Poltergeist Turns 35! “They’re He-ere…”

When you imagine a haunted house, what’s the first things that come to mind? You probably think of creaky doors, broken windows and sagging porches, but in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, the house the Freeling family move into is brand new. It looks like all of the houses next to it, just a cookie cutter Ranch in the middle of a brand new housing development. But just because the house is new, doesn’t mean the land it’s built on doesn’t have a history…

Released June 4, 1982, Poltergeist has become a classic horror movie and deservedly so. The film is known by both horror and non-horror lovers alike for its unique take on haunted houses and the strength and love of the Freelings as they try to escape the evil that has infiltrated their home. Don’t forget about the amazing special effects – the closet creatures, the crawling steak and the killer tree, just to mention a few – that to this day have stood the test of time. Of course, there’s the infamous line: “They’re he-eeere!”

Even though the credit for direction has always gone to Tobe Hooper, there have been rumors from the get go about Spielberg’s increased involvement in the filming process. He’s only credited as a producer and scriptwriter and insists, although he helped out creatively and was on set much of the time, that Hooper officially directed the film. Despite rumors of Hooper being too strung out to be a decent director, his name still stands in the move’s credits. Composer Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Next Generation) won a Oscar for the film’s score while the special effects were created by a whole team of veterans, including Bruce Nicholson (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope 1977) and Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981). The film stars Craig T. Nelson (Coach TV series), JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill 1983), Dominique Dunne (Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker 1979), Zelda Rubinstein (Behind the Mask: The Ride of Leslie Vernon 2006) and sweet, blonde haired Heather O’Rourke (Happy Days TV series).

Over the years, tons of trivia has been collected about Poltergeist. First of all, you know that weird editing bit in the scene where Carol Anne is dragged across the floor while wearing the football helmet? That happened when Italian eatery Pizza Hut threw a fit when one of the characters dissed their pizza and demanded the filmmakers to chop away at the scene, making for a ragged cut and drop into the following scene. Have you ever noticed the Star Wars toys in the kids’ bedrooms? This was a tribute by Spielberg to his good friend, George Lucas. Remember the skeleton filled swimming pool? Spielberg jumped right into the muddy pit because JoBeth Williams was afraid to get electrocuted by all of the surrounding lighting equipment. He told Williams that if something were to happen, they would both fry. Fortunately, the shot was filmed safely, despite Williams’ nervousness.

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 lover 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 a slug. The glowing blue light emanating eerily from the closet was created 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 glow. 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 take a close look at The Beast’s face as it screams and lashes about – there’s an uncanny resemblance to Julian Beck’s evil priest.

You can’t talk about Poltergeist 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 hanging in film brother Robbie’s room showed the San Diego Chargers winning Superbowl XXII, an event that would not take place for six years 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 26 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.

Poltergeist is one of the best horror movies released in the past 50 years. 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 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 will never be copied or cloned, despite attempts at a remake/reboot and Poltergeist will forever remain the ultimate in horrific ghost stories.

About Tracy Allen

As the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of PopHorror.com, Tracy has learned a lot about independent horror films and the people who love them. Now an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, she hopes the masses will follow her reviews back to PopHorror and learn more about the creativity and uniqueness of indie horror movies.

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