Day 908: It’s Hee-eere… This Article About Poltergeist

originally published June 26, 2014

Despite being physically nothing more than distortions of light and shadow on a few reels of tightly-wound celluloid, a movie can possess the power to frighten free the literal turds from viewers’ backsides. I was eleven or twelve when I first saw Poltergeist, and I remember clearly the electric squirms it blasted through my vertebrae.

I’ve since grown to find I’m more a fan of comedies, documentaries and films involving talking badgers than horror flicks, mostly because I find the tropes of the horror genre to be repetitive. Who dies, who lives – that’s the central question a typical slasher pic makes its audience ask, or in the case of the torture-porn subgenre (the Saw movies and their ilk), how grotesque can the human imagination become when there’s a multimillion-dollar budget at stake?

But some horror films are truly glorious in their ability to capture the human psyche and scare the ever-lovin’ bejeebus out of it. The Exorcist is one; The Ring is (for me) another. And I’ll drop Poltergeist into that column too, despite the fact that I can still only see the film through my eleven (or twelve)-year-old eyes. But there was a lot more to the weirdness of the movie than what we saw on the screen, which is why today it gets a kilograph of its own.

For starters, we can’t even say for certain who directed this thing. Tobe Hooper gets the official credit, and if you ask him, he’ll swear it’s his picture. The guy had made his bones in the horror game, with the gore-fest Texas Chainsaw Massacre under his belt, as well as 1981’s The Funhouse. But if you compare the shot composition, the framing and the overall aesthetic of Poltergeist to those films, it just seems… different somehow.

Perhaps it has something to do with the producer, Steven Spielberg. According to Zelda Rubenstein, who spent six days on the set as the goofy but lovable medium, Tangina Barrons, Steven was in charge the whole time. Other members of the cast and crew have backed up this allegation, though Zelda took it a step further and indicated that certain “unacceptable chemical agents” were mucking about in Tobe Hooper’s bloodstream, leaving him only partly there. So was Steven so hands-on during the production because he was meddling or because he was saving the picture?

Co-producer Frank Marshall credits Spielberg with having storyboarded the entire movie, which would suggest that this was almost entirely his vision from fade-in to credits. It is, after all, his story and his co-written screenplay. Hell, Spielberg even edited the thing. Who’s to say Steven didn’t direct the movie, with Tobe Hooper standing in as a directing shill, a front-man, a beard?

There was certainly motivation to do so, if Steven so desired. He was under contract with Universal Pictures at the time (Poltergeist is an MGM joint), and that contract explicitly stated that he was not to direct any other film that might compete with his big Universal summer blockbuster, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. So technically, he didn’t. E.T. and Poltergeist opened one week apart, and Spielberg all but owned the box office in the summer of 1982.

For the record, Steven was one of Tobe Hooper’s loudest defenders, writing an open letter to his director and publishing it in The Hollywood Reporter. In the letter, he makes it clear that Tobe directed the film, and that Steven really dug his work but remained relegated to his producer tasks. Of course, with the prospect of a contract-breech lawsuit over his head, that’s exactly what he should say…

The skeletons scene is one of the movie’s spookiest, as the inhabitants of the disturbed cemetery come to life and freak the everlovin’ fuck out of JoBeth Williams in her swimming pool. JoBeth was just as skeeved out as Diane, her character – not because she feared death but because the skeletons used in that scene were actual human remains. Special effects artist Craig Reardon shrugged this off; human skeletons were considerably cheaper than plastic facsimiles, given the notable reduction in manufacturing costs.

My mistake – JoBeth actually was scared during that scene, and the once-sentient bones had nothing to do with it. She was flailing about in all this water, with massive lights and cameras all around her. Gravity takes one poke at any of those suspended devices and she’d be as good as fried. Spielberg – who was totally not directing the scene – put her at ease by sitting in the water with her while they shot. That way they’d both die if something went wrong. What a guy.

Nothing tragic happened on the set of Poltergeist. But this is a movie about the remains of the dead being desecrated for modern American convenience (a planned suburban community), and the movie used actual human remains as props. In effect, the lesson of the film – don’t fuck with the mortality-challenged – was being flagrantly ignored in its production. Naturally, this led the more conspiracy-minded folks in the crowd to believe there might be a legit curse on the movie.

This was bolstered by the fact that, within the six-year time frame that saw the release of Poltergeist and its two sequels, a number of wonky deaths occurred. There was Julian Beck, the 60-year-old actor who played the Reverend Henry Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. He died of stomach cancer months before the film was released. Okay, that one isn’t too creepy. But what about Will Sampson, who played the medicine man in the first sequel, but died in 1987 from post-operative kidney failure after having received a heart and lung transplant?

Then there’s Dominique Dunne, who played Dana Freeling, the eldest daughter in the first movie. She was strangled by her abusive boyfriend at age 22, dying only four months after the movie was released. And don’t forget Heather O’Rourke.

The only member of the Freeling family to have appeared in all three movies, Heather was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease in early 1987. About a year later she became very ill and was brought to the hospital, where she died during surgery to fix a bowel obstruction. At twelve years old, Heather had already cemented two catchphrases into the pop-culture lexicon (you can flip a coin between “They’re here” and “They’re back” to guess which is more popular), and she was already dead.

Is it a curse? Did the Academy Award-nominated special effects team screw up by using actual human remains? Ever the skeptic I’m going to say nope, any more than some “curse” bestowed upon the series a totally garbage script for the third installment. There is no curse – though there are weird conspiracy theories, and the suggestion that Steven Spielberg dipped his directorial quill into multiple major-studio inkwells at once is too delicious not to entertain.

It’s nice to see this movie as something other than the monolith of terror that it was to my 11 (or 12)-year-old self. Now if I can just overcome that silly childhood fear and sit through that William Shatner episode of The Outer Limits again…

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