1982 was a major time for Spielberg. Or, more specifically, June 1982. This summer month saw the release of two of the year’s biggest blockbusters: the haunted house flick Poltergeist, and the year’s highest-grossing hit, E.T. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work in the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re focusing on Poltergeist: the only film that can be properly described as a Spielberg film that Spielberg didn’t actually direct. Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper, but you’d have to be a spook to say whole-heartedly this isn’t a Spielberg film.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
The origins of both Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial can be traced back to Spielberg’s attempts at developing a follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, tentatively titled Night Skies. Spielberg hired John Sayles of 1978’s Piranha to pen a script involving malicious alien creatures terrorizing a family farm house. In the end, the kinder, gentler member of the alien party would be marooned and befriend the family’s autistic child. Falling in love with the human/alien friendship angle, Spielberg would soon develop this element into its own film, titling it E.T.
Spielberg’s contract with Universal Pictures for E.T. had a clause that prevented him from directing anything else while E.T. was being prepared. Having been impressed with 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Spielberg hired horror director Tobe Hooper to helm Night Skies. Hooper, however, convinced Spielberg to rework the project from science-fiction to a ghost story, and Poltergeist was born. Spielberg co-wrote Poltergeist, and closely supervised Hooper throughout almost all of the film’s production. Then in June, Poltergeist was released one week before E.T.
Poltergeist centers on a traditional nuclear family residing in the tranquil housing development of Cuesta Verde, California, where Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) works as a realtor. Steve, his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) and their three kids, teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne), middle child Robbie (Oliver Robbins), and little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) become victims of a large-scale haunting. Carol Anne is kidnapped by the apparitions, a team of paranormal investigators recovers her, and eventually the entire house is destroyed by the supernatural phenomenon.
Poltergeist is rather unique in the realm of horror in that it is marketed to a family-friendly audience, featuring no overt violence or gore; and also in that it is so heavy on special effects. The film stands alone as the preeminent family horror spectacle, and it works extraordinarily well on this level. Poltergeist is less utterly frightening as it is thrilling and awe-inducing, and it’s an approach that is perfectly satisfying in its own right. Due to this, it almost makes more sense to categorize the film under fantasy, but in the end, horror remains the most correct designation.
Steven’s strategy in casting was to stick to relative unknowns in order to ensure the relatability of the family, and this method works quite effectively. Craig T. Nelson is the perfect everyman lovable father, and JoBeth Williams is also quite likable as Diane, although she’s a little young to be taken seriously as having a teenage daughter. All of the child actors are quite good, but little Heather O’Rourke is by far the most memorable cast member, as her enactment of being haunted is deservingly iconic. Zelda Rubenstein is also a hoot as the little psychic woman.
Although Poltergeist isn’t entirely a “terrifying” film, it certainly offers some terrifying visuals. Perhaps the most enduring is the clown that comes to life, which reminds of Hooper’s film The Funhouse, but was actually an idea of Steven’s. More scary moments include the tree that comes to life, the various animated ghosts, as well as the zombies in the pool. The scene in the children’s closet is easily one of the most impressive, utilizing crafty special effects techniques such as fish tanks, strobe lights and smoke and fog machines to render one truly otherworldly visual effect.
A debate that continues to this day questions whether Tobe Hooper should be considered the true director of the film, or if Spielberg should be, considering his heavy influence on the production and on set. A comparison of both of the directors’ filmographies would almost certainly favor Steven, as Poltergeist includes all of his hallmarks of family-friendly sentiment and top-grade production values. A quick overview of Hooper’s work would show almost the opposite, crude and disturbing content meant to elicit true horror, a far cry from what shows up in Poltergeist.
Even the most shocking moment of the film, in which one of the paranormal investigators has a vision of himself tearing his face off, reminds more of the Ark-opening scene in Indiana Jones than of any of the gore in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At the end of the day, while it might be accurate to call Tobe Hooper the true director for as far as an official capacity goes, Poltergeist is very much a Steven Spielberg film. The arrangement likely was a great benefit to both parties, allowing Steven to make his movie, and giving Hooper mainstream Hollywood experience.
A natural precursor to Poltergeist would be Spielberg’s 1972 T.V. movie Something Evil, which also included a family haunted by the paranormal, but the most important work for comparison here is the 1979 film The Amityville Horror. Also concerning a suburban family haunted by supernatural phenomena, the film was lambasted by critics upon release, but is really a minor classic of the genre, and remains underappreciated to this day. Poltergeist utilizes themes from that film, and transposes them to the mainstream blockbuster, and weighs in today as the better film.
At a superficial level, The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist both concern traditional scare-fests and superstition, but one doesn’t need to look too far beneath the surface of each to see that they both represent manifestations of middle-class American dread. While Amityville can be viewed more as a crumbling of the American dream, Poltergeist can be viewed as a critique of American arrogance and entitlement. The climax of the film reveals that the Cuesta Verde housing development is built over a burial ground, which is explained as the source of the phenomena.
The shame projected on Steve’s boss here heavily evokes the guilt shared by the greedy mayor in Jaws. This can be used as another reason to strengthen the argument that Poltergeist is rightly described as a Spielberg film, but parallels can also be drawn to Hooper’s satirization of rural America in Texas Chainsaw. At the end of the day, Poltergeist offers plenty to analyze and debate for those interested, while also working perfectly fine as a breezy popcorn scarer. The mythology is a bit too muddled to consider it a masterpiece, but Poltergeist is definitely a horror classic.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the other film Steven made around this time (and actually directed), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Netflix, as well as for digital rental from various retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.
MGM/UA Entertainment Co., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, SLM Production Group.
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor.
Starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robbins, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubinstein.
Released June 4, 1982.