Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Conversations surrounding Poltergeist are often framed on the idea of ownership—a “who’s movie is it?” debate that pits writer-producer Steven Spielberg against credited director Tobe Hooper. In one corner, you have the persistent claims that it was really Spielberg effectively directing this touchstone of 1980s haunted house horror, in an argument that reduces the role of Hooper to something like a consulting observer, thanks to Spielberg’s contract that stated he couldn’t personally direct another film while working on E.T. In the other corner, meanwhile, you have Hooper’s cadre of horror geeks who bemoan the fact that one of the seminal horror movies of the decade is often given an invisible asterisk in Hooper’s filmography, compared with the more undeniable likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
There have been countless statements on both sides of this issue in the last 38 years, throwing weight and importance toward the contributions of either man, which ultimately leads us toward a singular conclusion: Poltergeist is just one of those movies that was the result of more than one person’s creative vision. It’s not a case of Spielberg or Hooper, but a clear case of Spielberg and Hooper, each bringing their unique talents to play. The film reads like a Spielberg feature because he wrote much of it. And it has the gruesomeness of a Tobe Hooper horror movie because he was the guy yelling “action!” and “cut!” Poltergeist is the best of both worlds, deftly balancing the character-building and warmth of Spielberg’s populist filmmaking prowess with the chilling horror chops and zany action of the guy who directed films like TCSM, The Funhouse and Lifeforce. Neither one would likely have produced Poltergeist on their own.
The result of this collaboration is a film that is a melting pot of tones and ideas—a haunted house movie at its core, but with streaks of comedy and science fiction sprinkled throughout as well. The dynamic of the Freeling family feels down-to-earth and immediately relatable, which is of course one of Spielberg’s gifts as a writer, particularly in this period—they’re the same sort of believable suburban family found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which makes sense, given that Spielberg originally envisioned this film as a “dark horror sequel” to Close Encounters that would have been titled Dark Skies. In particular, parents Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) have the sort of realistic on-screen marriage that is rarely replicated—they’re fond of each other and they crack each other up, but it’s also understood that perhaps they’re a little bit wistful for those pre-children days as well. Producers of Pixar’s The Incredibles were clearly looking for that same combination of warmth and utter exasperation when they sought out Nelson to play a very similar father figure, albeit with superpowers. Clearly, they’d watched Poltergeist.
We can assume that Hooper, on the other hand, certainly played a role in making Poltergeist as grisly as it eventually became. Although Spielberg was no stranger to some occasional blood and guts—the shark devouring Quint in Jaws, the melting Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.—the horror sequences of Poltergeist are much more overtly frightening and ultimately far more visually intense. The infamous clown doll? Certainly among the most effective “toys coming to life” sequences in genre history. The living (and crawling) steak? Distinctly unpleasant to look at. But nothing in Spielberg’s long career even compares to that poor paranormal researcher at the bathroom sink, hallucinating about ripping off his own face and exposing the skull beneath. That sure as hell reads as something from the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film equally infamous for brutality.
Of course, Poltergeist is also lifted substantially by its bit players, whether it’s the trio of parapsychologists led by Beatrice Straight, or James Karen of Return of the Living Dead as Steven’s oily boss, projecting the same manic cowardly energy he savors in that film. And then of course there’s Zelda Rubinstein as the enigmatic spiritual medium “Tangina,” still the subject of imitation almost four decades later. Her creaky cadence is unmistakably part of Poltergeist’s DNA—it’s impossible to imagine this film or its lesser sequels without her, so much does her eccentric performance embody the spiritual mysteries of the world it presents.
Ultimately, the question of authorship on Poltergeist is a moot point—together, Spielberg and Hooper created the defining haunted house film of the decade, unsurpassed in modern influence until at least 2013’s The Conjuring. Now, if we could all collectively agree to go on pretending that the 2015 remake never happened, I certainly would appreciate it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.