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Poltergeist (1982)

September 6th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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Five year old Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) wakes in the middle of the night and wobbles downstairs, where the TV has been left on, transitioning to white noise. She talks to the static, waking the household. Life in the Southern California suburb of “Cuesta Verde” is otherwise uneventful: Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful realtor. His wife Diane (Jobeth Williams) is a homemaker. Their spunky teenager daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), sensitive 10-year-old son Robbie (Oliver Robins) and cocker spaniel share the house. A pool is being dug into the backyard. But signs point to something seriously awry in suburbia.

Carol Anne is drawn to the TV again at night and this time, a mist slithers out and blasts a hole in the wall. The next morning, silverware at the breakfast table turns up bent and kitchen chairs balance themselves. These pranks amuse Diane and bore Carol Anne, who attributes them to “the TV people.” Benign spirits are soon joined by malevolent ones. Knowing what scares each member of the family, a tree comes to life during a storm and grabs Robbie. With the Freelings distracted, the spirits snatch Carol Anne and take her back with them to the spirit realm, where the Freelings are still able to hear her voice through the static of the TV.


Steven goes to the University of Irvine to seek the help of parapsychologists led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). One look at Carol Anne’s bedroom – with toys and furniture spinning around in a cyclone – convinces the researchers that this is not a hoax. They stay through the night and observe spectral light descending the staircase, as well as a portal in the ceiling that drops jewelry in the Freeling’s living room. The dwarf sized clairvoyant Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein) who specializes in cleaning haunted houses notifies the family that Carol Anne is alive, but is being restrained by a spirit she refers to as The Beast, using the girl’s power to corral the wayward spirits. Tangina follows this up with a plan to cross over into the spirit plane and rescue Carol Anne.

Production history

Steven Spielberg met Tobe Hooper in 1978, being a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Spielberg noted, “It’s a real cult film, I know, but one of the most truly visceral movies ever made. Essentially it starts inside the stomach and ends in the heart. As a filmmaker who likes to see everything, I loved it.” Spielberg suggested he and Hooper work together. He would later state that Poltergeist had its roots in his own early childhood, when Spielberg was transfixed by a crack in the wall. “I remember lying there, trying to go to sleep, and I used to always imagine little Hieronymous Bosch-like creatures inside, peeking out and whispering to me to come into the playground of the crack and be drawn into the unknown there, inside the walls of my home in New Jersey.”


Hooper’s version of the genesis of Poltergeist went that when he moved onto the Universal lot to make The Funhouse in 1980, he was put up in the office of Robert Wise, director of The Haunting. Rummaging through Wise’s old desk, Hooper found a book on the supernatural. Taking that as an omen, he proposed to Spielberg that they join forces on a ghost story. The pair collaborated via mail on a treatment while Spielberg was in England shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was during this period working for George Lucas as a director for hire that Spielberg decided he wanted to make something personal, to get back to the tranquility of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He began to develop what became E.T. with screenwriter Melissa Mathison.

MGM president David Begelman – whose studio had rotten tomatoes like Tarzan the Ape Man, Rich and Famous and Buddy Buddy on their slate – was eager to go into business with Steven Spielberg, and awarded him a producing deal. To adapt his haunted house treatment into a script, Spielberg turned to Stephen King. Following a productive meeting, King left it to his publisher to hammer out a deal. The publisher asked for so much money that MGM and Spielberg turned the deal down. King had no regrets, commenting at the time, “Spielberg is somebody who likes to have things his way. Really, as far as writing, it would have been the experience of working with him and watching him work. I could’ve used that. But in the end, I would’ve been hired help.”


Spielberg had read a script called Turn Left or Die about air traffic controllers by Michael Grais & Mark Victor. He hoped to get their take on a remake of A Guy Named Joe, but the writers asked about the ghost story Spielberg wanted to do. Grais & Victor turned in a draft, which Spielberg did not care for. With a Writers Guild strike looming in the spring of 1981, Spielberg cranked out a shooting script himself. Referencing a Twilight Zone episode by Richard Matheson (Little Girl Lost), books on ghosts and his own childhood memories, Spielberg wrote over seven days, with input daily from producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. He showed his script – titled Nighttime – to Tobe Hooper, who in Spielberg’s words, “Hung around with me while I was writing that draft.”

