This is actually one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time, which is odd because I am generally not a big fan of horror movies. But I discovered this movie when I was a kid and have loved it ever since. The casting was perfect, the acting was great, the story was powerful, the special effects were incredible, and even the emotional drama was compelling.
This movie spawned two sequels and a remake, but if you ask me, none of these was able to match the original. The story starts out in the peaceful little paradise of Cuesta Verde, California. It is suburban heaven. The Freeling family is your typical family. Steven and his wife Diane, played by Craig T. Nelson and JoeBeth Williams, are parents to three beautiful children, Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne, played by Dominique Dunn, Oliver Robbins, and Heather O’Rourke.
The Freeling family is terrorized by violent and malevolent ghosts who focus on, and abduct the 5 year old Carol Anne. The family enlists the help of a team of parapsychologists made up of Dr. Lesh, played by Beatrice Straight, Ryan, played by Richard Lawson, and Marty, played by Martin Casella. The team moves in with the Freelings to study the paranormal phenomenon. They are shocked and horrified by the wild and physically dangerous nature of the haunting.
The bizarre and seeming random acts of supernatural violence grow and increase, getting worse and worse each time. After several horrific encounters with the evil spirit, Marty leaves and refuses to return to the house, but Dr. Lesh and Ryan return with the help of a spiritual medium. She is Tangina Barrons, played by Zelda Rubenstein. In my humble opinion, she was the film’s biggest failing, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Tangina takes the fight to the ghosts and mounts a rescue mission in which Diane, with a rope tied around her waist, goes into the spirit world to find Carol Anne. The rescue is successful and Tangina leaves, declaring that, “This house is clean.” But oh, how wrong she is.
Steven decides that the family is moving immediately. While Steven and Dana are away, Diane, Robbie, and Carol Anne are left alone in the house. With only a few hours more remaining before their departure, the poltergeist attacks again, this time pulling out all the stops. Diane is nearly raped by an invisible attacker while Robbie is attacked by a terrifying clown doll.
Diane is forced into the back yard where she falls into the swimming pool. Coffins begin erupting from the ground and skeletons fill the pool as Diane struggles to get out. Following her children’s frantic screaming, she makes her way into the house and to the children’s bedroom. When she opens the door, she is nearly sucked into the gaping maw of the beast as it is attempting to swallow Robbie and Carol Anne.
She rescues them and flees the house as rotting corpses begin shooting up through the floor. Steven and Dana arrive and the family drives away together, finally safe from the demonic force. As they escape, the anger of the beast follows them down the street, blowing up gas lines and fire hydrants. The hunger of the poltergeist is so great that it literally consumes the entire house, leaving an empty lot.
As you can imagine, the movie was a special effects extravaganza. Director Tobe Hooper, known at the time for his work on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, spearheaded the project, though, if not for his involvement with the movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, it might have been Stephen Spielberg. However, it is interesting to note that a greater involvement from Spielberg is rumored to have taken place. Spielberg has been quoted as saying, ”Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of collaboration.”
Alright, so I mentioned that Zelda Rubenstein was the film’s only real failing. She was supposed to be physically strange and there was no doubt, she certainly was. But she was so weird that she was a little distracting. She looked and sounded like a munchkin from the Wizard of Oz. She seemed to detract from the intensity of the horror. True, she actually won the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress, but she seemed to be a strange kind of comic relief in a film where everything is played completely straight. Still, despite her high-pitched, nasal voice, and her plump, midget’s stature, she did have a few moments of intensity that matched the rest of the cast.
My favorites in the cast were JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, and Beatrice Straight. JoBeth’s role was both physically and emotionally demanding. She played the part of a mother whose daughter has been abducted by ghosts. She knows that there is a demonic force that is restraining and manipulating her little girl, and that there is nothing she can do to stop it. Can you imagine? And the end of the film where she is attacked by the invisible assailant, and then nearly sucked into the spirit world was just thrilling!
Nelson was also great and played the part of the terrified and worried father. He was just wonderful. Everybody had their big scream moments, and his were just as intense as the rest of them. The part where he is holding the rope that is tied to his wife as she is going after Carol Anne is just great. He hears Tangina telling the spirits to go into “the light” but doesn’t understand. He panics and tries to pull Diane back, but what he pulls out of the portal is a gigantic skull with fiery eyes. Steven is so terrified that he lets go of the rope.
Something interesting about that scene, though. They show shots of Steven as he is holding the rope and trying to pull it back in. But then they show a few shots of Tangina as she is talking to the spirits. Watch the shadow on the wall behind Tangina. I think it is supposed to be Steven’s shadow, but look closely. What is the shadow doing? It is hard to tell, but when the camera goes back to Steven pulling the rope, it doesn’t match the shadow at all. Back to Tangina, and the shadow is still doing something different. Whether that was intentional or not, that just made the scene infinitely more creepy for me!
Beatrice Straight was wonderful as Dr. Lesh. I loved the scene in which she is trying to explain the evil spirits and the afterlife to Robbie. She had this very calming voice and yet it was intense at the same time. Her performance was engaging and very memorable. Also, the moment before Diane goes into the portal, as Diane and Steven kiss, the expression of emotional empathy on her face as she watches the two lovers is so perfect. Straight really did a great job in this strange and wonderful film.
The special effects for the movie were really something special. This movie was made before the era of CGI and digital effects. Many of the effects were practical effects, though there was certainly some animation effects as well. The practical effects were generally more effective and the animation was often obvious. For example the part where Diane is shoved up the wall and onto the ceiling was very well done. The entire room had to have been on hydraulics and rotated so that Williams could appear to slide up the wall. It was very well done. But the earlier scene where a ghostly, skeletal hand jumps out of the television to reach for Carol Anne, while well done, is obviously hand-drawn animation. But what do you expect for 1982?
The soundtrack, written by Jerry Goldsmith, was also something special. I own the soundtrack and read in the album notes that the entire score was written before Goldsmith had seen any of the filmed footage, a fact I find absolutely impressive. It was so perfectly suited to the movie and the supernatural subject matter. The innocent and child-like theme for Carol Anne, the quasi-religious theme for the “other side”, and the jarring and terrifying theme for the Beast, were all so expertly crafted. Well done Goldsmith!
Now, I’m not saying that this was a perfect film. Sure, it had a few inconsistencies, plot holes, and editing mistakes, but I’m ok with them. Some of them are easily noticeable, but easy to overlook. They make the movie no less enjoyable to watch.
For example, during the abduction, Carol Anne is holding on to the bed frame for dear life as she is being sucked into the portal in the closet. You see her grasping the wooden frame with one hand until she can’t hold on any longer. The frame is obviously broken, and her hand clearly slips off the end of a broken piece. Then we see her flying across the room, a large piece of the broken frame still gripped in both hands. Then, a moment later we see the bed frame with a large piece broken off. But not to worry. Later on in the movie, we see the bed frame whole and undamaged again.
Another little thing that always catches my attention is in the scene where Diane has just rescued Carol Anne from the spirit realm. The two are covered from head to toe in red slime. They are put into a bath tub full of water. The wider shot shows Carol Anne with most of the slime cleared away from her hair and forehead. Then a close-up shot of her face shows her hair and forehead thickly covered with the slime. Then the wider shot once again shows her forehead nearly clean. It is a little thing, but it catches my attention every time I watch it.
And now I have to take a moment to mention the clown. Ok, what kind of terrible parents would get such a terrifying clown doll for their children? I mean, really! That clown doll was one of the scariest things in the movie even before its face turned overtly demonic. It was scarier than the tree that knocked out a window to grab Robbie in an attempt to eat him, a window that, I might add, was remarkably fixed the next time we see it. It was scarier than the part where Marty is tricked into thinking that he is pulling all the flesh off of his face. It was even scarier than the dragon-like skeleton that prevents Diane from reaching her children in the film’s climax. The clown is supposed to be a happy child’s toy, but its maniacal grin and its insane, demonic eyes would be enough to give anyone nightmares. Then, when it attacks Robbie and drags him under the bed, we love seeing the little boy fight back and rip out its stuffing.
Just as an interesting note, in my research, I found that in 1982, a novelization of the film had been written. It contained some very interesting things which were not in the film, one of which explains the clown doll a little bit. I will quote from Wikipedia which said, “While the film focuses mainly on the Freeling family, much of the book leans toward the relationship between Tangina and Dr. Lesh away from the family. The novel also expands upon the many scenes that took place in the film, such as the Freeling’s living room being visited by night by outer dimensional entities of fire and shadows, and an extended version of the kitchen scene in which Marty watches the steak crawl across a countertop. In the book, Marty is frozen in place and is skeletonized by spiders and rats. There are also additional elements not in the film, such as Robbie’s mysterious discovery of the clown doll in the yard during his birthday party, and a benevolent spirit, “The Waiting Woman”, who protects Carol Anne in the spirit world.” Interesting…