POLTERGEIST and E.T. feel irrevocably connected to each other and that’s just the way it is. The reasons are obvious and just as intertwined, particularly that Spielberg suburbia north of Los Angeles in some Simi Valley neighborhood that I’ve never ventured, making it feel as if both films are taking place right down the street from each other. They each also came out in the summer of ’82, only a week apart--POLTERGEIST came first, notching a strong opening weekend even though it was released the same day as the all-holy STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN while E.T. had it a little easier the following Friday opposite GREASE 2. E.T. owned the world in the blockbuster summer of ’82 but doesn’t seem to have the same sort of cachet these days, maybe because it’s too sentimental, maybe because everyone just had enough of the thing by a certain point. It’s also long been blamed on the concurrent box office failures of the R-rated BLADE RUNNER and THE THING that same month and those films becoming officially sanctioned classics by now feels like someone atoning for some sort of cinematic sin that was committed (in truth, I’m kind of an E.T. agnostic but that’s a conversation for another time).
In addition to its ongoing popularity POLTERGEIST maintains an unending air of mystery due to people wanting to know just what went down on set between producer Steven Spielberg, who had not yet begun principal photography on E.T. at the time, and director-of-record Tobe Hooper with many reaching the conclusion that the fingerprints of Spielberg are just too obvious to ignore. But people still ask those questions, as if trying to solve the unanswered mysteries of our own childhood, something we really should have moved on from long ago, holding on to the hope that someone who’s still around will eventually write a tell-all book or do an audio commentary. There are films I’ve seen way too many times by now to get much from and POLTERGEIST may be one of them—it’s basically the equivalent of an Eagles song that I wish the classic rock station would just stop playing already. So is there anything left to say about POLTERGEIST or is it an evergreen beyond any sort of commentary?
There’s definitely not much point in spending time on a plot synopsis about the Freelings of the Cuesta Verde Estates and how their idyllic suburban existence is shattered when supernatural forces apparently abduct daughter Carol Anne, leading to the horrible secrets they discover about their beautiful home. A look at the doing away with of 60s ideals and how 70s cover-ups gave way to the corruption of the 80s, the decade is clearly forming in POLTERGESIST. With a plot (story by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor) that focuses on the tearing apart of the family in the one place where everything is supposed to be secure, it’s about an America that just wants to put the past away and sell out so everything can look the same, letting them just fall asleep in front of the TV, which is the one part of the house that matters most, after drinking too much beer. Unlike, say, the working class middle American couple played by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson’s Diane and Steve Freeling apparently have some sort of counter-culture past that they’ve buried except for those nights when Diane brings out the joints while Steve reads about Reagan to rid himself of the way he was back when he ‘had an open mind’ once and for all (while A GUY NAMED JOE, later remade by Spielberg as ALWAYS, plays on the TV). Presumably this was a past when 16 year-old Diane gave birth to their first daughter, now 16 herself--I always imagine there was a break after having Dana so young considering the gap between her and the other kids so she never seems to be treated as more than a visiting relative by the family. Whatever the story is involving Dana it feels like the stuff that would interest Spielberg the least and it’s a background that feels drained out as the running time goes on in order to make them basically another suburban family in the movies.
That background at least roots POLTERGEIST in some sort of time-frame, even if it doesn’t matter that much; both films may be set in the early 80s but E.T. doesn’t have much interest in the specifics of the era beyond pop-culture ephemera and makes no bones about how its adult characters are essentially as irrelevant as the teachers in old Peanuts cartoons. POLTERGEIST, on the other hand, while it contains some of those same pop culture signposts (did the Freelings really let their kids see ALIEN?), is about the terror and desperation felt by the adults in trying to protect their children while feeling very much aware of the yuppie rot sprouting up at the beginning of the Reagan era to terrorize the American Dream. Everything’s going to be ok, says E.T., childhood can be eternal if you want it to be and that’s all that matters. POLTERGEIST seems to know that it’s not so easy. It’s a film that doesn’t have any answers. The film’s best, most potent moments are when the adults realize just how powerless they really are.
The director gets “A Tobe Hooper Film” during the opening credits but they also take the time to declare itself “A Steven Spielberg Production” at both the beginning and close of the film and I wonder if that’s a violation of some DGA bylaw. Of course, I’m hardly the first person to speculate who really directed POLTERGEIST and there’s not much point in pretending to reach a grand conclusion in regards to who’s responsible for what. There are elements that feel like Hooper, much as they’re overshadowed by the film’s producer. But it’s all just guesswork. Of course, different people who worked on the film have provided different answers when asked through the years and each one of them would have a different perspective anyway—Jerry Goldsmith, for one, was quoted as saying he never worked with Hooper at all and since Spielberg’s regular editor Michael Kahn cut this film (E.T. was in other hands) that of course causes one to reach certain conclusions.
