Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Poltergeist

Series of three Supernatural-Fiction movies notable for their spfx and inventiveness, and for the performances of child actress Heather O'Rourke.

1. Poltergeist US movie (1982). MGM. Pr Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg. Dir Tobe Hooper. Spfx Industrial Light & Magic. Screenplay Michael Grais, Spielberg, Mark Victor. Novelization Poltergeist * (1982) by James Kahn (> SFE link below). Starring Craig T Nelson (Steve Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), Beatrice Straight (Dr Lesh), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling). 110 mins. Colour.

The Freeling family live in a housing estate erected – as they discover – on an old Native American burial place. Strangeness starts when 5-year-old Carol Anne hears the voices of "the tv people" in the white-noise static after closedown. Physical manifestations build until Carol Anne is snatched to another plane, although she can still be heard calling for her mother via the tv static. The Freelings bring in parapsychologist Lesh, who in turn summons dwarf medium Tangina. Carol Anne is rescued and the house seemingly cleared of evil Spirits – but only long enough for everyone to depart except Diane and the two younger children, who are relaxed and defenceless when ...

P, which is about a Haunting rather than about a Poltergeist event, has some good qualities, but is ever too eager to stifle its plot in a welter of (excellent) spfx. Despite references aplenty to fantasy Icons (for example, the first main burst of activity features the tornado from The Wizard of Oz [1939]) and to various spiritualist and religious beliefs, somehow the movie fails to hold together as anything more than a spectacularly produced but rather humdrum entertainment.

Interestingly, at one point we see a snatch of an old movie on tv: A Guy Named Joe (1944), about a dead airman who, as a Ghost, observes his girlfriend's new romance. Clearly the tale fascinated Spielberg, for some years after P he directed its remake, Always (1989).

2. Poltergeist II: The Other Side US movie (1986). MGM/Freddie Fields/Victor-Grais. Pr Michael Grais, Mark Victor. Exec pr Fields. Dir Brian Gibson. Vfx sv Richard Edlund. Conceptual artist H R Giger. Screenplay Grais, Victor. Novelization Poltergeist II: The Other Side * (1986) by James Kahn. Starring Julian Beck (Preacher Henry Kane), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Granma), Craig T Nelson (Steve), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne), Oliver Robins (Robbie), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), Will Sampson (Taylor), JoBeth Williams (Diane). 90 mins. Colour.

Taking refuge with Diane's mother, Granma, the Freelings hope the nightmare is over. But one day Carol Anne is approached by a sinister stranger, Kane. Soon Granma dies, her Soul giving a final farewell to Carol Anne via the latter's toy telephone. The next call on that phone, though, is not from Granma; the children's Toys become animate, ectoplasmic swirls fill the air, and Carol Anne tearfully announces: "They're back!" Native American medium and Shaman Taylor is summoned to their aid by Tangina (from 1). Kane calls by the house, introduces himself, and uses various stratagems to try to be invited in, but is resisted. That night the Haunting begins. Taylor guards Carol Anne, explaining she is the one the Spirits want; later he tells Steve that Kane is a man filled by a Demon, and that the corporate entity thinks its Reality and this one is the same. Meantime Tangina is with Diane, showing her a photograph of Kane and inducing her to see clairvoyant (> Talents) Visions of what happened: Kane was leader of a sect that came West to found a Utopia; he hid them underground anticipating the End of the World, refusing to let them leave when his Prophecy went unfulfilled. He and his followers need Carol Anne, whom they regard as an Angel, because they tasted her lifeforce during her incursion (in 1) into the Afterlife. There is some spectacular stuff hereafter before the demon is seen off, Carol Anne's ultimate rescuer being the soul of Granma.

Although its script is sometimes disjointed, PII is in many ways a more interesting movie than 1, using its material rather than merely splashing it noisily all over the screen. There is one moment that, with hindsight, has true pathos: speaking to Granma, Carol Anne says: "Don't want to grow up much ... Probably not much fun." Tragically, O'Rourke (1975-1988) was dead two years later. [JG]

3. Poltergeist III US movie (1988). MGM. Pr Barry Bernardi. Exec pr Gary Sherman. Dir Sherman. Screenplay Sherman, Brian Taggert. Starring Nancy Allen (Patricia), Lara Flynn Boyle (Donna), Nathan Davis (Kane), Richard Fire (Dr Seaton), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), Tom Skerritt (Bruce). 97 mins. Colour.

The last in the series was made on a smaller budget: it has the feel of a tvm. This has tended to disguise its interest; unable to draw on exotic spfx, the makers instead drew on imagination, in particular on the imagery of Mirrors – so that events seen in the mirror world (which is where, in this movie, the Spirits are presumed to reside) may be seen as disparate from those in "our" world. Carol Anne has been sent to live awhile with her Uncle Bruce, Aunt Patricia and cousin Donna in their apartment in a 98-storey Chicago city-in-a-tower-block, whose internal walls are almost everywhere fronted with mirrors (the setting is much like that of the second Gremlins movie). Meddling child psychologist Dr Seaton, a caricature sceptic, inadvertently draws Preacher Kane (played by Nathan Davis, Julian Beck having died) back to Carol Anne. Much of the rest of the movie is a fairly sophisticated if sometimes derivative Technofantasy (including demonic cars à la Christine [1983]). Tangina sacrifices herself to Kane to save Carol Anne and the rest. [JG]

links

  • The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: James Kahn.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.