Posted on: October 1st, 2009 TEN of TERROR #1: Poltergeist

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1982 was a tremendous year for horror/sci-fi movies, with audiences seeing gems such as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Creepshow, The Thing and Tron. This was also a great time to be Steven Spielberg, who was only just beginning his epic career as a film producer and at this point he already had Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Arc under his belt as a director. It’s very interesting to take a look back at one of the finest horror films ever made that was also released that year, and see just how much Spielberg shaped the genre.

That film is the first entry in our special TEN of TERROR feature, Poltergeist.

The Film

poltnPoltergeist is like the ultimate upper-middle class Americana nightmare come true. Taking place in suburban California, Diane and Steven Freeling (played by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson, respectively) find their home occupied by poltergeist who began communicating with their five-year-old daughter Carol Anne (the cherubic and tragic Heather O’Rourke) through the television.

The paranormal presence starts harmless enough though playful; broken glasses, moving chairs, that sort of thing, but things escalate very quickly. During a rather violent thunderstorm, a large tree outside the children’s bed crashes through the window, grabbing the Freeling’s son. When the family returns to the kid’s room, the young Carol Anne, who served almost as a conduit to the poltergeist, is nowhere to be found.

The family opts to stay in the house and bring in a group of parapsychologists and a spiritual medium (the unmistakable Zelda Rubinstein) to get their daughter back from wherever she may be and rid the house of it’s apparent evil. It becomes awfully clear that what the Freeling’s are dealing with are not just typical poltergeist, but something far greater and far scarier.

Every time I watch Poltergeist I’m left bewildered as to how it’s not more synonymous with horror films. The film is no doubt revered and appreciated, but I’ll bet there’s a fair amount of folk that love horror that haven’t seen it. Only Spielberg could make such an honestly dark and frightening film so accessible to a general audience, and to some degree, families. The film embodies themes constant with Spielberg’s work – family, children, suburban life – and mixes it with genuinely disturbing situations and visuals. One minute the film plays like a mature-yet-still-family-watchable PG-13 flick with naughty ghosts throwing toys about the room, and the next second it turns to a hard R with dozens of corpses rising out of the swimming pool in the back yard. It’s this that makes the film work so well; this is a regular family, a typical family that are being terrorized. You are that family, that is your house and those are your kids. This isn’t in a desolate camp in the woods or a backwards hick town.

Phenomenal horror film, Poltergeist. The scares are scary, the pacing is great and the direction is pretty spectacular. There’s one scene in particular that totally immersed me in the story, when young Carol Anne wakes up in the middle of the night to the television flickering and calling her. The way the scene plays out with the lighting and the flashes is on par with the beach scene from Jaws as far as being memorable and just perfect. Though some of the green-screen work in Poltergeist is very dated (though at the time it must have dazzled audiences), the practical effects – specifically lighting and atmospheric – is incredible, even by today’s standards.

q6314465_1109622_896_heather_orourke12The cast all pull out decent performances. JoBeth Williams is entirely convincing as Diane, the family’s matriarch, as is Craig T. Nelson who you just feel for by the end of the film. There’s no doubt though that the real shining star of Poltergeist was little five-year-old Carol Anne. Heather O’Rourke, who was seven at the time of the film’s release, not only captured audiences hearts with her petite innocence veiled by her blonde hair, but left her mark on pop-culture forever with her infamous line “they’re here”.

Poltergeist opened huge that summer, both via critics and the box office; the film grossed over 76 million dollars in the United States making it the highest grossing horror film that year.

I just watched the re-release on blu-ray, restored and remastered for the film’s 25th anniversary, and the film is ridiculously crisp in high-definition. If you’re a hi-def nut like me, the blu-ray for this is a must-own.

The Controversy

Even though the film is the brain-child of Seniore Spielbergo and it oozes with his touch, the technical directing wizardry of Tobe Hooper must not go unnoticed, though apparently not to some in the mainstream media. At that time, Hooper had established himself as a horror-master with his second directing credit, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; more notorious than the film itself are the urban legends (or are they?) of audience members passing out and vomiting out of sheer terror in the aisles of the theater. I seem to recall some old video footage of a lady in shock back at the drive-in in 1974. There’s no denying Hooper’s impact on the horror genre; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot have inspired the horror genre for years. But when Poltergeist was released in June of ‘82, Hooper’s actual involvement as a director on the film was called into question.

