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When Steven Spielberg decides to direct a movie, he directs a movie...even if he's not officially the director. Back in 1982, Spielberg, though still only 35 years old, had established himself as the most commercially astute filmmaker in movie history. He already had Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the recently-completed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) under his belt when he decided to produce a good old-fashioned haunted house movie called Poltergeist. But Poltergeist was the first hands-on producing job that Spielberg had ever performed with another director at the helm, and he inevitably wound up behind the camera, filming portions of the picture.
Poltergeist's plot exploits all the cliches of the haunted house genre with an F/X-heavy, video-centric twist. Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and their three kids (played by Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, and Heather O'Rourke) have the misfortune of moving into a new suburban home that happens to have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Eventually, the spirits are released, and they're not happy with the intrusion. It's not long before one of the children, innocent little Carol Anne (O'Rourke), gets pulled into the netherworld via a static-filled TV screen. The rest of the picture consists of creepy/violent occurrences while the house is put through the wringer by a mini clairvoyant (Zelda Rubinstein) and a parade of angry spirits. It may be slick and overproduced, but you're still guaranteed to get some well-earned shrieks out of it before it's over.
Tobe Hooper, who scared the bejeebies out of drive-in moviegoers with his nightmarish cult film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), was signed on to direct Poltergeist, although, if you think about it, Hooper's pitiless, blood-and-guts sensibility was hardly a good fit for Steven Spielberg. At this point in his career, and for several years thereafter, Spielberg had an often unfortunate penchant for getting cute and tossing magic dust in the air in his films. That certainly wouldn't work with a horror film, but there's no doubt that Poltergeist's bet-hedging commercial gloss is Spielberg's handiwork. The movie is actually more unnerving than truly horrifying.
No one has ever said exactly what Spielberg did or didn't film, but it's pretty obvious that he wasn't sitting in his producer's chair, thoughtfully smoking a pipe. The picture contains more than a few Spielbergian shots that sweep in at a low angle toward an awed character, and Williams even remembers Spielberg climbing into a swimming pool full of "corpses" with her while shooting the climactic scene. Viewers who are familiar with his work from the period won't have too much trouble finding other clues. In one particularly icky scene where a character hallucinates that he's tearing the flesh off his own face, that's actually Spielberg's hands doing the tearing!
Although they might look rickety by current standards, the special effects in Poltergeist were the film's major attraction when it was released (it ended up grossing a very respectable $40-million at the box office.) Richard Edlund, one of the original forces behind George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, created all those swirling ghosts and murderous trees. Today, Edlund is hailed by industry insiders as an F/X pioneer, and has taken home Oscars® for three different Star Wars films, as well as for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (His most recent work can be found in last year's bomb, The Stepford Wives, 2004).
Nelson and Williams, of course, have both enjoyed respectable careers in movies and television, with Nelson finding quite a high profile as the title character in the ABC sitcom Coach. There is, however, a genuinely tragic bent to the stories of two other Poltergeist cast members.
Just a few months after the picture's release, Dominique Dunne, who plays the eldest daughter in the haunted family, was killed by an enraged boyfriend. The pointless death of this promising young actress saddened movie fans across the country, and badly rattled members of the Los Angeles film community. In a twist worthy of a modern thriller, Dunne's killer would serve only three years behind bars before being released, a turn of events that her father, Dominic Dunne, a contributor to Vanity Fair magazine and other publications, would document in detail.
The other Poltergeist cast member who met an untimely demise is Heather O'Rourke. The tiny actress, whose character's supernatural predicament drove the original picture, went on to appear in two Poltergeist sequels, but unexpectedly died of an intestinal obstruction shortly after wrapping Poltergeist III (1988). That film is dedicated to her memory. (If you are interested in learning more about Poltergeist III, you might want to check out the Poltergeist III.com website.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti
Editing: Michael Kahn
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Production Design: James H. Spencer
Costumes: L.J. Mower
Cast: Craig T. Nelson (Steve), JoBeth Williams (Diane), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominique Dunne (Dana), Oliver Robins (Robbie), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), Martin Casella (Marty), Richard Lawson (Ryan), Michael McManus (Tuthill), James Karen (Teague).
C-115m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara