(Originally posted on 2/26/04)
Although I was disappointed to find that my favorite scene from 1982’s Poltergeist -- the one with the paranormal expert tearing his face off in front of the bathroom mirror -- employs a lame fake head for the gruesome effect, the film otherwise holds up incredibly well twenty years after it first made people afraid of television static. According to Hollywood lore, executive producer Steven Spielberg, displeased with director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), more or less directed the film himself, and there’s no ignoring the abundant early-‘80s Spielberg touches -- the distinct sense of time and place (here, a California tract house community), an intimate familiarity with suburbia and its inhabitants’ lives (I love the parents smoking pot once the kids are asleep), and the intrusion of wonder and terror into this everyday environment via the supernatural. Of course, the gauzy widescreen compositions and tender affection for the nuclear family are also cut from the Spielberg mold. As in The Goonies (another Spielberg production), ruthless residential developers are the story’s true villains, but the film also quaintly critiques television as possessing the potentially dangerous ability to co-opt the minds (and perhaps even the bodies?) of the nation’s youth. Joe Beth Williams is tantalizingly sexy as the brood’s fiercely protective mother, and Heather “They’re heeere” O’Rourke is creepily porcelain as Carol Ann, but the film’s true star is Zelda Rubinstein who, as the psychic high priestess Tangina Barrons, dresses like a ‘70s gypsy and speaks in an unsettling, slightly condescending sing-songy cadence. Rubinstein’s bizzaro performance remains the highlight of this suspenseful supernatural chiller, and until the gaunt Reverend Kane appeared in Poltergeist II, it was Tangina -- not the glowing lights or flying furniture or slithering steak -- that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid.