Poltergeist is somewhat of an anomaly in “31 days of Spielberg” because it is the only film being examined that was not actually directed by the popular filmmaker. For this reason I debated whether or not to even include it in the project since it represents an occasion where, for the first time in his career, Spielberg served both as writer and producer of a film but did not step into director’s chair... or did he? Even before the film’s release there was dispute over just who the “real” director of Poltergeist was. Ostensibly, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper helmed the film, but there has been much documentation of Spielberg’s intimate involvement in every aspect of the production. Did Spielberg really just “direct over Hooper’s shoulder” (Spielberg did want to direct it himself but was already engaged elsewhere and union rules forbade him from working on two films at once) or did the two enjoy a friendly, and fruitful, collaboration that resulted in a film that does not solely belong to either artist?
The truth is, we may never know. Numerous cast/crew members that were present on the set have, over the years, offered different perspectives on the experience and, to this day, the matter seems to lack a completely satisfactory resolution. In a way, though, the question of who actually “directed” Poltergeist is not only ultimately irrelevant but begs the further question of what a “director” truly does and who the “real” director of any film is. As one anonymous crew member has eloquently stated, if the question were simply “Who yelled ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ the most?” it would be easier to answer, but the question of “Who directs a film?” is usually trying to determine who the main creative force behind that film is. In that regard, the answer seems pretty clear to me (and I would hope to anyone who has been paying attention throughout this project) to be Steven Spielberg. Poltergeist may not be, strictly speaking, “a Steven Spielberg film” but it is undoubtedly “a Steven Spielberg production,” to a far greater degree even than any of the other movies, directed by other filmmakers, that bear his name (Back to the Future, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Goonies, etc). The film is simply loaded with the ideas, the themes and the storytelling style (both from a narrative and a technical standpoint) of Steven Spielberg. Thus, I felt it was appropriate to include it in this discussion of Spielberg’s art.
Poltergeist takes place in a world all too familiar to Spielberg: middle-class suburbia (the same environment as Close Encounters). Into the folds of these quite, pleasant surroundings comes a terribly hostile force that will completely overturn the life of a typical, loving family (called the Freelings) with an series of strange, grotesque and frightening phenomena. It’s very much a contemporary "haunted house" story but instead of making the house in question one of those decaying Victorian structures (the kind so often seen in ghost stories) with massive doors and windows, creaking walls and secret passageways, Spielberg’s house is an all-too ordinary, everyday American home with all of the modern conveniences and appliances. Yet even in the seemingly safe and secure atmosphere of a warm, inviting house Spielberg manages to find the dread, the shadowy figures in the dark corners of the rooms, the ghastly goings-on in the child’s closet, under the bed and in the backyard. In the writing of the script Spielberg relied heavily on the fears of his own childhood including a large, sinister tree that loomed just outside of his bedroom window (in the film the tree snatches a little boy out of his bed and tries to eat him) and a clown doll that used to terrify him (again, in the film, the doll tries to strangle the boy).
One of the things Spielberg cleverly accomplishes in the story is to provide the family with an actual reason to stay in a house plagued by angry spirits. Oftentimes in “haunted house” movies, the audience finds it difficult to identify with characters who are so dense as to not see clearly what is going on around them and just get out of the house as quickly as possible. In Poltergeist the disturbed souls who occupy the Freeling home kidnap the small girl played by Heather O’Rourke via her closet (in a scene/situation reminiscent of the abduction of young Barry in Close Encounters) and pull her into another dimension where she cannot be seen but she can be heard and her presence can still be felt. Not only is this plot element consistent with the Spielberg theme of “believing is seeing,” it gives the family a logical motivation to remain in the house. As long as Carol Anne is “there” somewhere (alive in some form) they can’t leave without her, even if they don’t know precisely where she is and can only hear her voice through the television set.
The television is actually a very important character in Poltergeist. In trying to create the portrait of a normal family, Spielberg utilizes the television as a unifying element to their everyday life and simultaneously satirizes our society’s current addiction to and weird attitudes about it (one particularly humorous bit has Carol Anne gazing into the white static on the screen until the mother tells her “Oh, honey. Don’t look at that. You’ll wreck your eyes,” and then changes it to a channel showing scenes of combat; apparently watching images of people dying violent deaths is less harmful to kids than electronic snow). There is rarely a scene where the set is not turned on in Poltergeist. Even if nobody is watching it, it is always there, always present, always observing what’s going on (like an all-seeing eye) and at times even commenting on the situation, as in a sequence where a scene from the film A Guy Named Joe, wherein Spencer Tracy's character Pete learns that he is dead, is playing. This is both a private in-joke for Spielberg, since A Guy Named Joe is one of his favorite films (and the inspiration for his future remake Always), and a foreshadowing of the various conversations that will take place later in the film on the nature of “life” after death.
