June 7, 2015 This Week in Horror Movie History – Poltergeist (1982)
This week in Horror movie history, Poltergeist was released on June 4, 1982 through the MGM and SLM Production Groups. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1974, Salem’s Lot 1979) directed the movie, and it became the highest grossing film of his career. Poltergeist was also the first offering produced by famed director Steven Spielberg (Jaws 1975, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial 1982), who, along with Frank Marshal (Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981, Back to the Future 1985), helped create one of the most iconic Horror films of all time. Spielberg also penned the screenplay with help from Marked For Death’s (1990) Michael Grais and Mark Victor, an Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith (The Waltons TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series), and a whole slew of special effects personnel including Michael Wood (Star Wars: Episode VI, – Return of the Jedi 1983, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome 1985), Bruce Nicholson (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope 1977, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back 1980), Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981, Ghostbusters 1984), and Jeff Jarvis (Firestarter 1984, Cat’s Eye 1985). The film stars Craig T. Nelson (Coach TV series, Silkwood 1983), JoBeth Williams (Kramer vs. Kramer 1979, The Big Chill 1983), Dominique Dunne (Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker 1979, The Day The Loving Stopped 1981), Zelda Rubinstein (The Scariest Places on Earth TV series, Behind the Mask: The Ride of Leslie Vernon 2006), and Heather O’Rourke (Happy Days TV series, Poltergeist II: The Other Side 1986). The Simi Valley, California house where the movie was shot is still owned by the same family that lived there during filming. Other filming locations included Agoura Hills, Irvine, and Thousand Oaks, all in California.
Writing a screenplay based on his own childhood fears of clowns and a tree outside his bedroom window, Spielberg had an emotional investment into Poltergeist and wanted the film to portray his ideas exactly the way he imagined them, so he ended up spending a lot of time with Hooper to make sure his full vision came to fruition. Although he was directing E.T. just a few doors down and was under contract to direct only this film at the time, Spielberg made frequent trips to the Poltergeist set, offering suggestions to the director and actors and laying out storyboards. He was also on hand for casting, and to make the story more relatable to viewers, selected virtually unknown actors to play the haunted family. In the process of casting Poltergeist, Spielberg discovered six-year-old Drew Barrymore, whom he cast for the role of Gertie in the iconic alien epic that was filming next door.
From an enduring curse to fast-food drama, Poltergeist offers a goldmine of interesting trivia. Pizza Hut, insulted by a slight dig to their Italian eatery in the scene where little Carol Anne is dragged across the floor by invisible hands, persuaded the filmmakers to drastically cut the segment. This resulted in a strange, jerky edit that segues into the middle of the following, unrelated scene, leaving the viewer feeling like he missed something important. As a tribute to his friend George Lucas and to some of the crew’s previous projects, Spielberg sprinkled quite a few Star Wars toys and decorations in the kids’ bedrooms. He also jumped into the muddy pit that was the Freelings’ half-dug swimming pool to assure JoBeth Williams that the conditions were safe, even with the high powered electrical equipment set up precariously close to the edge of the watery set. Spielberg assured Williams that if something were to happen, they would both fry. Fortunately, the shot was filmed without mishap, despite Williams’ worry.
The special effects in Poltergeist are some of the best of its time. The memory of those hellish closet monsters and maggoty chicken legs are enough to send even the most jaded Horror movie watcher scrambling for the fast forward button. The infamous crawling steak trick was genius in its simplicity. A real slab of beef was laid over a slot cut in the counter top, and two wires were attached at each end. An FX operator hidden beneath the counter moved the wires together and then apart to give the steak the illusion that it was crawling across the tiles like an inchworm. The glowing blue light emanating from the closet was achieved with strobe lights, a Vegas style spotlight, smoke and wind machines, and even a couple of lighted fish tanks to give the portal a fluid, unearthly cast. Many have claimed that the addition of Reverend Kane in the second and third movies was obscure and off-topic with the original film, but a close look at The Beast ‘s face as it screams and lashes about shows an uncanny resemblance to Julian Beck’s evil priest.
One cannot talk about this otherworldly Horror and its sequels/remake without mentioning the supposed curse associated with it. The most highly publicized account was the death of child star Heather O’Rourke. During post-production of 1988’s Poltergeist III, O’Rourke became deathly ill after a misdiagnosis of Crohn’s disease left her without proper medical care for the real issue, congenital intestinal stenosis, which caused an obstruction in her bowel. O’Rourke died on February 1, 1988. She was only twelve years old. In a hint of what was to come, a poster hung in film brother Robbie’s room showed the San Diego Chargers in Superbowl XXII, an event that would not take place for six year after filming ended. O’Rourke died in San Diego the day after Superbowl XXII in 1988, a game that indeed took place in the California city.
The life of Dominique Dunne, the daughter of investigative journalist Dominick Dunne, was also tragically cut short. Just months after the release of the original film, Dunne was strangled by an ex-boyfriend in the driveway of her own home in West Hollywood, leaving her brain-dead. She died five days later on November 4, 1982 at the age of twenty-two. Both O’Rourke and Dunne are buried in the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Lou Perryman, the actor who played Pugsley, was killed with an axe by twenty-six year old ex-con Seth Christopher Tatum on April 1, 2009. Tatum had recently stopped taking his medication and was on a drinking binge. After playing Ryan the ghost hunter, actor Richard Lawson was in a plane crash in 1992, barely escaping with his life. Unfortunately, twenty-seven of the fifty-one other passengers were not so lucky. Both Zelda Rubinstein and JoBeth Williams had unexplainable occurrences during filming. Williams had several pictures that would constantly be crooked on the wall when she came home from working on the film. No amount of straightening would keep them even until after the movie wrapped. Last but not least, Rubinstein had a vision of her dog saying goodbye to her. Hours later, her mother called to tell her that her dog had, indeed, passed away.
