This mainstream horror film from the collaboration of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg has earned its reputation as a horror classic so it is not a suprise that there are plans to milk its reputation with a ill-advised remake. The family facing supernatural horror is format that has inspired many imitators but Spielberg really knows how to set up this type of story with a feeling of genuine warmth, creating relatable everyman characters before really bringing the horror right home.
The film opens with sound of the US national anthem being played on a TV just before the channel closes for the night. You young sprogs probably don’t remember that but TV channels didn’t run through the night stopped at about one or two in the morning and cathode ray TVs didn’t turn themselves off when there was no signal. The family dog is on the prowl for food and as it goes around the house we see the whole Freeling family. Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) is dozing in a chair in front of the TV. When the music stops the signal is switched off and the screen is covered in random dots and the sound of white noise comes from the speakers. The dog goes upstairs to Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) who is asleep in bed. In the bedroom of the teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) the dog gets lucky and finds a packet of crisps (potato chips). In the children’s bedroom is eight-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins) and five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Carol Anne wakes up and goes down to the living room, She starts answering some voices she seems to hear in the static coining from the TV set and she starts calling out to the voices This wakes everyone up who all come down to see what’s happening. They are all a bit weirded out but Diane and Steve put it down to sleepwalking.
Next day is a summer Sunday afternoon in the suburbs and the establishing scene is very typically Stephen Spielberg, with the camera following a man riding a child’s bike and trying to balance an unwieldy pack of beer while a bunch of kids send a pair of remote control racing cars after him, making him fall of the bike and drop the beer. He lifts the beer which is spraying its contents in jets from the leaking cans and carries it into the house, past Dana in the kitchen and through to the living room where Steve is with a group of buddies in the living room watching an American Football match. When the channel suddenly switches to a kid’s show Steve apologizes to his buddies. His neighbour has a TV remote on the same frequency and there’s a spot of childish bickering between the two men as they duel with their remotes.
Diane is trying to tidy up the children’s bedroom and she discovers Carol Anne’s pet canary lying dead in its cage. She is about to flush the bird down the toilet when Carol Anne spots her and she has to put the bird in a cigar box and give it a funeral in the garden. Billy is watching them bury the bird from the branches of an old dead tree in the garden. He can see that there’s a storm approaching
That night when they put the kids to bed the storm is coming closer. Robbie is frightened of the old tree just outside his window, insisting that it is staring at him even when Steve tries to assure him that it is protecting them. Robbie is just little bundle of anxiety and he’s also scared of the lightning and his little sister’s large creepy clown doll. Carol Anne seems less worried but she insists on the closet light being switched on with door left half-open. Stephen just pops his head in Dana’s door and tells her to get off the phone that she tries to hide from him.
Steve and Diane sit on their bed, rolling joints while watching TV and Steve is reading a book about Ronald Reagan. The film treats the dope smoking as casually as the earlier beer drinking and it never gets raised again. It’s not a long or significant scene but considering the US government’s drug policy then and today it is probably a little statement by the writer. They start kissing and cuddling and are just about to make love when they get interrupted by Robbie who is scared of the thunder.
Steve puts Robbie back to bed and tells him about counting the gap between the lightning flash and the thunder to see that the storm is moving away. He leaves Robbie and Carol Anne counting the gaps and goes back to bed. There’s a sudden lightning strike near the house the next shot shows the two children sleeping in between their parents in their bed. The TV is on and the anthem is playing then the signal goes dead and there’s static. Carol Anne climbs out of bed and approaches the TV calling out to the voices she seems to hear in the static. A glowing wisp of light comes from the screen and seems to search round the room until it reaches the wall then beam of light shoots out of the screen and hits the wall above the bed. Everything starts shaking violently and the others wake up. Carol Anne just says brightly “they’re here.”
Next day is when things start getting freaky. After Steve has left for work and Dana and Robbie have gone to school Diane is cleaning up the kitchen. She turns her back for a moment and when she looks round the chairs are balanced in a precarious pyramid arrangement on top of the kitchen table.
When Steve comes home from work Diane is really excited and drags him into the kitchen to show him something strange. She has a circle marked on the floor in crayon and she puts a chair in the circle. The chair starts to shake then it shoots across the floor by propelled by some unseen force. While Steve is trying to process that she gets Carol Anne to put on a crash helmet then sits her in the circle. Steve catches her as she slides across the floor. They try to figure out what’s going on but they really don’t know. There’s an abrupt cut to a very curious scene where Stephen and Diane go to talk to their next door neighbour to find out if they have experienced anything strange but they end up getting badly bitten by mosquitoes and having fits of the giggles.