poltergeist_remakeBecause the film had such a “Spielberg” feel to it, some accused Hooper of being less involved in direction than was claimed and credited. At the time of production for E.T., Spielberg was under contract with Universal which prevented him from directing any other feature (the two films were released a week apart in June, 1982). With Spielberg having such a hand in developing Poltergeist and being involved with the production, some felt that Hooper was on board to serve only as a technicality. After a statement made by Spielberg regarding Hooper’s inadequate decision-making, the Director’s Guild of America actually opened an investigation into Hooper’s directing credit. According to many on-set, including co-producer Frank Marshall, Spielberg designed every storyboard for the film and was on-set every day of shooting but three. Over the years many of the cast has come forward with alternating views; some say Hooper was the active directorial force, others say Spielberg was the de facto director.

At the end of the day, Hooper’s credit still stands. Although this is a Spielberg produced film, it is no less Hooper’s than say Gremlins is a Joe Dante film, or Goonies is a Richard Donner film. All of these films have a distinct production and vibe, just as you can tell a record produced by Jeff Lynne. I think that Poltergeist just happens to have a little more tangible inspiration to it. For all intents and purposes, this was most definitely a collaborative affair.

Though Spielberg would go on to become one of the most prolific directors of all time, Hooper quickly faded off the mainstream map, instead mostly directing the odd television episode (Amazing Stories, Tales from the Crypt, Masters of Horror). According to his IMDB page, Hooper is directing a feature based on the Stephen King story From A Buick 8, which is currently in production. This isn’t Hooper’s first time with a Stephen King adaptation, having directed Salem’s Lot and The Mangler.

The Curse

Not only is the film indelible in pop-culture and movie history for it’s existence alone, but Poltergeist is notorious for it’s rumors of life imitating art. The “Poltergeist curse” is as prevalent in mainstream superstition as the “Superman curse” (all actors to have portrayed the Man of Steel have been dealt the unfortunate hand) or the all-to-real “Kennedy curse” (the Kennedy family is notorious for it’s tragedy and tribulation). From the release of the first film, to the release of Poltergeist III, the following hardships befell the cast and crew:

  • Most famously (and tragically) the star of the franchise, young Heather O’Rourke, died during post-production of Poltergeist III. Originally reported to have died via influenza, it was later confirmed that a combination of cardiac arrest and septic shock took the life of the twelve-year-old star.
  • Dominique Dunne (who played the eldest Freeling daughter in the first film) was murdered by her boyfriend a few months after the film’s release.
  • Julian Beck (who played Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side) died of stomach cancer during filming of the sequel.
  • Will Sampson (the medicine man in Poltergeist II) died within a year of the film’s release from post-operative kidney failure.
  • Lou Perryman (the coffee-stealing construction worker in the first film) was found murdered in his Austin, TX home in April, 2009 at the age of 68.
  • Brian Gibson, director of Poltergeist II, passed away in 2004 from Ewing’s Sarcoma – a type of bone cancer that typically only affects teenage males, and statistically a highly-recoverable form of cancer. Gibson succumbed to the disease at age 59.
  • James Kahn, who wrote the screenplay for Poltergeist, reportedly encountered some strange occurrences while actually penning the film. Apparently he wrote the line “lightning ripped open the sky” and at that very moment the building he was in was struck by lightning and all the arcade machines turned on by themselves.

The idea of a “curse” attaching itself to a cast and crew of a film is an endearing one, no doubt. Although Poltergeist is seemingly the most notorious film to be “cursed”, it’s by no means the last. The Exorcist, Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live and The Crow are all famous properties for having a string of bad luck and coincidence attached to them.

At the end of the day though, this “curse” is just that: bad luck and coincidence.

Or is it?

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That wraps up our first entry for TEN of TERROR. Stay tuned for #2…

3 Responses to “TEN of TERROR #1: Poltergeist”

  1. TEN of TERROR #1: Poltergeist « Giant Killer Squid – Film, Comics … Says:
    October 1st, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    [...] Go here to see the original:  TEN of TERROR #1: Poltergeist « Giant Killer Squid – Film, Comics … [...]

  2. Ben Rankel Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I actually can’t watch this film. The idea of it scares me too much. I’ll never watch The Exorcist either.

  3. TEN of TERROR RECAP! « Giant Killer Squid - Film, Comics, News, Reviews and more Says:
    October 31st, 2009 at 10:33 am

    [...] #1: Poltergeist [...]

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