The film’s opening image, after the title appears over the familiarly Spielbergian black screen, is an extreme close-up of a television screen as the “Star Spangled Banner” is heard playing. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal it is a TV station “signing off” for the night (a practice probably foreign to today’s youth where most channels run programming 24 hours a day). After the song finishes, the image of white static appears and the camera follows the family dog as it runs throughout the house searching for food. Through this sequence every member of the family is introduced but only one character, Carol Anne, awakens. She approaches the TV set and, to the bewilderment of the family, carries on a conversation with voices that apparently only she can hear (at the end of the scene she reaches out to touch the screen providing the image most associated with the film). At the end of Poltergeist, after the entire family has been reunited and flees the house to stay at a Holiday Inn, Spielberg uses the opportunity to make one final statement about their new attitude toward television. The father, significantly named Steven (Craig T. Nelson), wheels their set outside the room and re-enters closing the door behind him, thus book-ending the film with shots of television screens. At the opening the screen was on. Now it is off and out of sight, unable to do any more harm.
Some have asserted that in making television the means by which the titular poltergeists are able to enter our world (in a scene that provides the film with it’s signature line: “They’re here.”) Spielberg is being hypocritical, since he got his start in television. While it’s true that Spielberg was growing more and more dissatisfied with the quality of television at the time, he was not expressing a problem with the medium itself (in fact, shortly thereafter Spielberg would become involved in television once again with the series Amazing Stories). Spielberg is not making TV the “bad guy” in Poltergeist. He’s simply saying that if one isn’t careful, it can suck you into it and out of reality. In this case it does so literally.
After Carol Anne is taken by the ghosts, the family calls in a group of paranormal experts, led by a Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). After a few more freaky episodes (my favorite of which is a guy hallucinating that he’s tearing the flesh off his own face with his bare hands), and Lesh becomes convinced that she is witnessing real, genuine paranormal activity, a spiritualist named Tangina (the diminutive and eerily-voiced Zelda Rubinstein) is consulted. It is important to note that the bravest and most pro-active people in the film--indeed the three main characters--are all female. First, there’s the mother of the Freeling family, Diane (JoBeth Williams), who ends up eventually having to go into what could very well be the gates of Hell to retrieve her daughter and in the film’s climactic scene save both her youngest girl and her son from certain death (just as Spielberg emphasized the mother’s commitment to protecting her children in films like Sugarland Express and Close Encounters, so does he again in Poltergeist). Second, there’s the intelligent, but sensitive, scientist Dr. Lesh who provides answers to the behavior of poltergeists and even offers an explanation as to what happens to a person’s soul after death.
Finally, when Tangina appears at the beginning of the film’s third act she assumes total control of the situation and concocts an elaborate plan to rescue Carol Anne not only from the “other side” but from the clutches of an evil entity whom she calls simply “the Beast.” In fact, as author Doug Brode has elucidated in his book The Films of Steven Spielberg, "each character, when they are introduced, is notably older and more matronly in appearance than the previous one." Perhaps one of the lasting effects of spending much of his youth in a household with four females (three sisters and a mother) and no father, Spielberg developed a healthy respect for women and what they are capable of accomplishing through love. As he once said in an interview with Time magazine “I claim no profound understanding of women, but I have faith in them.”
The picture of death presented in Poltergeist is a fascinating one because it ultimately works to de-mystify what would otherwise be regarded as a supernatural (perhaps even “magical”) experience. As with Close Encounters, Spielberg employs religious imagery and ideas throughout the film but in the end, literalizes it with logical explanations. The things seen in Poltergeist may be metaphysical but they can also be scientifically observed and understood. Through the mouth of Dr. Lesh Spielberg voices a perspective of the afterlife that resembles a number of different religions without committing to any one in particular. Death is seen not as an end but more as a beginning of another phase of life, a passage from this plane to a different one wherein we approach a brilliant white light (revisiting Spielberg’s comfortable “light” theme) and enter another world. Carol’s Anne disappearance has come as a result of her being trapped between those two worlds.