MGM approved a budget of $9.5 million. Producing the film with Marshall, Spielberg soon arrived on the title Poltergeist. He selected the cast and crew. He developed storyboards with illustrator Ed Verreaux, designing the look and feel of the film. With E.T. already in pre-production and scheduled to begin filming September 1981, Spielberg was contractually bound to Universal not to take on directing duties for other films, so Tobe Hooper was hired to helm Poltergeist. What became a 57-day shooting schedule commenced May in Agoura Hills, a suburb in Los Angeles County that – along with a street in Simi Valley – stood in for “Cuesta Verde.” Interiors were shot on four soundstages at MGM Studios in Culver City.


Who had directed Poltergeist depended on who was asked. Making a cameo as one of Steve Freeling’s football buddies, writer-producer David Giler recalled, “When I came back from the set, I said, ‘Well, now I know what an executive producer does. I’ve always wondered. He sets up the camera, tells the actors what to do, stands back, and lets the director say action!’” Jobeth Williams commented, “It was a collaboration with Steven having final say. Tobe had his own input, but I think we knew that Steven had the final say.” Craig T. Nelson had his own assessment: “It’s not fair to eliminate what Tobe did – he gave a tremendous amount of support because he’s a warm, sensitive, caring human being. Tobe was simply pushed out of the picture after turning in his cut.”

According to Marshall, Hooper delivered his cut of Poltergeist in October 1981 and was virtually uninvolved with the editing, special effects at Industrial Light & Magic, sound recording or scoring. Composer Jerry Goldsmith recalled, “I worked only with Steven. One day, Hooper came to a screening and sat down. Steve just ignored him, and five minutes later, he got up and left.” Sound mixer Bill Varney – who won an Academy Award for Raiders of the Lost Ark – said of Hooper, “He dropped by one or two times, but he had no input whatsoever as far as our work was concerned. Basically, Tobe didn’t participate at all.” When casting director Mike Fenton was asked about Hooper, he responded, “Did he direct the film? Not that I saw.”


Spielberg explained his side to L.A. Times reporter Dale Pollock in May 1982: “My enthusiasm for wanting to make Poltergeist would have been difficult for any director I would have hired. It derived from my imagination and my experiences and it came out of my typewriter. I felt a proprietary interest in this project that was stronger than if I was just an executive producer. I thought I’d be able to turn Poltergeist over to a director and walk away. I was wrong.” Tobe Hooper kept mum until he saw a trailer in which the title “A Steven Spielberg Production” was twice as big as “A Tobe Hooper Film.” Hooper took the matter before the Director’s Guild of America. The union considered the credit a violation of their charter and sought $200,000 in damages from MGM.

A guild arbitrator ruled that the trailer “denigrated the role of the director” and further eluded that “broader issues of dispute exist between the producer-writer and the director which seem to have exacerbated the current dispute over the trailer credit.” A reduced settlement of $15,000 was awarded to Hooper, but MGM was ordered to remove the trailer and take out full page ads in trade papers apologizing. Spielberg took out his own ad in Variety, implying that his working relationship with Hooper had simply been misunderstood in the press. Spielberg did admit to Pollock that moving forward, “If I write it myself, I’ll direct it myself. I won’t put someone else through what I put Tobe through, and I’ll be more honest in my contributions to the film.”


Released June 1982, most critics panned Poltergeist. Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker, “it’s The Amityville Horror done with insouciance and high-toned special effects. Because Spielberg is a dedicated craftsman and a wit, he can make a much better low-grade, adolescent entertainment than most directors. But he isn’t really thinking in this film – he’s just throwing ideas and effects at us …” On Sneak Previews, Roger Ebert said, “Poltergeist is a good summer thriller, with good special effects, not a great movie, I give it kind of a mild recommendation” while Gene Siskel retorted, “Anybody can do these special effects now and this doesn’t have a convincing story at all.”

Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times took an opposing view: “Poltergeist is like a thoroughly enjoyable nightmare, one that you know that you can always wake up from, and one in which, at the end, no one has permanently been damaged. It’s also witty in a fashion that Alfred Hitchcock might have appreciated. Offhand, I can’t think of many other directors who could raise goose bumps by playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ behind a film’s opening credits.” Audiences seemed to agree. Poltergeist grossed $76.6 million in the U.S. It spawned two vastly inferior sequels – with some of the original cast members but none of Spielberg’s involvement – and a syndicated TV series that somehow ran from 1996 to 1999.


Debate on who actually wrote or who really directed this will likely persist until film geeks can come together on what constitutes a writing credit and what exactly a director does. What we can agree on until then is that Poltergeist is one of the seminal movies of its generation, a flawlessly designed and executed experience that all these years later, would be impossible to improve upon. It arrived in a period when slasher flicks were en vogue at the box office, but instead of mimicking other horror movies, mined the nocturnal nightmares and also the suburban dreams of creator Steven Spielberg. Poltergeist runs so well because – like Jaws – the best moments don’t involve special effects, but the family relating to each other.

Every detail in Poltergeist feels wholly inspired, from the casting of Craig T. Nelson as the attentive dad who holds it all together, Jobeth Williams as a postmodern mom who sports gray streaks in her hair after crossing the spectral plane, and Zelda Rubenstein as the priceless pint sized psychic. Like Spielberg’s best work, it taps into our fear and fascination of the unknown, delivering playful spirits, as well as moments still too spooky to watch in the dark. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one of his most spellbinding ever and most surprising, the script features acute wit, satirizing the rituals of suburbia while holding the Freelings above them. What exactly is being said here about the effect of television is probably worthy of its own dissertation.


The Vocabularist at Movie Cynics writes, “Poltergeist is a strong flick with some great special effects (that have started to look a little dated), but in the end, it’s got a little too much ‘family’ stink on it. The film feels weak and pulls its punches at key moments, despite the fact that there are some truly terrifying scenes in the film. Still, it is a key moment in film history, as the ghost finally achieves some semblance of cinematic respect thanks to the use of creative special effects, strong characters, and some high production values. Part of me almost wishes this movie was never made, because it has ultimately led to a glut of moronic ghost stories that never quite manage to attain the emotional peak of Poltergeist.”

Brett Cullum at DVD Verdict writes, “Poltergeist is my favorite example of a modern horror movie that is truly terrifying without any deaths and only one minor scene of gore. Think of it as The Haunting remodeled for the ’80s with bombastic special effects from Industrial Light and Magic. It trucks along with plenty of shocks, but the beauty of the film is how much we come to care about the family as the terror unfolds … This is solid storytelling and a handsomely crafted film that works even twenty-five years after its initial release. E.T. won out in the box office, but how many sequels did that one get? There was something about Poltergeist that captured America’s pop-culture conscious just as well.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Bathtub scene · Beasts and monsters · Famous line · Father/son relationship · Mother/daughter relationship · Wilhelm scream

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Sep 6, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Great post on one of my favorites from the eighties. I love the way this film shows what happened to so many of the sixties most idealistic as they collapsed into the conformity of the suburbs in the early eighties…the re-awakening this couple experiences marks the film as so resonate to me and of course it is still just a lot of fun (no matter who directed it).

  • 2 Moviezzz // Sep 7, 2008 at 8:48 am

    Great post. The behind the scenes of who directed this film is always fascinating to read.

    POLTERGEIST is one of those films that, I saw maybe 30 times in bits and pieces on cable (where it always seemed to air in the early 80’s) yet I’ve only seen it all the way through maybe once.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Sep 7, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Jeremy: It seems like I’m always reading about some new director who considers Poltergeist an “influence,” but in their own efforts they seem to forget the scene between Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams where they’re getting stoned and goofing around in the bedroom. That’s really what makes this movie a classic, not special effects, not camera set-ups, but investing the audience with the characters. Thanks for commenting!

    Moviezzz: Next to The Thing From Another World – where Christian Nyby got a directing credit but producer Howard Hawks was also considered the primary creative force – there’s probably no better challenge to the fallacy of the “auteur theory” than Poltergeist. I would hope this example would prompt the academics and critics to consider how much creative input producers, writers, actors, DPs, editors or even studio executives have on the average film set. Thanks for commenting!

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