Time for more greatness from the summer of 1982! Continuing with the horror theme, the next film I’d like to highlight is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. I’d hazard that this is one that pretty much everyone has seen by this point, so I won’t go into any significant description of the film itself. What I would like to focus on instead is a) my experience with the film, and b) the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg controversy . . .
My initial encounter with Poltergeist began in the spring of 1982. At some point in the months leading up to that summer, I found myself at the local bookstore’s magazine rack leafing through Fangoria magazine. For those of you who have never see this publication, basically it’s devoted to horror films - especially those that are somewhat gruesome. Back in the days prior to the Internet, I spent a lot of time with Fangoria and it’s sci-fi cousin Starlog to keep up to date with what genre films were on the horizon. (As a side note, I was curious to see if Fangoria is still published and was happy to find that it’s alive and well at issue #264). Although there were several other related publications at that time, Fangoria stood out because it was always loaded with impossibly gory still images from the wildest films imaginable. Truly, the simple act of flipping through it was a courage check . . . much less actually seeing the films.
With that in mind, the issue I was checking out had a cover story on none other than Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Incredibly, even at that young age the name Tobe Hooper already meant something to me. As luck would have it, I was extremely fortunate to have an older cousin who would take me along to horror movies. Consequently, I had seen The Funhouse a few years earlier. Plenty of what happened in that film was lost on me, but I was mesmerized by the monster chasing the teens at the carnival setting. And while I had never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I was certainly aware of it. As such, receiving the news that a new Hooper film was coming out was a cause for great excitement.
As I raced through the magazine to reach the article and images, I was assaulted with some of the most horrific-looking stills I had ever seen in that publication! Images of Jobeth Williams in a muddy swimming pool filled with skeletons, a monstrous esophagus erupting in a child’s bedroom, an extremely gross photo of an apparently melting human being, etc. My initial thought was that this movie was going to cause a major uproar . . . and be extremely cool : ) How right I was! But what truly shocked me was when the film came out and was rated PG (turns out it was originally given an R until Spielberg intervened, and ultimately it served as one of the catalysts for the creation of the PG-13 rating)! While I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to work too hard at convincing my folks to let me see it, I was dumbfounded that the film described in Fangoria could slip by with a mild warning about parental guidance.
Needless to say, by the time June 4, 1982 rolled around I was more than eager to get to the local multiplex to see how things turned out. What a way to start summer vacation! A group of fellow friends and I were dropped of by someone’s parents, and we proceeded to wait in a line that wrapped around the theater. After we finally got our tickets, and made our way inside the chilly theater with the rest of the crowd, the excitement in the air was palpable. Finally the lights went down, and for the following two hours we had the pants scared off of us (not to mention the rest of the audience that was also jumping and screaming)! Indeed, the plethora of terrifying images and moments we witnessed would fuel discussion not only throughout the rest of that summer, but many lunch table analyses well into the fall school semester.
While Poltergeist has gone on to become an undisputed classic of the genre over the past several decades, there has been a longstanding controversy surrounding its production (which I was unaware of at the time). Direction of the film is credited to Tobe Hooper, while Steven Spielberg acted as producer and supplied the story. Unfortunately for Hooper, Spielberg is apparently a hands-on sort of guy, and this led to his exerting a fair amount of influence over the finished product. So much so, that many have speculated that Hooper was nothing more than a tool, with Spielberg being the true creative element behind the scenes. Apparently there is no definitive evidence, and the various parties involved offer varying takes. As a result, one must look at the finished product for answers.
In my opinion, it seems that the film was a joint effort, with both men adding personal touches . . . which results in an interesting hybrid of their unique styles. Clearly, there are a number of scenes where Spielberg’s work is on display. These mostly include the “heartwarming” interaction of the family members, and moments that inspire childlike awe. You know what I’m talking about. In every Spielberg film an amazing image is presented and the camera then zooms in on the faces of the characters, usually with their mouths hanging open. The fact that we are supposed to share in the wonder they feel is usually driven home by composer John Williams, but here Jerry Goldsmith performs the duty (Williams was busy working on Spielberg’s E.T. which was also in production). There’s nothing particularly heinous about this type of thing, but it does get a little repetitive after you’ve seen a few Spielberg films. The question is whether it works in this instance . . . more on that in a moment.
As I said, in my estimation this was a collaboration, which means there are also elements that scream Tobe Hooper. Primarily these include the sequences and situations that feature envelope-pushing horror (e.g. evil clown dolls, graphic violence, physical abuse the actors are clearly enduring, etc.). These in-your-face, uncompromising details are all typical of Hooper’s previous efforts. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg has featured folks melting and exploding heads in his films (Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it usually amounts to spectacle – here it’s terrifyingly real, and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. It is this quality that marks the majority of Poltergeist’s fantastic visuals as the property of Hooper. If they had been left to Spielberg, I have a feeling that they would have been largely toned-down, and ultimately less effective.
Assuming the proposition of a dual effort, with both men directing, I would submit that the arrangement worked out pretty darn well. The combination of Hooper’s visceral horror with Spielberg’s “magic,” resulted in a film that was not only terrifying, but also extremely polished and epic in scope. If it hadn’t been for the negative rumors that spread about Hooper following production, I believe Poltergeist would have been a great moment for him. Up to that point, his films had been relatively small in scale. With Poltergeist he could have learned from the master of the blockbuster, and used the knowledge to move on to the next phase of his career. In fact, Hooper would go on to make at least one bona fide epic (Lifeforce), which showed he had what it took to play in the big leagues. Unfortunately, the combination of poor box office returns of his subsequent films, as well as the lingering doubts left by Poltergeist, led to his gradual decline into straight-to-video features . . . which is a real shame. Still, he has a number of classic films to his credit, and will always be an icon of horror cinema.
For even more info on all things Hooper and Poltergeist, be sure to check out Eaten Alive At A Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper by John Kenneth Muir. It’s truly the ultimate resource on the man and his work. John hosted a Fantasmo screening of Hooper’s Invaders From Mars and The Funhouse a couple of summers ago, and gave a terrific lecture. You can get the book at (of course) Chesapeake Public Library, or purchase multiple copies online at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Finally, be sure to have a look at author/producer Joe Maddrey’s blog Maddrey Misc. Joe recently took a trip to the shooting locations for Poltergeist and took some terrific photos . . . I for one envy the folks who live in the Freeling house (apparently it didn’t really implode at the end of the film : )