Director: Tobe Hooper
Studios: SLM Production Group, MGM
Starring: JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Craig T. Nelson
Tagline: They’re Here; It Knows What Scares You.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, thriller, haunting, ghosts, poltergeists
Scare score: B+
Plot overview: In the late ’70s/ early ’80s, the lively Freeling family lives a normal, happy life in a small but growing development called Cuesta Verde. The youngest child, Carol Anne (O’Rourke), seems to believe there are ‘people’ living in the TV that she is able to communicate with, but her parents Steve (Nelson) and Diane (Williams) attribute this to sleepwalking. After a bad storm one night, we see a beam come out from the TV static and implant itself in the walls of the house. Shortly thereafter, friendly paranormal happenings begin to occur in the Freeling household, largely revolving around the sudden movement, repositioning, or even breaking of objects. Although Diane embraces these supernatural events, Carol Anne finds the “TV people’s” tricks boring while Steve even thinks they’re dangerous. Suddenly, things take a turn for the worse, and as the climax of the haunting on their house, the Freeling’s young daughter Carol Anne is abducted into a parallel plain of spirits, able to communicate only when the TV is left displaying static. In order to save their daughter and family, the Freelings bring in a team of paranormal investigators and parapsychologists headed by the empathetic Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). Once the team dubs the events too powerful and dangerous for themselves to handle, they bring in the small but powerful medium Tangina (Rubinstein). It will take all the strength the family has to rescue their daughter from the angry spirits holding her captive beyond.
I mean, this is an awesome movie. I remember seeing this a few times as a kid and just always loving it. Now that I’m a bit older and keeping this movie blog, I’m happy to say my child-horror-movie-critic-self was right: this movie is simply great.
First and foremost, it is a movie about family. We get that sense from the very beginning, that this is a pretty standard American family, living a pretty standard life in a pretty standard American suburb. More importantly, they are happy, unlike most modern families we are presented with in modern film. We have the happily married couple, who even as they raise their three children still manage to have their own fun. The oldest daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), is our typical, angsty, even sexually promiscuous teacher (I love the line towards the end of the film when her mom mentions a hotel and she recalls it, presumably from a night with her boyfriend) – however, she clearly cares about her younger siblings, even if they drive her up the wall or spill milk all over her homework when glasses spontaneously begin to break… Next we have the middle child and only boy, Robbie (Oliver Robins). This is just your regular American little boy, who falls asleep eating potato chips, wears too much baseball gear, and is afraid of regular things like storms and terrifying clown dolls which shouldn’t be kept at the foot of the bed. Lastly, our precious Carol Anne is a 5 year old, blonde, cute, and innocent little girl. So what if she talks to TVs after channels have signed off for the night? This is a strong, functional family.
Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are just simple family moments: when Diane and Steve mouth “I love you” to each other, for example, or especially any time the family communicates with Carol Anne when she is trapped in the spiritual plain. A lot of this has to do with a recurring musical piece, which whenever it played sounded a lot like a lullaby, and I assumed it was Carol Anne’s theme. There is some really touching music in this film, aside from, of course, the eerie stuff.
That being said, we are presented with a wonderful cast of characters, and there is hardly anybody to dislike. I almost prefer having an invisible malicious force and no annoying humans as antagonists. My favorite performer in this movie is absolutely JoBeth Williams in the role of the mother: she is fun, powerful, and so loving. She truly brings life to the family. I also liked Craig T. Nelson a lot, and he was a likable, fun dad. The kids are also all pretty cute, and they do very impressive jobs considering their young ages.
Take a wild guess as to who my second favorite character is. Zelda Rubinstein is this iconic, mysterious figure that always fascinated me since I first saw the Poltergeist trilogy as a kid. Aside from her obvious stature, her voice has always stuck out to me as well. She is so likable from the get-go, just this intelligent, supernaturally gifted “let’s get down to business” type. And of course, thanks to Tangina, little Carol Anne’s fate is not an eternity of terror in some parallel dimension.
Let’s talk about the haunting. I like the premise of this movie, and as I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for hauntings. There is something poetic about ghosts. When the house itself becomes almost malevolent at times, I was forced to think of Insidious, which in hindsight probably borrowed a lot from this movie. This film does a good job of combining the wild happenings with a human, practical cause. The various haunted items, toys, closets, and entire property itself were individually creative, creepy, and entertaining. I can’t even complain about the special effects, which is saying a lot considering how old this film is now. Well, the ghostly plasma shooting out from the TV or from the portal in the living room ceiling is a bit Ghostbuster-ish in quality, but otherwise, no complaints here.
I also like the mix of purely ghostly things with otherwise gore-y or psychologically freaky things. Namely, the scenes in the kitchen and bathroom when the paranormal investigator has his mind (and food, and face) played with a bit by the ghosts. Yuck.
Final critique: You should see this movie in your lifetime. It is a perfect amount of scary that I think most viewers can handle without being too scared. Except for that one aforementioned scene with some gore, the movie proves to us the strength of family and love (and fun-sized mediums) in the face of unhappy spirits, malicious ghosts, haunted clowns, and even closets. What isn’t there to love?