The curse did not stop with the first film. Julian Beck died on September 14, 1985 after a two year battle with stomach cancer during the filming of Poltergeist II: The Legacy (1986). He was in stage four of the disease when filming began. Although he completed Poltergeist II, Will Sampson (Taylor) died the year after its release after succumbing to complications from scleroderma, a chronic degenerative condition that affected his heart, lungs, and skin. After undergoing a heart and lung transplant, Sampson died on June 3, 1987 of post-operative kidney failure and pre-operative malnutrition.
The movie’s 2015 remake had its own problems. Says director Gil Kenan in a question and answer with Reddit: “The location for the house, during shooting, I chose because it had a strange and unnecessary field that the houses of this particular community were built around… And we found — throughout production — that we had persistent and repeatable equipment [failure] only on that strange plot of land. For instance, lights that could turn on anywhere else in the neighborhood would blow out the second you’d try to light them on this plot…Also, I used a lot of aerial drone photography in the film, and the drone pilots were never able to lock in the GPS signal in this field. We would have to move 10 feet away to launch the craft.” Although no one knows the exact cause or reason behind the curse (if one even believes in such a thing), there is no denying that an uncanny amount of hardship and death has befallen many of the cast and crew associated with the films. Some blame a haunted location, while some blame the real skeletons used during the muddy pool scene. Either way, the notoriety of the film and its sequels has taken on a life of its own.
Filmed around a budget of $10.7 million, the original Poltergeist brought in a total of $121.7 million, making it the highest grossing horror film of 1982 and the eighth highest grossing film of the year. Its initial success led to a theatrical reissuing of the film in October, 1982, to take advantage of the Halloween weekend. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 88% fresh rating, and Metacritic lists it at seventy-nine out of a possible one hundred. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1983: Best Visual Effects for Richard Edlund, Michael Wood and Bruce Nicholson, Best Sounds Effects Editing for Stephen Hunter Flick and Richard L. Anderson and Best Musical Score for Jerry Goldsmith. The film also won a BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects for Richard Edlund and several Saturn Awards, including Best Horror Film, Best Director (Tobe Hooper), Best Actress (JoBeth Williams), Best Supporting Actress (Zelda Rubinstein), Best Music (Jerry Goldsmith), and Best Make-up (Dorothy J. Pearl), also in 1983. Heather O’Rourke was awarded the Young Artist Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture the same year. Ironically, the film lost the Special Effects and Score Oscars to Spielberg’s other baby, E.T.
Other accolades include being ranked #80 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments and the Chicago Film Critics Association naming it the 20th scariest film ever made. The film also appeared at #84 on American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Thrills, a list of America’s most heart-pounding movies. The infamous line, “They’re here!” was voted #69 out of 100 for best movie quotes by the AFI, and the New York Times selected Poltergeist as one of the Top Best 1ooo Movies Ever Made.
Poltergeist has spawned several sequels and one remake. Along with Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988), there was a ’90s TV series titled Poltergeist: The Legacy and a remake directed by Gil Kenan and produced by Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi that was released May 22, 2015. Craig T. Nelson reprised his role of Steven Freeling for a 2008 DirecTV ad that had him telling Carol Anne that the static on the television was just bad cable reception, saying, “Not getting rid of cable. THAT’S gonna come back to haunt me!” Heather O’Rourke’s family was pleased with the ad for keeping her memory alive.
Other pop culture tributes to the film was the song “Shining” by The Misfits (American Psycho 1997) with the chanting chorus, “Carol Anne, Carol Anne…” Seth MacFarlane also wrote two episodes for two separate television shows: the 2006 Family Guy episode “Petergeist” and the 2013 American Dad episode “Poltergasm.” Both Scary Movie 2 (2001) and the video game Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon pulled iconic references from the film.
Poltergeist was released on LaserDisc in 1983, and then again on DVD in 1997. The movie was re-released in 1998 with an eight page booklet and in 1999 by Warner Home Video with a different case cover. Although a 25th anniversary release including a two-part documentary titled “They Are Here: The Real World Of Poltergeists” was scheduled for October 9, 2007 on DVD, HD DVD and Blu-Ray, only the remastered DVD was released as scheduled. The Blu-ray was eventually released in October of 2008.
Poltergeist is not only a scary movie about haunted house. Since the moment it hit theaters, this dreadful yet relatable look into the monstrosity of a life spinning out of control by supernatural forces has birthed many a Horror fan, filling heads with surreal, disturbing images from a movie that must have seemed so safe going in after its PG rating. The sweet, angelic face of Heather O’Rourke swirled together with viscous, ectoplasmic demons and food abominations make for an uncomfortable yet unforgettable movie watching experience. This lightening in a bottle capture will never be copied or cloned, and Poltergeist will remain the ultimate in horrific ghost stories.