The night is stormy again but this time there is an unnatural vicious edge to the wind. A branch of the tree smashes through the window and grabs Robbie right out of his bed. His parents rush outside just as the tree tries to swallow Robbie into the trunk. A tornado appears and starts pulling the tree up by the roots. Steve climbs the tree and manages to get Robbie out just before the tree gets sucked up into the tornado.
This was actually all a distraction because back in the bedroom a portal of bright light has opened up in the closet into the dimension of death and is sucking everything in the bedroom into it. Carol Anne’s screams go ignored in the panic to rescue Robbie and she finds herself pulled into the portal. When the family notice she is gone everyone searches the house and Steve even searches the bottom of the hole dug for the swimming pool they are having built. It is Robbie who notices that Carol’s Anne’s voice frightened voice is coming from the TV set
Steve goes to see Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight) a professor at the local university who has published papers on her psychic research. She agrees to come to the house with her two assistants Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson) and whole load of recording equipment. There is a really nice juxtaposition between the feeble expectations of the researchers based on years of data and the extraordinary events that they witness in the Freeling house created by movie magic. The children’s room is chaotic with objects flying around the room and signs of a mischievous intent about the chaos as a book flaps in their faces and a spinning record is played by the needle of a compass.
In the kitchen a visibly shaken Dr Lesh tries to compose herself while explaining the difference between a poltergeist which is a short-term event around a single person and a normal haunting which is focused on a place, while a kettle moves itself across the table and light flash off and on. The definitions Dr Lesh gives suggests that this is a normal haunting but perhaps it merely reveals the limitations of labelling such barely defined phenomena. Diane contacts Carol Anne through the TV set. Carol Anne is terrified and doesn’t know where she is. Marty goes upstairs to check for natural causes of the voice like a CB radio. Carol Anne says there are other people there with her and she can see a blinding white light. Dr Lesh urges Diane to warn Carol Annw away from the light. This is the light that is supposed to be seen by those who have near death experiences and is where the souls are supposed to go when they die but Carol Anne is not dead. Carol Anne starts screaming that someone is coming for her. Diane goes to stairs and she feels something pass through her. She is covered in the familiar smell of Carol Anne and she is sure that’s who it was. She heads for the stairs but there’ a roar and they hear Marty’s screams from upstairs. He comes running back down saying that something bit him. When he shows them the marks the jaw that did is clearly huge. There’s a sudden flash of light and load of old junk drops out and fall to the floor. Then there’s another roar and a blast of air throws them all back. After that they can’t hear Carol Anne any more. Steve wants send his family away but Diane’s not going anywhere and they all stay.
That night everyone is in the living room. Steve tries to sleep in an armchair and Robbie is lying on the couch next to Diane who talks with Dr Lesh. Marty and Ryan take turns monitoring the equipment while the others try to get some sleep. Marty feels hungry and goes to get some food out of the fridge. The cheeky bastard helps himself to a chicken drumstick and lifts out a steak to cook. He puts the meat on the counter while he finds a frying pan. When he looks back at the meat it is crawling across the counter then bursts open in foetid rotten chunks. He spits out the chicken which is suddenly covered in maggots and he rushes into the toilet to rinse his mouth out in the sink. He stands up and looks in the mirror but instead of seeing his reflection he sees his hands tearing the face off a really obvious dummy head. It still creeps Marty out.
Back in the living room Ryan is sitting listening to music with his back to the monitors but fortunately these ghosts want to appear on camera and they turn it to face the stairs. Marty comes back into the room and nudges Ryan to look at the screen. The other wake up and they watch as a ghostly figure with flowing robes glides down the stairs followed by several orbs of light. When they play back the video they recorded they see that the orbs are actually human figures. What they have recorded at this house would be a radical blast across the bows of science and Lesh and her team know it, but the Freelings are not interested in shaking up science, they just want Carol Anne back safe. In the morning when the team leaves Dr Lesh tells Diane that she is leaving Ryan with them and she will be back and she’ll promises to bring some expert help.
Next day Robbie and the dog are sent off to stay with his grandmother while Dana is going to stay with a friend. Steve’s boss Mr Teague (James Karen) drops by to find out if he’s okay. Steve doesn’t want to tell him what’s going on so tells him that they all have the flu. Teague drives Steve to a hillside overlooking the whole housing development. Steve is his top real estate agent and Teague is worried about losing him to a rival. He offers Steve a house in the latest phase right where they are standing. Steve comments on the lack of available space, indicating the graveyard they are standing beside. Teague waves away his concerns, saying they have bought the land and will move the graves to a cemetery a couple of miles away. Then Teague tells him they did it before when they built the first phase Cuesta Verde in the 70s where Steve’s house is. This is significant as we learn later and Steve clearly suspects.
