Original US release date: June 4, 1982
Production budget: $10,700,000
Worldwide gross: $121,706,019
Horror films are among the most common, being both extremely popular and inexpensive to produce. That’s a great combination and, when one really hits, it pays off in a major way. In the years preceding 1982, moviegoers had been treated to many films in the genre that are now considered classics, including The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror. Each of those films were both well-liked and box office successes, and so it was only a matter of time before Steven Spielberg – by then an established name in the industry – dipped his toes into the supernatural wading pool. He was extremely interested in directing a film about a family haunting, but there was one problem: legally, he couldn’t.
Spielberg was already directing E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and his contract for that film stated that he could not direct another film while production on E.T. was ongoing. As a result, Spielberg took on the role of producer and sought out someone who could direct in his place. Having seen and liked the aforementioned Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Spielberg approached and secured that film’s director, Tobe Hooper. But, to this very day, controversy persists regarding which of the two actually directed the film, regardless of who received the credit.
The film’s premise is as straightforward as they come. The Freeling family comes to discover that their house is plagued by some sort of supernatural force – a force that has malicious intent and appears to have taken a particular interest in their youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O. Rourke). I always say that simple is usually better when it comes to horror and this is a fine example of that mantra. There is no hidden subtext to this film. Poltergeist doesn’t aim to provoke introspection or self-reflection; it simply wants to thrill, terrify, and entertain. It unquestionably succeeded, raking in more than ten times its budget at the worldwide box office.
For me, the film is enjoyable and captivating, but a little too over-the-top and large-scale for it to rank among my very favorites. The bigger it gets, the less believable and relatable it becomes, and I prefer my horror to resonate with me and make me wonder if it could really happen when I get home and go to bed. That doesn’t happen, here. But that’s a personal preference (and a nitpicky one, at that), not a legitimate criticism. The film is tremendous and afforded enough in the way of memorable moments and lines that it maintains a pop culture presence to this day (people still say, “They’re hEEEEEErrrre,” in Carol Anne’s sing-song intonations, over thirty-six years later). It received a moderately well-received remake in 2015, but this original will always be considered among the best of the genre.
But who is truly responsible for the film? Many – particularly in the media – have seemingly come to the conclusion that Spielberg hired Hooper essentially as a stand-in so that Spielberg, himself, could take control and essentially direct the film as he originally desired. Zelda Rubinstein, who played medium Tangina in the movie, was very outspoken in support of that narrative, up until her death in 2010. She reportedly claimed that “Tobe Hooper couldn’t even direct traffic”! (To be fair, I don’t know many people who could, including those who are actually assigned to the task.) Others on the production have stated that Hooper had control, while others, still, paint the picture of an equal collaboration. When asked, Spielberg even once suggested in an interview with Fangoria that he directed the film, stating that Hooper isn’t a “take-charge kind of guy”. He later backpedaled on the comments and sent a very apologetic and complimentary letter to Hooper as recompense.
So, it’s impossible to say. My take is that, in order for these rumors to continue to persist all these years later, there must be something to them. After all, we don’t hear these sorts of things about any other films, do we? So my assumption would be that it was a strong collaboration between the two. But that’s just speculation. I wasn’t there. And, even if I was, it sounds like I still wouldn’t be sure.
And then there is the legend of the Poltergeist Curse. The idea of the curse stems from the deaths of several prominent cast members from the Poltergeist trilogy. Truly, only two of these deaths were of the unexpected, gone-before-their-time nature. But, it is very true that Dominique Dunne (older sister Dana Freeling in this original film) was killed late in 1982 – the same year the film was released – by her ex-boyfriend. And then little Heather O. Rourke (Carol Anne in all three films) tragically passed away at the age of twelve as a result of intestinal issues. On the other hand, we have the story of one Craig T. Nelson (Freeling patriarch Steve), who went on to have a very successful television show on ABC by the name of “Coach” and currently voices Mr. Incredible in Pixar’s Incredibles franchise. So, maybe it’s less of a curse and more of a sad coincidence. (Read about the Curse at Snopes by clicking here.)
From one point of view, it’s disappointing that such a great film is remembered for all of these behind-the-scenes controversies. But, from a different perspective, perhaps they’re helping to keep the legend of Poltergeist alive. In either case, the film is strong enough to stand on its own, no matter who directed it and no matter what the current state of the various cast members happens to be. It hits the ground running and refuses to let up until the final credits roll. Some might see it as a little melodramatic at times as subtlety isn’t one of its strong points, but it’s an undeniable classic within the horror genre and a film that will live on for years to come, just as it deserves to.
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