If a movie is a great film, does it matter who made it? I come from advertising, where it’s hard at best to figure our credit and uncouth to loudly demand it. So the controversy about this film — whether Spielberg or Hooper directed it — doesn’t really matter to me Because the important thing is that it’s a great movie.
Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson from TV’s Coach and the voice of Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles and JoBeth Williams, Stir Crazy) are living the American dream. After all, Steve is a successful real estate developer. They have three great kids. And they’ve recently moved into a planned community called Cuesta Verde. Sure, the newer houses in the plan look much better. And you can’t even watch a football game without losing what channel you’re on because the houses are so close together. But it’s the American Dream, right?
That TV is the fixation of America in this movie, starting with the National Anthem and continuing with the people inside the TV that fascinate their youngest daughter, Carol Anne (who would sadly die at the age of 12 of cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis). The connection between the hand that emerges from the TV and the young girl is so powerful that it shakes the entire town before she announces the film’s best-known line, “They’re here.”
All hell breaks slowly loose over the following day. A glass of milk breaks out of nowhere, drenching daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne, daughter of writer Dominick and brother of Griffin, she would be killed by her stalker ex-boyfriend John Thomas Sweeney at the age of 22). The son, Robbie (Oliver Robins, Airplane 2), has his silverware twist and turn after he uses it. Furniture slides and rearranges at will, even in front of more than one person.
Here’s the beauty of this film. These teases start slow and you expect the Val Lewton jump scare model, where the pressure will be let off after a minor scare. But once a tree emerges from the backyard to crash through the window and pull Robbie outside, the movie jumps onto a rollercoaster track. While saving their son, Carol Anne disappears into the closet and can only be heard through the TV set.
They turn to parapsychologists Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight, Chiller), Ryan (Richard Lawson, Scream Blacula Scream, Sugar Hill) and Marty, who discover that there is more than one ghost. That info is confirmed when Steven finds out from his boss Lewis Teague (James Carren, The Return of the Living Dead, Invaders from Mars) that Cuesta Verde was built over an Indian cemetery.
Dana and Robbie are sent away and Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein, Teen Witch, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon), a spirit medium, is called in for help. She explains how they have to get Carol Anne back from spirits that are not at rest. There’s also another ghost, the Beast (which uses the same sound effect as the MGM lion roar), who has their daughter restrained. Diane enters a portal to the beyond to bring her daughter back and they both emerge covered in ectoplasm as the house is said to be clean.
Steven believes that it’s anything but, so he gets the family ready to move. On their last night there, he goes to quit his job while Dana goes on one last date before leaving town. The Beast attacks, turning Robbie clown doll into a demon and pushing Diane all over the walls of her room before throwing her into the backyard hole that is due to be a swimming pool. The bodies of the dead begin to explode from the ground, some in coffins, some just covered with filth and rot. Steven screams into his boss’s face that he may have moved the cemetery’s headstones, but the bodies were left behind. Finally, the house collapses within itself as the family drives away. As they stay in a Holiday Inn, unsure of their future, the TV is pushed outside.
Alright. Let’s get into that discussion of who really directed this film. Going the whole way back to a 1982 Fangoria article, there were rumors that the film wasn’t really Hooper’s. And Spielberg didn’t help Tobe’s case when he said, “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. I did not want to direct the movie-I had to do E.T. five weeks after principal photography on Poltergeist. 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 (after re-writing the Grais/Victor draft). 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. 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 a film.”
The Directors Guild of America investigated the film, checking to see if Hooper’s official credit was hurt by Spielberg’s comments, which seemed to claim some level of ownership.” Frank Marshall, the co-producer, told the Los Angeles Times that Spielberg was the creative force of the film and designed every storyboard. Plus he was on the set for all but three days.
Finally, an open letter from Spielberg to Hooper was sent to The Hollywood Reporter, which stated, “Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me… a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.” He also sent a letter to Time where he stated, “While I was creatively involved in the entire production, Tobe Hooper alone was the director.”
Over the years, this controversy has gone back and forth. Zelda Rubinstein claimed that Spielberg directed every day that she was on set, with Tobe working almost as a DP who would set up the shots. Assistant cinematographer John R. Leonetti (who would go on to direct Annabelle) reported that due to an upcoming strike, he was trying to get every movie he wanted to film done (he was also working on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial at the same time). Hooper was happy to be there, had some input but it was basically not his film.
Jo Beth Williams stated that “Steven was there every day. He had very clear and strong ideas about what he wanted done and how he wanted it done. Even though Tobe was there and participating, you felt Steven had the final say on everything. Sometimes Steven would tell us one thing and Tobe another. But they soon realized that was doing us more harm than good, so they stopped. Later on, whatever discussions Tobe and Steven had, they held in private and then came to us with their decisions.”
At the time of filming, Hooper said, “I don’t understand why any of these questions have to be raised. I always saw this film as a collaborative situation between my producer, my writer, and myself. Two of those people were Steven Spielberg, but I directed the film and I did fully half of the storyboards. I’m quite proud of what I did. I can’t understand why I’m being slighted. I love the changes that were made from my cut. I worked for a very good producer who is also a great showman. I felt that was a plus, because Steven and I think in terms of the same visual style.”
He’d grow tired of the controversy in later years, claiming that “the genesis of it came from an article in The L.A. Times: When we were shooting the practical location on the house, the first two weeks of filming were exterior, so I had second-unit shots that had to be picked up in the front of the house. I was in the back of the house shooting Robbie [actor Oliver Robins] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, so Steven was picking those shots up for me. The L.A. Times arrived on the set and printed something like, “We don’t know who’s directing the picture.” The moment they got there, Steven was shooting the shot of the little race cars, and from there the damn thing blossomed on its own and started becoming its own legend.”
Composer Jerry Goldsmith and casting agent Mike Fenton claimed that they worked directly with Spiegberg as if he were the director.
However, others were more upset than Hooper let on. Craig T. Nelson said, “Tobe gave me a lot of direction. It’s not fair to eliminate what Tobe did. He gave me 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.”
You can read even more in-depth analysis in the three articles I referred to for this article, “Who REALLY directed Poltergeist?” at the Poltergeist Fan Site.
The film did get an R rating, which was eventually changed to PG. It would have definitely got an R if the original draft was filmed, where Carol Ann was going to get killed in the first act and subsequently haunt the house in the second. As it stands now, only one death occurs in the film: the bird who gets buried in the beginning.
Poltergeist is really a must see horror film. It sets up so much so effectively and does a great job of paying off each scare. It’d be followed by two sequels and a TV series, which we’ll definitely be getting to.