stuff like that, and then … nothing! What they called “snow,” which is just visual static. That, or a “test pattern” that for some reason showed an Indian head in full war bonnet. And the station wouldn’t come on until maybe 6 AM. Hard to believe these days, when I am offered something like 800 channels on DirecTV.
Ideally, I’d like to have seen this one before the remake of 2015, but that was not to be. In my rather tepid review of that one I mentioned that, of course, the special effects were lots better in the more recent one. That turns out not to be the case. You don’t even really have to make allowances for the fact that all the SFX in this movie were either practical or optical, since there was no CGI at the time. They hold up very well, with one exception. There is a tornado that sweeps through the neighborhood in this one, and it is the phoniest twister I’ve ever seen. I mean, it is much inferior to the tornadoes in both versions of The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 classic and the 1925 original, with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Other than that, it still looks great. This is probably the ultimate haunted house movie.
The people are appealing. I was constantly on their side as the poltergeist effects assaulted them. There were also some nice humorous bits that made them come alive even more. When Jobeth Williams discovers how she can put a chair in one spot in her kitchen and watch it zoom across the floor, she is literally jumping up and down in glee. This is fun, Craig T. Nelson, and now watch this. So she puts a football helmet on her daughter and sits her in the spot, and watches her slide across the floor, too. This sense of awe and fun is a Spielberg trademark that we have seen before in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss and others really like seeing the small spaceship, and later in E.T., where Henry Thomas tells his friends “I’m keeping him!” Well, sure, wouldn’t you? This and other touches is what makes this one work far better than the remake.
Spielberg did not actually direct this. The name in the credits is Tobe Hooper, but everyone agrees he was deeply involved in the filming. The only reason he did not direct was a clause in his contract for E.T., which was shooting at the same time. But it was surely a Spielberg year, with those two huge blockbusters coming out only a month or two apart.
I have to mention, since we just completed a Twilight Zone binge where we saw all 156 episodes, that the story of episode #91 was close enough to what happens here that a good case could be made for plagiarism. Little Girl Lost in 1962 had a child vanishing through a wall in her bedroom. There was no TV set, but to find her a man ties a rope around himself, just like in Poltergeist, and enters another dimension where things are all twisted. No supernatural bullshit here, but it really is the same story. I wonder if the writer, the great Richard Matheson, thought about suing? Probably not. Unless you are Harlan Ellison, who sues over everything as a matter of principle, it’s best to remain on the good side of a man that powerful in the movie business.