They’re Here: Poltergeist 30 Years Later
This summer marks the 30 Year Anniversary of the original “Poltergeist.”
As Poltergeist turns 30 years old this summer it is important to remember the film for the positive things it has given viewers over the last three decades.
During the summer of 1982 director Steven Spielberg released E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which would warm the hearts of millions and become the first film to gross over $200,000,000 in the United States alone and became the highest grossing film of all time.
The same summer Spielberg also released a very different film, yet one that was equally personal to him. That film was Poltergeist “It’s nice that I can release two sides of my personality in 1982,” said the famed director that summer. “Poltergeist is what I fear and E.T. is what I love. One is about suburban evil and the other is about suburban good. One is a scream, and one is a whisper.”
Spielberg developed the story before assigning screenwriters Michael Grais and Mark Victor to turn his story into a script. Unsatisfied with the end result, and even though Spielberg’s only previous writing credits had been The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the director rewrote the screenplay himself adding in even more autobiographical references like the ugly and sinister looking tree outside Carol Anne and Robbie’s bedroom. While growing up in Arizona, Spielberg as a young boy had been terrified of a nasty old tree outside his own bedroom window.
Though Spielberg had planned to produce Poltergeist with one of his Raiders of the Lost Ark producers Frank Marshall (several years later Spielberg would form Amblin Entertainment with Marshall and his former assistant Kathleen Kennedy and would executive produce a number of films including the Back to the Future trilogy), his directorial commitments on E.T. would prevent him from actually directing the film himself.
Spielberg had long been a fan of the 1974 cult horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and approached its director, Tope Hooper, about helming Poltergeist. Hardly a great filmmaker, Hooper had none-the-less done fine work on the 1979 made for television movie based upon Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot.
Poltergeist was so close to Spielberg’s heart though he had a difficult time handing his project over to another director. Though Hooper would technically be the director, Spielberg would storyboard at least half the movie himself, hire the cast and edit the film with little to no input from Hooper.
Like in many Spielberg films, it was the young actors who were brought in to play the child roles who would steal the film from their more experienced peers. Spielberg saw five year old Heather O’ Rourke in the MGM commissary and hired her the very next day to play Carol Anne, the youngest member of Freeling family, who attracts the poltergeist into her home (Though the fact that the family home was built over a graveyard didn’t help much either!). Young Heather is just as good if not better then Drew Barrymore in E.T. In fact, it’s one of the greatest child performances in film history.
Dominique Dunne, the 21-year old daughter of mystery author Dominick Dunne, was cast as 16-year old Dana Freeling. Though Dominique’s role is actually rather small she probably has the most memorable scene in the film where she flips the bird to a group of construction workers who are playfully flirting with her. Oliver Robbins was given the role as middle child Robbie Freeling.
The adult roles of Steven and Diane Freeling were played by Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams, both of who deliver solid performances, especially in a scene early in the film where Steve and Diane are in their bedroom smoking pot while Mr. Freeling reads a biography of Ronald Reagan!
Poltergeist would turn out to be a film that had more tragic things happen off the set then on. Steven Spielberg was the hottest director in town and Tobe Hooper made mostly forgettable B movies so MGM marketed the film around its producer and not its director. In print adds the caption “A Steven Spielberg Production” would appear in letters three times the size of “A Tobe Hooper Film”. MGM also spread rumors that Spielberg had really directed the movie himself. In the end Poltergeist did not turn Tobe Hooper into a big Hollywood director but sent him back to making B movies and some direct-to-video films. And believe it or not, this was one of the production’s happier endings!
Shorty after production on Poltergeist completed, Dominique Dunne started up a relationship with a Las Angeles chef named John Thomas Sweeney but soon broke it off when he turned out to be abusive. On October 30 when Dunne refused to get back together with Sweeney he strangled her until she was unconscious. Brain dead, she lay in a coma for five days before passing away on November 4, 1982 when her parents requested that she be taken off life-support.
In early 1987 Heather O’ Rourke became very ill. She was given medication for Crohn’s Disease. However, this was a misdiagnosis and Heather became even sicker. Though the complete truth has never been revealed, Heather was rushed to the hospital on January 31, 1988 but suffered from cardiac arrest on the way and passed away later that afternoon. Heather O’ Rourke was 12 years old.
As Poltergeist turns 30 years old this summer it is important to remember the film for the positive things it has given viewers over the last three decades. Like Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, Poltergeist is a rollercoaster ride of suspense and thrills. It brings out the little child in all of us. That little child who is afraid of the boogie man who may be hiding in the closet. The film’s special effects are still breathtaking and horrifying and the cast is really good.
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