Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is who directed it. Most people, including me, would swear to you that Steven Spielberg directed this near perfect tale of the supernatural. However, it was Tobe Hooper [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] who directed Poltergeist with Spielberg writing the screenplay and acting as producer. Tobe Hooper? It seems hard to believe, but it's true. But when you think about it, it's a match made in heaven. Tobe brings the gore and fright. Spielberg brings the magic. Who could ask for anything more?
The script for Poltergeist shows us horror storytelling at its finest. The film first grabs us by the heart, introducing us to an all-American family that encounters what first appears as a playful sprite. Then the movie grabs us by the throat as the sense of dread increases until it reaches a fevered pitch. This is such a contrast to many modern horror films whose characters simply serve as grist for the mill [Saw, anyone?] The audience doesn't really care about them. The joy appears to be in watching the many creative ways they meet their demise. Personally, I prefer Poltergeist over much of the torture porn that is called horror these days.
In addition to a great script, the cast is perfect. Veteran actors Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are wonderful as the loving parents of three "just above average" kids, being raised in the California suburbs. For me, JoBeth is the emotional heart of the film and her performance is wonderful to watch. Other standouts include Heather O'Rourke as little sis Carol Anne. How can you not love this sweet and sometimes a little bit creepy kid? Zelda Rubinstein is a total rock star as psychic Tangina. She is delicious in every scene. One of my all time favorite horror roles ever created. I cannot imagine this movie without her in it.
The special effects in this film are also great to watch and hold up well 28 years later. This is where Tobe Hooper is an asset. He pushes Spielberg to go a little darker than usual. This is a good thing. It increases the intensity of the film and makes it creepier than it would have been if Spielberg was totally in charge.
Poltergeist is one of my all-time favorites. I've watched it numerous times and never get tired of this well crafted film. Make sure you watch the 25th Anniversary edition. The clarity of the picture is stunning and makes earlier versions pale in comparison.
For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.