Back at home Dr Lesh has returned with the expert help that she promised, a small unworldly woman called Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) who has apparently been tested and those tests confirmed her claims to be a powerful psychic medium. She goes into more detail than Dr Lesh about the strange dimension where Carol Anne is trapped and adds in the detail that there is malevolent force there with her which she calls the Beast implying it’s something like the Devil. Steve is having a hard time taking her seriously with her strange childlike voice and peculiar mannerisms but Diane gets him to shut up since she’s their only hope.
Tangina takes them upstairs outside the bedroom and she tells Diane to call out to Carol Anne. Carol Anne is frightened to talk so she tells Steve to order her talk. Tangina tells them to tell her to go towards the light and Diane is worried since Dr Lesh said she was not to go anywhere near the light but this is to get rid of the many spirits surrounding her and then she gets Steve to order Carol Anne to turn away.
They can get into the bedroom now and Tangina asks for some tennis balls and rope. When Tangina tosses the tennis balls into the bedroom closet they re-appear in the same place as the old junk in the living room but covered in strawberry jam. This confirms Tangina’s idea that the bedroom is an entrance point to the other dimension and there’s an exit in living room. Steve tosses one end of the rope through and Ryan grabs the other end in the living room. Tangina plans to go in and fetch Carol Ann then bring her out and plans to tie the rope around herself and have Steve and Ryan keep hold of the ends. Diane insists on going instead.
With the rope looped around her waist Diane goes into the closet while Steve holds on to the rope. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of shouting over it but Tangina’s plan works and Diane falls out of the dimensional hole in the living room with Carol Ann held tightly in her arms. They are covered in jam and aren’t breathing so Steve and Ryan carry them into the bathroom to wash the jam off. They soon start breathing and open their eyes. After that is happiness and tears as Carol Ann is reunited with her parents in the world of the living and Tangina declares that the house is clean.
Next day Robbie returns from his grandmother’s house. They are going to leave to stay in a motel but before that Steve is going to see Teague to hand in his notice. In the meantime for some bizarre reason Diane puts the children to bed back up their bedroom then runs herself a bath. Robbie gets attacked by Carol Ann’s scary clown doll and he fights it off then tears it to pieces. Then the portal into the death dimension opens up again and it starts sucking the two children into it. Meanwhile Diane in the bedroom has been dragged up the wall then across the ceiling. Diane hears the children screaming but she can’t get in their room because of a large hideous spectre guarding the door. Everything she touches gives her electric shocks which throw her down the stairs and out the door.
Diane goes to the fence and calls out to her neighbours for help. As she looks up helplessly at the flashes of light from the children’s bedroom she slips in the mud and falls into the hole dug for the swimming pool. Decayed corpses break out of the ground and fill the muddy water around her and their bony fingers clutch at her. She manages to struggle out of the pool with help of her neighbours and they hear the children screaming upstairs. She rushes up in the room and the children are clinging to their beds while the portal drags them in. She grabs Robbie’s hand and tells him to grab Carol Anne’s Hand. Then with all her desperate strength she pulls them out of the room.
They run downstairs and coffins burst through the floor, blocking the way to the door so they run to the kitchen. Steve returns to the chaos, driven by Teague. When he enters the house there are coffins exploding out of the ground spilling their contents. He confronts Teague with the obvious fact that he only moved the headstone but he left bodies where they were buried. Diane Gets the children out the back door and they run through the garden avoiding the coffin exploding out of the ground around them
The house is collapsing in itself and the whole neighbourhood is exploding into chaos. Dana arrives back from her friends and Steve gets the family into the car and they drive off leaving the neighbours watching their house collapsing in before dragged through the portal and vanishing. Steve drives to a motel and there’s an amusing last scene of him dumping the motel room TV outside.
I think this film still holds up pretty well today and I think it is down to a timeless quality of the story of a normal family facing down a threat to stay together. The Freeling family are really believable thanks to great performances and direction. There is strong feel of the influence of producer and writer Steven Spielberg throughout the film and it seems he was a very hands-on presence even though he was also directing ET just up the road from this film’s set.
Most of the special effects are well done though some have not dated well, like the scene with Marty at the mirror. The tragic death of Heather O’Rourke at 12 of septic shock and the murder of Dominique Dunne by her boyfriend at 22 has led to the inevitable talk of this film series being cursed. These beliefs are reinforced by the story that some of the skeletons used were real. I am sceptical about these stories but it certainly doesn’t do harm to a horror film to have creepy reputation and the Bluray comes with documentaries with spook botherers. Personally I’d liked to have seen cast and director/producer commentaries or an SFX documentary.