Poltergeist at 40: It’s Heeeeeeere!

Original Poster of Poltergeist where little girl has her hands on buzzing TV
Copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

You know a movie has got to be bold when the title is just a one word synonym for ghost. Released in 1982, Poltergeist is known as one of the scariest movies ever made due to its top-of-the-line special effects, clown dolls, and creepy little girls. When this movie came out, the American audience was weaning off the Amityville haunted house type of movie, and instead moving towards slasher flicks with Friday the 13th and Halloween. Poltergeist was an example of a subgenre going out with a blast (much like the implosion of the house at the end of the movie). 

Everyone’s probably seen Poltergeist, but most don’t know it’s not directed by Steven Spielberg. Well of course, by 1982 Spielberg had already made the greatest monster movie ever made in Jaws, two of the greatest first contact sci-fi films in Close Encounters and E.T., the greatest action movie ever made in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now one of the greatest horror movies.  

Still from Poltergeist of Camera lens close up
Copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Well, allegedly. Steven Spielberg is credited with co-writing the screenplay and producing but not directing; that honor goes to Tobe Hooper (known for Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Since Spielberg was contracted by Universal to make E.T at the same time Poltergeist was in production, he was unable to direct it and could only produce—at least above the table. So the studio got Tobe Hooper to direct, but according to Spielberg in a LA Times article from 1982:

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 collaboration.

Spielberg would later write an open letter to Hooper claiming the “press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist.” Over the past forty years there has been a battle over the credit with some cast members coming out to support Hooper and some Spielberg.

Dolly Zoom from Poltergeist where character Jobeth runs down the hall
A still from the scene with the Dolly-Zoom in Poltergeist. Copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

What is interesting is just how ‘Spielbergy’ this film is. The camera work in Poltergeist is phenomenal and contains his signature all over it. The blocking of every scene is done with such grace, it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t done by the guy who made Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s even a classic Spielberg dolly zoom near the end of the film when JoBeth Williams’ character is running down the hall to get to her child.

What Spielberg originally intended to be a horror-semi-sequel to Close Encounters became what we now know and love as Poltergeist. Since director Tobe Hooper was uninterested in the Sci-Fi elements. It’s the first horror film made to horrify the whole family! It reels you in with its strange PG rating, having you think it’s some family movie. Originally, the film was rated R until Hooper and Spielberg appealed the rating and had it changed to a PG. This change made it one of the most accessible horror films of all time until a clown doll, a little girl, and a couple human skeletons get in the way of that. In a deposition by Craig Reardon, Special Effects Makeup Artist for the film said: 

“I acquired a number of actual biological surgical skeletons is what they’re called. They’re for hanging in classrooms in study. These are actual skeletons from people. I think the bones are acquired from India. But at any rate, we got 13 of these. And we dressed them so that they looked not like bleached, clean, bolted together skeletons but instead, disintegrating cadavers. And, you know, added sculptured rubber and things to them so they would have a kind of dramatic leering spooky aspect and not be dull — what am I trying to say — clinical type corpses, you know.”

Close up of clown doll from Poltergeist
Copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Less than 100 years after the first motion picture, Poltergeist showed us the best that special effects can do with its animation in the apparitions to what producer Frank Marshall called “the $250,000 sentence.” This refers to a line in the screenplay that simply says “then the house implodes” and the incredibly expensive shot where the house does just that. The special effects were done by Industrial Light and Magic, the company responsible for the original Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones, the Back to the Future Trilogy, and Jurassic Park

But the special effects are not the star of the show. This film has one of the best family dynamics, only rivaled by movies like Daytrippers or Little Miss Sunshine. They are just so believable, especially through small details like Diane and Steve Freeling smoking weed in their room and hoping their kids don’t barge in. Spielberg’s characters always have this ability to make you feel for them and to show you they have real emotions. This helps later on in the movie when the parents are attempting to rescue their daughter – you believe they care.

As someone who was born almost twenty years after the film’s original release, it’s sad that I was never able to see it on the big screen. Despite all the controversies surrounding the film’s director, it’s grown into a classic. Now on its 40th anniversary, the film is being presented again at Regal and AMC theaters starting September 25th. Even though we don’t truly know the father, baby Poltergeist is still the best bastard money can buy.

Copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


Picture of Author Kevin de los CuetosKevin de los Cuetos is a senior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English – Creative Writing, along with a certificate in Film Studies.