Hooptober 2022 #11: Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist is a film where I have a little bit of a personal connection with it. We almost share a birthday. Both of us were unleashed in 1982, though I’m a day older. But even before I knew that information, I’ve always felt drawn to this film. It’s one of the few horror films I think my whole family enjoys. It sparked my love of the haunted house genre. If there’s a film that sparked my eventual appreciation for Tobe Hooper, it’s this movie.

Of course, part of this fascination lies in the eternal debate surrounding the film; who directed it? Was it producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg? Or does credited director Tobe Hooper’s distinct touch come through more? I know some cast members and fans lay the whole thing on Spielberg. If you ask some people, Hooper was the guy. The question and which side of the answer you fall under brings up questions of style, themes, and the nebulous concept of talent. Falling entirely on one side though does a disservice to the two filmmakers whose unique storytelling DNA crafts one of the most unique haunted house stories.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Poltergeist is about an all American family, the Freelings. They live in the idyllic planned community Cuesta Verde. The family dynamic is the ideal of 1982; father Steven is the bread winner, selling homes to new owners, and mother Diane is a homemaker dotes on their three children; Dana, Robbie, and the youngest Carol Ann. Life on the surface is perfect until odd things start occurring. Carol Anne starts hearing voices from “TV people”. Strange earthquakes occur. Tweety the pet bird dies. Chairs at the kitchen table takes on strange configurations. Then Carol Ann vanishes.

The obvious storytelling friction makes Poltergeist an all time great film. One of film’s greatest populists, Steven Spielberg, collides with one of film’s greatest outsiders, Tobe Hooper. On the surface, these filmmakers have nothing in common. Spielberg speaks to the wonder we all crave while Hooper strives to make audiences as uncomfortable as possible. Yet this does a disservice to both filmmakers. Throughout Spielberg’s filmography, the great populist frequently employs a dark sense of humor like the T-Rex eating the lawyer in Jurassic Park. Spielberg also can horrify with the best of them as any one who has seen Jaws or the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark can attest. Hooper maybe an outsider, but like Spielberg, his best work is endlessly fascinated by the American experience. His politics may register as far more left than Spielberg’s liberalism but Hooper’s social commentary always strives to make America a better, even if it showed America at its worst. They’re also filmmakers of the generation that was literate in film. These two filmmakers similarities fuel the stylistic friction rather than the differences.

This film is the cinematic equivalent of an atom smasher. The considerable resources of Spielberg (including editor Michael Kahn and the wizards at ILM) collides with Hooper’s ability to wring terror and unease in every frame. The result is a film that can’t exist without either filmmaker. In some cases, this becomes a case of one upmanship. Spielberg may have the cheek to open his film with the national anthem but Hooper keeps the Hooper family on red, white, and blue clothes until the parapsychologists arrive. Then there’s times where both men synch up with each other. Something that struck me on this viewing was The Wizard of Oz homages throughout the film. Carol Ann’s disappearance coincides with the arrival of a tornado. If one was generous, you could say Poltergeist is The Wizard of Oz from Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s perspective if they knew Dorothy got whisked to Oz (and Oz was actually inside the house). There’s an obvious push and pull between the two filmmakers that only makes Poltergeist a better film.

Trying to determine whether Steven Spielberg or Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist is a fool’s errand. This film works because works because of the unique sensibilities of both filmmakers. It’s the rare film that is a true collaboration. Attributing solely to one or the other only slights both filmmakers work on this.

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