Eventually the reason why the souls are, as Tangina put it, “at unrest” is explained near the end of the film in a scene where Craig T. Nelson’s boss at the real estate company, Mr. Teague (James Karen), reveals that when Cuesta Verde first went into development in 1976, it was built on a graveyard, which Teague insists was relocated. However, as the coffins emerge from the ground with corpses flying of them in the film’s finale, we learn that only the headstones were moved (this revelation is foreshadowed earlier in the film when the family bird Tweety dies suddenly and is buried in a cigar box in the Freelings’ backyard, only to be disturbed in the next scene by a bulldozer making way for the family’s swimming pool). Interestingly, Spielberg waited a long time in introducing what is essentially the villain of the picture. Teague is more or less a variation on Murray Hamilton’s Mayor Vaughn in Jaws (though not nearly as engaging), the hypocrite who corrupts everything he touches with greed.
After the completion of Poltergiest, another controversy arose in addition to the “director” question. The film was slapped an R rating. This was not the first time Spielberg had encountered this problem (both Jaws and Raiders received R’s initially but with some minor tinkering were eventually given PG’s). Studio executives were understandably horrified by this decision, so in early May Spielberg and MGM chairman Frank Rosenfelt flew to New York to lobby for a PG. Rosenfelt argued that Poltergeist was completely devoid of sex, relatively free of profanity and even any overt violence (indeed, reviewing it again recently I was struck by the fact that ultimately nobody in the movie really gets hurt; everyone who is dead at the end was already dead at the beginning). The opposition argued that the “cumulative effect” of terrifying moments and the “intensity” of images necessitated an R rating. In a way, the effectiveness of Poltergeist shows the ability of Spielberg to scare audiences without having to resort to gory violence (Hooper should also be given some credit, of course, but his Texas Chainsaw Massacre was not afraid to use graphic violence to create fear). Eventually it was awarded a PG. “I don’t make R movies,” Spielberg insisted, a statement that hounded him for much of his career.
When Poltergeist was released it received generally positive reviews. Everyone praised the special effects (which, it should probably go without saying, are outstanding) while some fixated on the utter ridiculousness and complete incomprehensibility of the events. The Variety critic complained: “The story is truly stupid. The houses are so close that [people] can’t even watch television without interference from the next-door remote control tuner. But nobody in the neighborhood ever seems to notice [anything that goes wrong]. Here you have a house in the middle of the street going berserk in Dolby Stereo and nobody ever calls the cops.” Doug Brode addresses these inconsistencies and offers a more sympathetic outlook on how to interpret the film: “To accept any of this, the viewer has to take Poltergeist less as a ghost story than a fairy tale set in modern times; common sense does not prevail in Poltergeist any more than it does in a story by the Brothers Grimm.” Indeed, there are numerous similarities to be seen between Poltergeist and the classic story The Wizard of Oz (with Carol Anne functioning as the Dorothy character).
Although he may not have "directed" the film, Spielberg's influence can be seen in every frame of the film and he certainly displayed his "darker" side with Poltergeist. Nevertheless, audiences seemed to like the film as it made $76 million at the box office. Today it is remembered as a good, old-fashioned scary movie (akin to the kind of tales told around the campfire at night), a prime example of fun 1980's horror thrillers--made by one of the men who knows how to scare people best--which spawned several sequels and even a television series. Poltergeist is also known for being fraught with strange difficulties that occurred during and after shooting. Just as weird stories surround the making of such films as The Exorcist and The Omen, Poltergeist had problems that were not only man-caused but which seemed to have arisen from other unknown sources. At one point it was discovered that the cadavers used in the swimming pool scene at the film’s finale were actually real skeletons (a fact which actress JoBeth Williams, who had to get into the water with them, didn't learn until later) and following an array of unfortunate accidents occurred an old Native American Shaman was brought in to “exorcise” the set, after which all problems presumably ceased. After principal photography finished, the young actress who played the oldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunn) was strangled by an angry ex-boyfriend and before shooting completed on the third Poltergeist, young Carol Anne herself Heather O’Rourke bizarrely died from an obscure disease.
In the summer of ’82 though, what was perhaps most interesting about the release of Poltergeist was that it occurred only one week before the release of another Spielberg movie: the one on which he worked simultaneously with Poltergeist and which showed his much “softer” side. The film that Spielberg would shortly unleash on the world, one that he not only wrote and produced but actually directed himself, would not only dwarf the success of all of his previous films but the success of every film ever made up until that point. Spielberg was about to create what is to date his most personal statement ever expressed on film and cinematic history would once again be made.
TOMORROW: Spielberg touches the world