Toward the tail-end of the horror genres heyday in the late late 1970s and early 1980s came a film with quite the production dream team. Poltergeist, directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre supremo Tobe Hooper and produced by Jaws‘ mastermind Steven Spielberg attempted to give the haunted house sub-genre a new tentpole. In many ways they suceeeded, as Poltergeist took over $120m from a tiny budget of $10m and spawned a host of sequels of varying quality. However the really interesting story of Poltergeist lies in its creation rather than its narative.
When audiences first saw Poltergeist they were treated to a well-crafted, creepy horror film, but may not have noticed on first glance just how Spielbergian it actually was. Everything from the child actors performances to the now trademarked Spielberg sense of atmosphere was there. It’s so like other Spielberg films that there would have been some questions asked about how much Hooper actually had to do with the direction. This point was then further hammered home after Spielberg made comments suggesting that Hooper wasn’t always the most forthcoming with directorial control and so he would step in.
These comments on the directorial control of Poltergeist lead to an investigation by the Directors Guild of America, as Spielberg was contractually not allowed to direct any other films while he was working on E.T.. The investigation was dropped after Spielberg wrote an open letter of apology to Hooper for the comments he’d made and clarified that Poltergeist was to be credited solely to his colleague. This was not where the controversy ended either. Like The Exorcist before it, there was said to be a curse surrounding the production of Poltergeist, which is claimed to have been further heightened by the actual and tragic deaths of two of the members of the Freeling family.
Poltergeist as a film is a very well-constructed piece of horror fiction, regardless of who the actual director was. Focusing on an American family in the early 1980s it toys with now well-worn conventions of the genre as a seemingly malign influence on the new-build house they’re staying in that turns nasty. Like the more recent Insidious there are paranormal investigators who can be vaguely mocked to begin with, but do really know what they’re talking about. Poltergeist also takes memories of childhood, whether it’s a beloved pet behaving strangely, the shadow of a tree of the odd noise of static on the television, and brings these childhood terrors firmly back to life.
In its most basic form, Poltergeist is a warning about the dangers of children watching too much television. But it is at its most scary when it turns the ordinary into something extraordinary like chairs rearranging themselves out of camera shot. But scary it is and the pacing is terrific, with barely a bum-note in the building of suspense, there’s even funny in-jokes such as the dads boss casually commenting “It’s not like these are ancient Indian burial grounds.” But Poltergeist‘s legacy of sequels, television shows and the infamous curse surronuding it’s cast do not detract from what is one of the finest crafted ‘haunted house’ films of the modern era.