CINEMA CLASSICS: Poltergeist (1982)

With a remake on the way, Liam revisits Tobe Hooper’s seminal spook-fest. 

Who made it?: Tobe Hooper (Director), Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor (Writers), Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall (Producers), MGM.

Who’s in it?: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein. 

Tagline: “From a dimension beyond the living, a terror to scare you to death.”

IMDb rating: 7.4/10.

After Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1977, Steven Spielberg was established as the hottest young director in the business. There was great pressure from Columbia Pictures to produce a sequel, but Spielberg remained reluctant. However, due to his fear of seeing the studio make a sequel without him as Universal did with Jaws, he was prompted into producing a treatment for a horror follow-up initially titled Watch the Skies and later Night Skies. Described as Straw Dogs with aliens, it was the story of malicious otherworldly visitors terrorising a young family in middle-America. Pre-production began whilst Spielberg was filming Raiders of the Lost Ark in London. Make-up artist Rick Baker was hired to develop the creature effects and Spielberg suggested Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as director with himself as producer.

Back in the UK, Spielberg and Melissa Mathison – who was on the set of Raiders visiting her future husband Harrison Ford – read a fleshed-out script by John Sayles, writer of The Howling. It was Mathison who then suggested taking the material and turning it on its head, making the aliens friendly. Spielberg liked the idea and Mathison wrote a story titled E.T. and Me whilst Spielberg took the original idea to write an alternative piece which became Poltergeist. Columbia were not happy with the turnaround and were uninterested in either version of Night Skies, and so to appease the executives, Spielberg provided them with a Close Encounters “Special Edition.” After the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, the now officially-titled E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial had become a beloved project Spielberg was committed to, but after seeing the excellent ghost effects that Industrial Light and Magic had produced for the final act of Raiders, the time was right to get Poltergeist off the ground. Hooper was kept on as director and Spielberg would produce whilst working on E.T. simultaneously. This raised eyebrows at Universal Pictures who had a clause written into his contract that prevented him from directing duties on any other project whilst working on E.T., and this would become a prime talking point in years to come. MGM took up the option on Poltergeist and production began with a budget close to eleven million dollars.

The film opens with a young Carol Anne (the late Heather O’ Rourke) waking up in the early hours in a trance-like state. She makes her way downstairs into the living room where her father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), has fallen asleep in an armchair whilst watching television. Carol Anne then approaches the TV which has stopped broadcasting, emitting static and faint electrical sounds which resemble voices. She places her hands on the screen just before her father wakes and her mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), joins them to witness the strange occurrence. The next day, we’re introduced to the rest of the Freeling family; teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunn) and son Robbie (Oliver Robbins), all living a tranquil life in the beautifully-sunny suburban backdrop of Queste Verde, California. What could possibly go wrong?

As the story progresses, small but odd things begin to occur around the house, and there is a growing sense of unease that coincides with the arrival of a dark storm cloud. Despite being allowed to sleep with her parents during the thunder, Carol Anne awakes and makes her way toward the television which has been left on once more. This time, the ghostly apparition of a hand strikes out from the screen in a grabbing motion towards her, and the bedroom begins to shake violently. Her parents naturally suspect an earthquake before their daughter turns to them and utters the infamous words, ”They’re here!”

The paranormal activity escalates and soon they cannot find Carol Anne. They search the house before a fear-stricken Robbie hears his sister’s faint voice coming from a TV set. Diane must then accept the shocking truth that their daughter has been abducted by malevolent supernatural forces. The family seeks help from parapsychologists Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson), who take up residence in the house with technology that they hope will record and document any paranormal goings-on, as well as explaining Carol Anne’s disappearance. The experts are not kept waiting for long, as they are witness to multiple ghostly sightings and psychological attacks which they are not fully qualified or prepared for. Meanwhile, whilst trying to explain his recent absence from work, Steve discovers from his boss at the housing development company that his home was built on ancient Indian burial grounds. Coupled with the fact that Carol Anne was born in the house, this might be the key to her abduction…