Whatever the absolute truth is, the lived-in world of POLTERGEIST brings to it the right tone and adds immeasurably to its believability. The cluttered Freeling home has a natural feel that every Spielberg family, doesn’t right down to the eerie quiet after the kids head out to school. The plotting never feels too calculated and gets down to business surprisingly fast, with a pace that makes every second count as the tension of the first half-hour builds and we get to know the family (makes me think of that early scene which has always concluded with an odd edit—it’s been there whenever I’ve seen it in 35mm too). The film shows its affection for them while still maintaining a playful way of teasing us, whether the iconic use of that clown doll seated near Robbie’s bed or even that shot of the chair immediately after it’s pulled across the floor which makes it seem like an actual character for a brief instant. The film clearly enjoys itself in laying out the jump scares—even after all these years, when the big tree attack first happens it always occurs a few beats before I think it will. We know it’s happening eventually but Robbie doesn’t and the lack of buildup at that particular moment, almost as if the movie is willingly jumping ahead of itself, works beautifully. There is the feel that we’re also skipping past a few big chunks to keep up that pace—I always imagine more scenes of Steven at work and I can’t help but picture somebody ripping ten pages of emotional breakdown and police investigations out of the script during filming to cut to the chase faster, reminding me of how the original cut of THE EXORCIST cut out the doctor’s examination because William Friedkin knew all that was just a waste of time.
The pop nature of POLTERGEIST means there isn’t that much of a feeling of dread in this suburbia outside of ominous clouds telling us what’s coming—Steven Freeling may drink too much beer but this isn’t THE SHINING, after all. Even when the door is opened for the big rescue of Carol Anne we’re greeted with wind and flashing lights instead of horrific imagery to keep everyone away. But amidst all the light and sound and ILM effects work and monologues from Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina Barrows it’s surprisingly small scale for what was once thought of as a summer blockbuster so what sticks out are the small moments that build to the gradual fracturing of this family, showing that in the Spielberg universe that’s a more horrifying occurence than anything having to do with the supernatural. Whatever the true motives of the spirits they’re nothing compared to the real world personified by the great James Karen (previously in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and later in NIXON, making him as ideal a figure of big business corruption imaginable) as Steven’s boss Mr. Teague—his phrasing of how they’re moving the cemetery by stating, “It’s just…people.” is so beautifully cold in how he can’t even refer to the residents of that cemetery as “they”. Things. Not individuals. They don’t matter.
There are points when I’m most interested in the characters are just being observed during the silent moments, particularly the kids, holding on Oliver Robins’ Robbie as it creates almost a full character arc out of that silence or Dominique Dunne’s Dana crying that she can’t stay in the house any longer. And maybe because the iconic nature of Zelda Rubenstein’s Tangina has become so connected to the franchise I now find myself wondering more about less flashy spinster Beatrice Straight’s pre-GHOSTBUSTERS parapsychologist Dr. Lesh and her flask of whiskey, an interesting type of character that summer movies don’t care about anymore, one who doesn’t get to do much in her last moments onscreen beyond stare lovingly at this couple, a fulfilling life that she in her stuffy academia never got to experience. Again, these outside forces are almost more of a threat to the family like Lesh’s colleague Marty (played by Martin Casella, Spielberg’s assistant on RAIDERS) wrongly raiding the Freeling’s fridge late at night looking for a steak. It’s not his house--then again, the house doesn’t belong to any of them--but he’s even more of an intruder than the Freelings are and he pays the price for it. Plus tying it all together is the score by Jerry Goldsmith (presumably because John Williams was on E.T.) which feels almost psychically connected to the characters in its emotion—if it’s not one of the best Goldsmith scores ever it at least contains one of the best cymbal crashes in a Goldsmith score ever. We never follow Diane into the closet when she goes to retrieve Carol Anne but that score almost convinces us we have, it tells us what it looks like, what it feels like.
It’s a case where I’m not entirely sure if POLTERGEIST still works because I’m so damn familiar with it or if it just works. Even after all these years I’m a little hazy on the whole go into the light/don’t go into the light confusion that throws things for a loop briefly during the Tangina setpiece, as if they’re just trying to give that part of the plot busy work before the inevitable happens. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Whatever the parental origins, it’s hard enough to make a film that works as well as this one does after all these years. Plus it takes cojones for any film to reach a narrative point where anyone would by any logic would ever go back in the house after what’s happened, allowing the climax to take place. Maybe we buy it because the film knows it has to happen, for this family to break away from Cuesta Verde completely in the end it has to isolate them from the experts who supposedly knew everything and even their annoying neighbors who couldn’t care less. Maybe I buy it because I’ve seen the film so many times already.
