Kill your television: “Poltergeist” turns 40
I was only seven when Fighting spirit came out in 1982. I didn’t see it in theaters and it wasn’t the first horror movie I’ve ever seen. I think that honor goes to The Exorcist, which my dad brought home from the (pre-Blockbuster) video rental store one day when I was home sick. But Fighting spirit is the movie that scared me the most and left the most lasting impression on my psyche.
Fighting spirit is the story of the Freelings, a family of five living in the fictional Cuesta Verde, California. It’s a new development and dad, Steven (Craig T Nelson), is a salesman on the project. It’s idyllic: New houses, wide streets, tall trees; the Freelings lay in a swimming pool. Life is Beautiful! But what is a poltergeist other than a metaphor for all the imperfections and secrets that lurk beneath the surface of suburban stage life?
The film opens with the family sleeping while network television is disconnected and goes into static mode at the end of the broadcast day. (Hands up: Who’s old enough to remember this in real life? I tried to explain it to my kid the other day and he thought I was crazy.) Carol Anne (Heather O ‘Rourke), five, crawls downstairs, where her father is sacked in the recliner and begins talking to an unknown, unseen entity communicating with her via television. Her seemingly one-sided conversation wakes the rest of the family up, but everyone assumes she’s sleepwalking and thinks very little about it. The events of Fighting spirit follow each other quickly from here. Everything spirals out of control in the first forty minutes of the film – the pet bird dies, the kitchen chairs move on their own, and then that night the storm comes. The monstrous tree outside the house tries to eat Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne disappears into the space between worlds through her bedroom closet portal, leaving that damn clown doll behind.
Steve and Diane approach a trio of paranormal investigators, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), who show remarkably little hesitation in helping them and are quickly overwhelmed by all the activity in the house. After a particularly terrifying night in which one of the investigators is attacked and the spirits manifest quite clearly, Dr. Lesh wisely decides to enlist more help. Enter Zelda Rubinstein’s iconic Tangina Barrons, a clairvoyant and medium who explains the nature of the afterlife and how these spirits don’t understand that they are dead. They are drawn to Carol Anne’s very strong life force, and it is used, BY THE DEVIL, as a distraction to keep them from entering the true light of heaven.
To be honest, I didn’t remember the explanation being as woo-woo as it was. Tangina lost me more than once during this monologue. It sounds overly complicated, but when you see it in the context provided by the two sequels, it’s one of the least confusing mythos created for this world.
Tangina, Dr. Lesh, his assistant Ryan, and the adult Freelings
come up with a plan use Robbie’s plan from the beginning of the film to send someone into the portal with a rope tied around the waist to guide Carol Anne to her world. The project is a success! Tangina says, “This house is clean. The family lives happily ever after. I laugh! Fighting spirit has one more trick up its sleeve and another ghost attack that the family must survive before leaving Cuesta Verde. The film ends with a dramatic and practical effect of the whole house collapsing in on itself, like a dying star, as the Freelings walk away.
This movie also has the most perfect button ever. Steve and Diane check the family into a Holiday Inn for the night and just before the credits, Steve rolls the bedroom TV onto the balcony with a dirty look and closes the door on it. The end.
In 1982, White Flight out of the urban decay that was gripping American cities was still going strong, and the kind of development the Freelings lived in was showing up everywhere. This explains some of the urgency underlying the decision (not good, very bad) of the Cuesta Verde development company to build above the cemeteries. Meanwhile, the divorce rate was starting a steady slope that didn’t level off until the mid-1990s. Everywhere you turned in the early 1980s, it looked like someone was divorce, a family was splitting up, someone was moving. Steven Spielberg’s screenplay taps into those two phenomena as well as a dozen childhood fears – some of which you didn’t even have before watching this film. (Super scary clown doll, I’m looking at you!)
Fighting spirit is a spiritual partner in the first two Indiana Jones films. If Indy
walked through the front door of their house fallen from the supernatural hole in the universe they hung in their living room (which defeats ghosts and exposes their secret treasures), I wouldn’t have been surprised. Although the horror aspects of the film did not hold up, primarily due to advances in effects technology, Fighting spirit is still a hell of an adventure film in the same vein as The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Looking back at it now, the scary moments are the ones that center around the idea of losing your child to a catastrophic event. Robbie cries out for his mum as the tree swallows him, Carol Anne cries out for help as she is dragged into the swirling chaos that drags her into the other world. This idea of your child disappearing into thin air seems more realistic these days when every morning, as we kiss them goodbye, we worry about school shooters and other random acts of gun violence.
This, of course, is not at all surprising. Although Tobe Hooper is recognized as the director of Poltergiest, there are Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it. There has been controversy and questions about who really directed the film since its release. Spielberg was legally bound to direct AND the alien at the time. He was rumored to have been a close associate of Hooper on Fighting spirit, as well. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck… well, it’s probably a Steven Spielberg movie. The good thing is ! Add to that Jerry Goldsmith’s catchy, sentimental score, and those are the reasons it’s still so re-watchable despite the outdated effects.
Of course you can’t watch Fighting spirit without thinking of the terrible tragedies that befell two of its young cast members. Dominique Dunne played Freeling’s older brother, Dana. She was 23 when the film was released in June 1982 and was murdered by her boyfriend later that year. Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Ann in all three Fighting spirit films, died of septic shock when an abscess in her intestines ruptured while filming the third film. She was 13 at the time. The third film was only released under studio duress. The director, Gary Sherman, didn’t want to finish it or release it without Heather. But, according to Shudder’s episode cursed movies about The Poltergeist Curse, he was forced to complete it with a stand-in for the little girl. The surviving cast members declined to appear to promote the film. Sherman, in that same episode, says he hates the movie and had to put it out. Will Sampson, who played Taylor in the second film (and was also in Flight over a cuckoo’s nest, also died young at the age of 53 of malnutrition, kidney failure and postoperative infection after a heart-lung transplant. Julian Beck, who played Cane the Super Scary Preacher in the second film, has died of stomach cancer. A different actor was cast for Cane in Poltergeist III and they wore a mask of Beck’s face for their scenes in the film. That’s a lot of deaths. Anyone committed to the franchise is quick to dismiss the idea of any kind of curse. Zelda Rubenstein went on TV and called the idea of a shit “jinx”.
I can’t imagine the kids finding the original Fighting spirit as scary as we did back then. Its PG rating is solid. I guess this is the first (only?) family horror film? Practical effects seem ridiculous in the age of digital editing. But it’s worth revisiting to revel in those same effects. They don’t make them like that anymore. There are good reasons Fighting spirit was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars and made the New York Times list of 1000 Greatest Movies Ever Made. Of course, I used to hide my eyes from the scene where the paranormal researcher, Marty, is hallucinating as he peels his face off in the bathroom mirror. Now it’s more of a laugh and a nod to Craig Reardon’s special effects makeup work. It didn’t stop me having nightmares all night like before, so I can put it in rotation with all the other Speilberg movies I like to watch over and over again.
Fighting spirit is currently airing on AMC+
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Header image source: AMC+