I believe this is the first Steven Spielberg film to make my list. Well, Spielberg produced, wrote, cast and pretty much did everything except say “action” and “cut”. That honour went to Tobe Hooper. This film is supposedly cursed, what with two of the actresses in the film dying shortly after its release. Dominique Dunne, who plays the teenage Dana, was murdered the same year the film was released. Heather O’Rourke who played the sweet little Carol Anne made two sequels to this film before dying in 1988. Let’s move on.
The film follows the Freeling family, your average suburban American family; there’s mother Dianne, father Steve and children Dana (16), Robbie (8) and Carol Anne (5). One night Carol Anne somehow summons spirits out through the TV set, causing things in the house to move around by themselves. The next night things get even worse when the tree in the back garden comes to life and Carol Anne disappears. The family has to call in experts who theorise that the house has become infested with poltergeists. And in a completely unrelated note, Steve’s boss casually mentions that the housing estate was built on top of an old cemetery.
This is a pretty fun horror film that seems really out place for Spielberg, but you can see some flourishes of Tobe Hooper’s direction in there and it remains one of the better 80s horror films (mainly because it was in the minority that wasn’t ripping off Halloween). For an 80s film, the special effects are pretty good apart from one rather silly scene where the experts have a look inside the children’s bedroom and find the bed and toys flying around by themselves. It just looks out of place in this otherwise great film. Probably the coolest effects come when the closet opens to show the mouth of some....thing inside it trying to swallow the children up. As well as the final climactic moment where the house gets sucked into oblivion.
When picking actors to play the family, Spielberg went for unknowns in order to make them seem like a realistic family. Indeed only Craig T Nelson has had a notable career after the film, so that still helps for me to think of them as the Freelings instead of whatever their real names are. JoBeth Williams who plays Diane is a pleasant surprise and I hope she’s had a lengthy career after this film. Plus she spends the first part of the movie wearing a pair of short-shorts to show off her amazing legs. And she ends the movie wearing nothing but a jersey and panties. The daughter Dana is also a fun character to watch, despite not getting a lot of focus. A funny part comes where the workmen outside the house wolf whistle at her and she does the Macarena for them, only to flip them off instead. And of course the film wouldn’t be complete without the lovable Carol Anne who delivers the movie’s famous line “they’re here!”and was clearly going to be a big star if she had lived longer. And you gotta love Zelda Rubinstein as the eccentric psychic Tangina Barrons, who has the coolest Southern accent ever. The rest of the cast are also solid, which is just a credit to Spielberg who is best at working with child actors.
The film is full of high octane nightmare fuel that probably would have been even scarier back when it was released; the scene that stands out would be where Dianne falls into the pool being dug in the back garden and discovers the bodies that were left there when the cemetery was moved in construction. And you want to know the kicker? Spielberg used *Real* bodies for the scene. Poor JoBeth Williams didn’t find this out until after the scene was completed. Almost equally chilling is the scene where the tree comes to life and smashes through the children’s bedroom window, grabbing Robbie and pulling him out into the storm. And then we have the goriest scene in the film where one of the paranormal investigators gets tricked into thinking he’s peeling his face off.
The film manages to be both fun and scary at the same time, which is pretty hard to do, but it just has Spielberg written all over it. The haunted house thrills provide proper scares while the small things such as the moving furniture add a bit of humour into the situation. The film also makes great use of long takes, which is pretty innovative filmmaking. For example, the scene where Diane pushes the chairs into the table and looks away only to look back and find them stacked on the table was all one take, with stage hands arranging the chairs quickly while the camera was looking away. An equally long continuous take is where Tangina first arrives and the camera doesn’t cut away until after two minutes. I’ve always been a big fan of long takes and as a wannabe filmmaker, they look good and save a lot of time and hassle.
Another thing I love about the film is how many of the effects were real. By real, I mean physically on set. I’m not a CGI hater but I do love it when the actors have something to physically work with like the flashing lights coming out of the closet and the creature head popping out of the door.
So anyway this film is well worth a viewing if you’re a fan of ghost flicks, and a must-see for a Spielberg fan. It wasn’t really groundbreaking at the time but it still holds up as a true horror classic. But I would stay away if you happen to have a fear of clowns, trees, closets or bodies popping up inexplicably from under the ground. Just saying. Don’t forget to follow me on Twiter.