The climax finally pays off a lot of what we’ve been waiting for, including the attack of JoBeth Williams which skirts the edge of R-rated sleaze, something you can imagine Tobe Hooper doing something with if he could have, but avoids it in favor of the ROYAL WEDDING-styled effects as she’s dragged up to the ceiling. Maybe they’re Spielberg ghosts, so they wouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing anyway. The climax throws everything it can at both us and the family, as if the ghosts know this is their one last chance, and it does it in the best ‘haunted house’ fashion. Maybe any problems that occurred during production helped to allow the film to be that much more effective, that much more human, making all those special effects having even more of an impact at times. And whoever it was specifically responsible for directing James Karen’s wordless final scene, the result is every bit as memorable as the quite frankly jaw-dropping implosion of the house. One friend of mine has long been convinced that Dominique Dunne’s Dana, seen incessantly eating at various points, is pregnant throughout the entire film and I’m pretty sure he’s right. She’s her mother’s daughter after all and she’s got a giant hickey on her neck at the end to prove it, just like the one Diane’s father used to check her for. The world of POLTERGEIST is one big circle and no matter how much we try to flee to some lush suburbia to avoid who we are there’s no escaping the past. We’re part of the family we’re born into and eventually we all have to deal with the bodies that have been buried a little too close whether we deserve it or not.
Again, part of the success of the film lies in the performances which keep things grounded during those stretches when the effects threaten to take things over. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are always a completely believable couple and so much of how they interact with each other feels totally genuine. Points to the film as well for giving Williams a slightly stronger role and she’s just wonderful while Nelson never seems afraid to let his vulnerability come through. The kids are most effective when they’re not trying to be movie-cute, when it seems like the camera is just catching them, Heather O’Rourke during certain playful moments, Oliver Robins and his voice cracking during his whispered conversation with Beatrice Straight late at night, Dominique Dunne keeping her secrets while still very much just a teenager. The adults playing against them—Straight, Karen, Rubinstein and Richard Lawson—help keeping things immeasurably grounded and are a big part of why the effect of the film still holds, from our childhood all the way to us finding ourselves relating more to those adults in various ways. And for a film reference that has nothing to do with STAR WARS action figures Joseph Walsh, screenwriter of the Robert Altman gambling classic CALIFORNIA SPLIT (which Spielberg almost directed), is the one who shouts, “I bet my life on this game!” during the remote control battle at the start.
Thinking back to the summer of ’82, POLTERGEIST and E.T. have always been connected in my head as well even though I’m pretty sure I never saw POLTERGEIST until it hit cable a year later. I’m guessing my parents felt the film, originally given an R rating by the MPAA before it was downgraded to a PG, was too much for me. So my initial memories are from watching it on TV but I’d imagine that along with BLADE RUNNER and THE THING multiple viewings helped to serve as a sort of gateway drug for me towards darker films, even if POLTERGEIST seems to belong to the school of the family friendly Spielberg multiplex of the 80s than the pages of Fangoria. The silence at the end right before the end credits roll, as if the movie is stopping on an unresolved note more than actually reaching a true climax, feels appropriate for a film that seems to end with the characters turning their back on the outside world, on technology, on the future, on the 80s. That could never last forever, of course, but it’s a nice final shot. As the credits roll the Goldsmith score tries to tell us that the family will endure, complete with little girls laughing at the very end and we can believe that as long as we want. What came next, aside from real life tragedies and eternal queries about the production, has mostly been tossed aside which is almost surprising considering how even the JAWS sequels are used as punchlines nowadays. The non-Hooper/Spielberg (but with the same writers) POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE is mostly forgotten now and a second sequel made by others was compromised by the death of Heather O’Rourke several months before release. That one’s pretty much forgotten too. Not to mention a recent remake but I don’t care about that and you don’t either so it doesn’t matter. At this point in time POLTERGEIST is pretty much at the breaking point where I’ll never need to see it again. But eventually I’m sure I will anyway, on one of those nights where I want to remember what it was once like to go to the movies during the summer. Those mysteries stay alive in your head, whether you want to keep the ghosts that are in there buried or not.
To add more gasoline to the fire about who directed what – a good friend of mine Guy McElwaine was in the movie playing one of the friends over to watch the football game before the battle of the remotes erupted. He was Spielberg’s agent at the time and said Steven directed that scene. Tobe Hooper was nowhere on set.
Very interesting! Another piece of the puzzle. I've heard of him but never knew he was in this film. Thanks for passing that along.
I am stunned at how well written this piece is. I saw Poltergeist in the theater at 7 years old (we were supposed to have gone to a Disney movie, but my 8 year old best friend convinced me Poltergeist would be a better bet). Seeing the film at what seems to have been a pivotal week in my 7 year old youth, a bell was rung in my head that resonates to this day, and the film for a moment helped me define (and set the bar) for family love, a mothers love, financial success, and a fun sense of danger (with something barely seen lurking just beyond the view through the darkness outside). After seeing the film so many times over the years, it's hard for me to find a piece of writing that does justice to the film - your descriptions brightened the picture for me, and captured some of my own unspoken understandings about the message of the film (and it's somewhat timeless appeal) that have stood the test of the last three decades. Thanks for sharing this piece.
I am flattered and touched by your kind words. It shows how much this film still has the power to move people but it also means a great deal to me that something I wrote affected someone in this way. It'll help me keep going with this. Thank you.
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