Apart from the special effects disaster that is "the mirror scene," Poltergeist delivers one of the most effective, engrossing, and eerie presentations in movie history. Who can ever get the ill-fated Heather O'Rourke's "They're here" line or the fantastic performance of the diminutive Zelda Rubenstein as the psychic house "cleaner" Tangina? JoBeth Williams, for her part, turns in a fantastic performance, cementing her position as the emotional center of the story. Heck, everyone involved did a great job with this movie, including the dog. I'm often critical of Tobe Hooper's directing, but there is no doubt that Poltergeist represents his finest directorial work (although rumor has it that producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg did more than his share of the directing job).
I'm not sure why they called this film Poltergeist because the goings-on in the Freeling house go way, way beyond typical poltergeist activity. Things start out small (chair stacking, objects moving on their own, utensils bending on their own), but it doesn't take long for things to get completely out of hand. Initially, though, the stage is set with the typical fears most all of us experienced as children - fear of the dark, the closet, something under the bed, thunder storms, stuffed toys that suddenly become creepy when the lights are out. Fortunately for most of us, those fears are just childish fancies. The same cannot be said for the Freeling children. Unable to go to the police with their story (yes, officer, we think our lost daughter is somewhere in the house and we can still communicate with her through the television from time to time), the Freelings call upon local paranormal researchers for help. Needless to say, this blows the socks off of every other case they've investigated, leaving them no choice but to call in reinforcements in the form of a short but formidable medium (Rubenstein). Then, just when you think things are under control, the movie ratchets things up to new heights of action and suspense.
Poltergeist definitely has the potential to frighten some viewers, with scare tactics ranging from the small and subtle to the unbelievably grandiose - and even the most over-the-top occurrences work in the context of the presentation. No stranger to large special effects budgets, Spielberg made sure that all of the visual effects were believable (including the use of real human skeletons in one scene) and added to the suspense of the story (except that mirror scene, which really does feature some of the worst special effects I've ever seen in my life). Not having seen this movie in many, many years, I had forgotten just how impressive it was. It features some of the best interaction of actors with special effects that I've ever seen, making it easy to keep suspending your disbelief in the face of the most incredible of circumstances. You even get a sense of resolution at the end, which is something you rarely find in horror movies today. Poltergeist is, without doubt, a classic in every sense of the word.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the Poltergeist curse (a result, some say, of using real skeletons in the movie), which adds yet another layer to the atmosphere of the film. As most people know, Heather O'Rourke died tragically at the age of 12, but it's easy to forget that her co-star Dominique Dunne (daughter of novelist Dominick Dunne) was murdered by her ex-boyfriend within months of the film's release. Of course, the curse doesn't seem to have affected Craig T. Nelson, who went on to have a long and successful acting career. You can't help but feel sad, though, watching cute and talented little Heather O'Rourke, knowing that she died so young.