In 1982, Spielberg was contractually forbidden from receiving a directing credit because, at the very same moment, he was still working on E.T.. While Poltergeist was made for MGM and E.T. was made for Universal, he never-the-less managed to work on both projects at once he was contractually forbidden from receiving a directing credit while preparing E.T. so he gave Hooper the directing credit. So, the fact that this movie was released exactly 7 days before E.T., and both were enormous hits, the summer of 1982 was dubbed “Spielberg Summer.”
Revisiting both films, I was struck by how similar their worlds seem to be. They both take place in the nest of the American middle-class white suburban world of the Reagan years. Both films could have taken place in the same California neighborhood, and both films seem to exhaust the same kind of familiar worlds that we all grew up in.
The most appealing thing about Spielberg’s work at this period is that it never seems to take place within a set. The Neary House in Close Encounters, Elliott’s house in E.T. and the Freeling house in Poltergeist all seem to exist in a certain plane of reality. The Freeling home has an earthy quality about it. There is a lived-in feel to it. Look around the living room, the kid’s bedroom, the kitchen. Everything feels like it’s been there for years, not like a prop man set it up just before the cameras rolled. That, I think, settles our minds into the reality of this house.
Poltergeist is an interesting experiment in artistic styles – two differing styles to be exact, and what happens when they clash might have made real mess if not handled with care. In this corner is Steven Spielberg, the prince of Suburbia, who – more than any other filmmaker – understands the world of middle-class America. In the other corner is Tobe Hooper, the mastermind behind one of the best and most unsettling horror films of the 1970s, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. Their efforts together create a brilliant haunted house movie that both tenderly shows us a family in crisis but also the strange, supernatural events taking place around them.
The credits give the reigns to Hooper, but Hooper’s style comes from the special effects elements. We are familiar with his other films and we can see some of the inspiration of Texas Chain Saw Massacre here – rotting corpses, flesh ripping, demonic faces, and decay. We remember his elements in that Texas house all those years ago and much of it exists here.
The villains here are hardly ever seen. They’re ghosts, lots of them apparently. We are never sure how many. There’s some discussion of “The Beast” but what does that mean? In the supernatural half of the film we are led to believe that they are full of surprises, that they can open a portal to the next dimension and take the family away. On the reality side of things are Spielberg’s favorite villains – corporate America, the same kinds of people who didn’t want to close the beaches in “Jaws” for fear of losing summer dollars. Here their machinations are much worse, a real-estate company that made a very bad decision.
Yet, this film is successful, I think, because of the human characters. There’s a close-knit family, and to our surprise, one that we actually care about. Mom and Dad – Steven and Diane Freeling – Steve is a real estate agent and former football player. Diane is a former flower child turned doting mother and housewife. The kids are just as defined. There’s 16 year-old Dana, whose forward-thinking attention is more attuned to her social life than anything going on at home. There’s 8 year-old Robbie, who finds fear in the most normal of everyday objects like a stuffed animal and a tree outside the window. And there’s 5 year-old, cherubic Carol Anne, who is prone to sleepwalking and whose attention seems unsettlingly distracted.
If not for the production design and the well-defined characters, the movie would be a complete wash-out. Like “The Exorcist” or “Carrie” the movie has to be grounded in reality for the supernatural stuff to be effective. That’s especially true of the characters who arrive later, after Carol Anne has been kidnapped and taken to the next dimension. It might have been fatal if the movie had been led by the investigating parapsychologists or even the erudite medium that blows in to explain the situation. Their work is so foreign to us, that putting them at the film’s center might have made the movie seem like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” If there is a weakness in the film, it probably comes from the myriad attempts to explain what is going on. The parapsychologist has her explanation. The medium has hers. Even the evil real estate developer has his explanation. Yet, it never really comes together, and after a while they all feel like club-footed theories. Late in the film there is a long-winded explanation of the supernatural forces that have kidnapped Carol Anne, and why, slows that I think slows the picture down. It reminds me of the blabbering psychiatrist at the end of “Psycho”, who comes on to explain the plot, when we in the audience don’t really care. Get on with it.
Yet, it is unfair to be snide about a movie like this. You kind of have to go with it. If there is an illustration of where “Poltergeist” succeeds, it must be in its comparison with “The Amityville Horror” which tells almost the same story but is a complete mess. That film did everything wrong that “Poltergeist” did right. It was a haunted house movie that only cared about the special effects, tossing the characters around like pegs. Also, that film allowed the horror to extend outside the house for no reason. In “Poltergeist”, the terror stays home and that lends it a bit of credibility. Grounding the supernatural events to the house allows us to orient our minds to some measure of limits. There have to be rules, otherwise the movie feels like it’s just a bucket of special effects with no purpose. “Poltergeist” is a prime example of how to make a haunted house movie under the best of filmmaking talent.