Poltergeist is my favorite horror movie, and it comes with a rather robust IMDb trivia page. There’s the infamous “Poltergeist curse”, referencing the smattering of untimely cast and crew deaths surrounding the creation of the series. There’s the bit about real skeletons being used in the swimming pool scene, the movie’s role in creating the PG-13 rating, and how people often assume it’s an “Indian burial ground” movie, even though there’s a line of dialogue in the film specifically debunking that. But I’d say the thing that comes across my plate the most often about Poltergeist is the ongoing kerfuffle over who actually directed the damn thing.
Here’s what we know for sure: Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is the official credited director, and Steven Spielberg is listed as producer. Spielberg developed the story, but was also working on E.T. at the time and a Director’s Guild rule prevented him (for some reason) from directing this film concurrently. Because of these circumstances, and the fact that the film just has a lot of that Spielberg “feel” to it, rumors began to spread that he was actually ghost directing (*snirk*) for Hooper. The subject has been brought up on numerous occasions in interviews with both men, and they steadfastly maintain that the credited roles are legitimate, but some have read clues between the lines in their responses. Hooper admits that Spielberg was on set most days and helped with a lot of the technical, “director-y” stuff. Spielberg pretty much confirms that, but downplays his own role so as not to add fuel to the rumor.
Yet, every few years it seems some behind the scenes crewmember has a first hand account of what was going on on the Poltergeist set, and it usually ends up favoring Spielberg as the real director. And today, courtesy of Birth.Movies.Death, another hat’s been thrown into that ring.
My opinion? I think Spielberg probably handed the movie over to Hooper with every intention of letting him run the show, but he simply couldn’t stop himself from stepping in, like when you’re trying to show your grandpa how to do something on the computer, and you can’t help grabbing the mouse. Tobe Hooper is no amateur, but this is Steven Goddamn Spielberg we’re talking about. The man has film running through his veins. And seeing as how this was his story, it’s natural that he would continue to feel some sense of ownership over the production, and his involvement gradually went from support to leadership.
Ultimately, it’s best to view Poltergeist as a collaboration, because you can see the fingerprints of both directors in the finished product. As much as the children in peril, suburban family life, and sense of wonder are classic Spielberg, the terror scenes feel grimy and dangerous in a way that he still hasn’t ever replicated. That stuff had to have come from Hooper. And we know he works well in teams, as evidenced by his collaboration with George Romero (RIP) on Creepshow.
This debate really just boils down to degrees. Who was more in control? And I personally can’t bring myself to care that much. History will come to view Poltergeist as a team effort from two great, wonderfully contrasting film makers, and the end product is all the better for it.