Viewers and critics alike were quick to question who actually directed Poltergeist. Hooper would seem like a strange choice as his style didn’t seem compatible at all, but with Spielberg directing E.T. at the same time and the DGA (Directors Guild of America) rules prohibiting filmmakers from helming two movies at once, perhaps we will never know for sure. But it has to be said that Spielberg’s signature motifs are all over Poltergeist. The Freeling family are comparable with the Brodys in Jaws or the Nearys in Close Encounters, not to mention the familiar awestruck faces and shafts of light so well-known by Spielberg fans. Cast members Williams and Nelson have hinted that Spielberg was very active on set and there are even production stills clearly showing Spielberg directing scenes with Hooper taking a backseat. Perhaps Joe Dante (Gremlins) or Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) would have been a better fit as their styles compliment Spielberg’s. However, Hooper was already attached to the far-darker Night Skies and perhaps Spielberg felt obliged to keep the director on board. The two have worked together since on the 2002 miniseries Taken, which Spielberg produced with Hooper directing the first episode “Beyond the Sky.” Therefore, any bad feelings must have been cleared up in the intervening years.

On release, Poltergeist was well-received in a very strong year, placing eighth on the list of most lucrative 1982 films, remaining one of the highest-grossing horror flicks ever made. It is a great example of a contemporary haunted house picture. The filmmakers highlight a child’s fears of the unknown brilliantly and the characters are all very likeable, identifiable and realistically played out. The Freelings could easily be your next door neighbours! The unforgettable Zelda Rubinstein provides a memorable performance as Tangina and the spooky atmosphere is built up expertly, leading us gradually to a hugely exciting second half. This is accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score, which gives the film more of a thrilling/adventurous vibe than it does horror. Also, the ghost effects by ILM are still better-looking than any CGI offerings in recent years, and the practical make-up effects and action set-pieces are equally as good.

There were two sequels, Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), which was decent, and Poltergeist III (1988), which diverted too far from the original with only Heather O’ Rourke returning from the main cast. 2015 will see a remake directed by Gil Kenen (Monster House) and produced by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead). I don’t see this redo having the popularity of the original, and there is already an unofficial remake with James Wan’s Insidious (2010), which has a near identical plot to this 1982 classic. A new sequel starring Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams with an older, re-cast Carol Anne would surely gain far more interest than rehashing an old story in a marketplace currently saturated with supernatural tales. You have big shoes to fill, guys…

Best Scene

Too numerous to choose from, but who forgets this gut-churning moment staring into the bathroom mirror?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Both of the terrors that plague Robbie came from Steven Spielberg’s own fears as a child, a fear of clowns and a tree outside his window.
  • JoBeth Williams had a supernatural experience during the making of the film. Whenever she came home from filming, the pictures on the walls of her house were crooked. Everytime she fixed them they would hang crooked again. Zelda Rubinstein also had an experience when a vision of her dog came to her and said goodbye to her. Hours later, her mother called her and told Rubinstein that her dog had passed away that very day.
  • The production crew used real human skeletons because it was cheaper to purchase them instead of plastic ones.
  • When questioned about who had the greater control over Poltergeist, Spielberg or Hooper, Spielberg replied “Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of our collaboration.” Co-producer Frank Marshall spoke out to the press and claimed “the creative force of the movie was Steven. Tobe was the director and was on set every day. But Steven did the design for every storyboard and was only absent for three days during the shoot, because he was in Hawaii with (George) Lucas.” Hooper later claimed that he did half of the storyboards. Spielberg then sent a letter to Hooper to clarify matters: “Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me… a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.” Zelda Rubinstein disagreed. While Hooper set up the shots, it was Spielberg who made the adjustments, and most of the time, Hooper was “only partially there” on set. The issue then of who had creative control is still a muddy issue even today.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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