On this day, 4 June, in 1982, Poltergeist was released. At the time of its release, it terrified me. And it remains a sold haunted house film with some nice touches like the mother at first finding it kind of delightful.
It also has a wonderfully subversive subtext with people getting rich by literally providing homes on top of the corpses of Native Americans. And I just love that the father is reading Reagan the Man the President.
But it’s hard for me to watch today without seeing its flaws. The lore of the film is that Steven Spielberg is who really directed it. I don’t accept that at all, but as co-writer and producer, his fingers are all over it. Poltergeist only feels like a Tobe Hopper film now and then.
Poltergeist vs The Funhouse
Yesterday, I watched The Funhouse — Hooper’s 1981 film about some kids who spend the night in the funhouse and end up hunted by two carnies — one of whom is literally a monster (sympathetic though he may be).
Instead of the made-for-TV parents in Poltergeist, The Funhouse features an emotionally distant father and an alcoholic mother. And frankly, it’s just more tightly produced. It was created for the ages not a few weeks of major release.
But I don’t want to be unfair. Poltergeist is a very good film. And the plot unravels beautifully. And the swimming pool scene with the skeletons is just fantastic.
Tobe Hooper as Director
I’ve come to the conclusion that Tobe Hooper is the Orson Welles of horror. By that I mean that he wasn’t all that interested in creating finished films. He was interested in experimenting and pushing his craft further.
That’s how you get later films like Crocodile, which many people can’t understand. Yes, overall, it’s a standard teen horror film. But it also has moments that are as good as anything he ever did.
Hooper didn’t talk that much about his work. And when he did, he didn’t say much. He seemed to be an extremely introverted guy. There was clearly a lot going on inside that only came out clearly in his work.
I think he took opportunities like Crocodile to try out new things. And that says a lot about him. Because he could have just ossified. If he had, critics and audiences would have liked him a lot more than they did. But he fought that and ended up always creating interesting films.
Poltergeist is definitely part of that. But I don’t think it needs my voice to add to the chorus of people singing its praise. There are already more than enough people doing that — mostly people who have never watched Eaten Alive or Djinn.
But let’s face it: most critics resented Hooper for continuing to be a horror director. The director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was supposed to develop past that to start making art films. They never realized that he had already started making art films and never stopped.