John Baumgartner

Director Controversy

POLTERGEIST (1982, Hooper)

October keeps rolling out the scary movies.  I’ve been having the best time screening all horror films this month.  Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Reanimator, and Nightmare On Elm Street…Part III, to name a few recently.  And let’s not forget Poltergeist, speaking of Tobe Hooper.  Watching the film back-to-back with Texas Chainsaw is a real head scratcher.  Texas is a gritty, surprising, and really smart ride that hasn’t aged a day (in all important ways).  Save for maybe one shot, I’d say it was about as un-Spielbergian as you can get.  Then there’s Poltergeist, credited with Hooper as director, which is decidedly un-Hooperian.  (That was a fun word to type.)

I first saw Poltergeist in the theaters the same year E.T. came out, 1982.  (Saw Poltergeist with my dad, E.T. with my mom.  Interesting & fitting.)  Man, it scared the crap out of this then-11 year old; I practically slid under the chair when “Marty” digs and rips the skin from his own face. The following few summers it went into heavy rotation on HBO, and whenever it would come on I’d drop everything, scramble for a VHS tape, hit record and sit until it was over.  Last year when I went through all the old VHS tapes at my mom’s house, I found no fewer than 6 partial recordings of this childhood favorite.

The Spielberg-Hooper Poltergeist Debate

For years and years there has been boiling the controversy that Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist.  According to the articles here and here, that rumor – Spielberg or Hooper – has its roots in an LA Times article by a reporter who visited set and mistook Spielberg’s direction of 2nd unit as fact that he was directing the whole picture.  Hooper says the rumor cost him work throughout the years, but it’s also notable that his subsequent horror efforts have never approached the artistic or commercial successes of Chainsaw or Poltergeist.

And many of the shots in Poltergeist really suggest that Spielberg had, at the very least, a very heavy hand in its direction.  There are some oners in the film that I find hard to believe that Spielberg didn’t design.  (According to the articles, Spielberg was responsible for designing all storyboards.  Man, poor Hooper.)

Here’s a juicy bit from the second page of the second article linked above, from The quote is attributed to an unnamed crew member, so while its veracity is unclear its intrigue value is extremely high –

“In the beginning, Steven did occasionally yell action and say cut. Sometimes the actors got two different sets of directions from two directors. Sometimes they would be the opposite directions. After about three days of that, Beatrice Straight put her foot down and said she would only listen to one director. That was Tobe. After that, Steven was often on the set, but since he was prepping ET he wasn’t there all the time. The only time I ever saw him really fight with Tobe was after an entire day of shooting a scene with Beatrice Straight and the other two scientists involving a great deal of gobblety-gook dialogue, Tobe just couldn’t get the shot. Steven came onto the set and was very upset – there was a lot of ugly yelling – and Tobe just stood there taking it. Beatrice Straight, again the hero of the day, finally stood up to Steven, said that the dialogue (which I believe Steven himself had written for the scene) was unplayable and that Sir Laurence Olivier himself couldn’t act such badly-written dreck. She made it very clear that Tobe was not to be blamed. Steven was very quiet and about five minutes later the cast and crew were all dismissed for the day. The next day the actors came back to the set and were handed new dialogue, which again I believe Steven had rewritten. It was 100% better and Tobe shot the scene in about an hour with no problem. But before shooting commenced, Steven got up in front of the entire cast and crew and apologized for the outburst and said Tobe was not to blame for the previous day’s delays. It was one of the most generous, selfless and courageous things I had ever seen on a movie set. “

There seems to be an incredible array of opinions and anecdotes on the subject.  I think someone has to write a book sorting it all out – that would be a fascinating read.  I wonder who would cooperate with its writing – Spielberg, Hooper? Maybe toward the end of everyone’s careers, when the sting has faded and the stakes are minimal.

So for today’s shot, I thought I’d just throw at you one of the most memorable moments and a fun gimmick of a shot which has been often imitated. The kitchen table chairs scene.  M. Night Shyamalan used it to a much lesser impact in Sixth Sense, and I also recently saw it in the new TV show on FX American Horror Story.



In conclusion, here is a super fun making-of that’s not on my DVD or Bluray – I wonder how this got out.  But it has great behind-the-scene glimpses I’d never seen until just now.  From the first 3 minutes, it’s no wonder everyone thought Spielberg was the director.  And what’s cinematographer Alen Daviau doing there?  He and Spielberg were preparing E.T. together at the time.  Who knows – but what is for sure: you could have the world’s most sober drinking game if you drank every time Hooper was included in this making-of featurette!



  • October 18, 2011

    I’ve always thought of Poltergeist as a Spielberg movie. It has so much in common in setting, characterization, and tone with ET (the wide-eyed Spielberg stand-in boy, the precocious blonde daughter, the adventurous aging hippie mom) that it seems a natural progression from one to the other – the horror Spielberg to ET’s sci-fi Spielberg. Watching Super Eight, you can see through JJ Abrams’ stylistic touches that Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over Poltergeist.

  • October 18, 2011

    It could read better (JB proofreads the proofreader!). Perhaps something like “Super Eight reinforces by revealing through JJ Abrams lens the stylistic touches that link ET and Poltergeist.”

  • October 19, 2011

    It blew my mind when you told me this story about Spielberg possibly directing Poltergeist. I remember it every time I watch it. That opening scene with the guy riding the BMX bike with the beer and the kids causing him to crash… along with the music, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was the beginning of a Spielberg flick.

    That being said, this movie still scares the crap out of me. I remember so vividly watching it on HBO with my family on a hot summer night. I wanted nothing to do with stuffed animals or trees outside my window from that day on!

    My favorite scene is the first abduction scene where the contents of the room fall into the closet in slow motion.

  • October 26, 2011

    Ugh, I’m watching (about to stop watching) Poltergeist II (via Netflix streaming). This wasn’t even sniffed by Spielberg or Hooper.


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