The Poltergeist Trilogy

Started by Silver Nemesis, Thu, 30 Jun 2022, 16:33

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The original Poltergeist (1982) turns forty this month, and since we have quite a few horror fans on Batman-Online I thought we ought to have a thread on the subject. There are two topics that inevitably crop up whenever Poltergeist is discussed: firstly the so-called curse, and secondly the matter of who actually directed the film. The second topic is more interesting to me, and I'll probably come back to that at a later time.

But for now, here's my take on each entry in the trilogy.


POLTERGEIST (1982)

Fear, like humour, is obviously a very subjective thing, and I have to admit I've never found any of these films particularly frightening. I saw the first movie when I was in primary school, and even back then it didn't really affect me. It's creepy and atmospheric, but I don't personally find it all that scary. The one scene that does unnerve me a little is Tangina's monologue about the nature of the Beast. That always sends a shiver down my spine. Other than that, I simply enjoy these movies as imaginative supernatural thrillers. My appreciation for the original has grown a lot in recent years, and I consider it the perfect movie to watch with a cold drink on a hot summer's night when you're in the mood to have your blood chilled.


One of the most appealing aspects of the first film, for me, is its ordinary middle class suburban setting. Practically the entire movie takes place in this one family's home. Most haunted house films begin with the characters arriving at the house in question, but in Poltergeist the Freelings have clearly been living there for some time already. It looks lived in. It isn't some vast creepy mansion or abandoned mental hospital. This could be the house or flat/apartment of anyone in the audience, and the idea that your home could contain a portal to another world full of wondrous and terrifying things is both exciting and alarming. Similar scenarios were explored in The Gate (1987) and Hellraiser (1987), but I reckon Poltergeist did it best.


The cast is very good (look out for Predator star Sonny Landham as one of the construction workers), and the absence of any big name stars is in no way a detriment. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams have strong chemistry, and they and the rest of the family make for likeable protagonists. The dramatic focus on the family members struggling to protect one another is, like the ordinary setting, something that most viewers can relate to. The plot takes it's time establishing the normalcy of suburban life before gradually introducing the supernatural elements at a measured rate that sustains the verisimilitude. Each ghostly occurrence is more intense than the last, resulting in a steady escalation that builds to an action-packed finale. Many of the special effects remind me of Ghostbusters (1984), which makes me wonder if the visuals of one film influenced those of the other.


There comes a point where you think the story is over, but then the filmmakers throw in one last sequence of horror that eclipses everything that came before for sheer shock value. I've got mixed feelings about that false ending (Tangina said "This is house is clean" when it clearly wasn't, and that discrepancy is never explained), but it ends the movie on the kind of spectacle you'd expect from a Spielberg blockbuster of this vintage. All in all, I don't have too many criticism of the first Poltergeist movie. I'm on the fence about the fake-out ending, the plot is somewhat formulaic, and there's one really abrupt edit that feels as though your copy of the film has just skipped forward a scene (at the 2:35 mark in the following clip).


But aside from these minor issues, I'd say Poltergeist holds up as one of the best American horror movies of that era. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is spooky and memorable, the special effects by ILM are great, and the whole production boasts a glossy sheen that most eighties horror movies could only dream of.


POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986)

It took me a few years and multiple viewings to warm to Poltergeist II. Initially I disliked the revelations concerning the apocalyptic cult. I felt it needlessly demystified the nature of the Beast and detracted from the effectively vague description Tangina gives of it in the first movie. We didn't need to know exactly who or what the malevolent presence was that haunted the Freelings. The house was haunted in the first film because it had been built on a cemetery and the family had inadvertently disturbed the graves when they dug up their garden to put in a swimming pool. I think that's enough of an explanation. I also find the whole sinister southern preacher stereotype to be a tired cliché. It was effective when Flannery O'Connor used it in her stories, but by the eighties it had become an overused trope.


Having said all that, Julian Beck does give an unsettling performance, and many viewers seem to feel that the Kane back story enhances the trilogy's mythology. So I've gradually come to accept that subplot for what it is, even though I don't think it's really necessary. Poltergeist II is quicker paced than the first film, but doesn't balance the intensity of the occurrences as successfully. Something major will happen early in the film only to then be followed by a comparatively milder apparition, thus undermining the sense of escalation that made the 1982 film's slow burn narrative so compelling. I also think the denouement is rushed and confusing. It's obvious that the whole sequence in 'the other side' was heavily edited, and while it's visually arresting it makes for a messy and unsatisfying finale.


On the plus side, Poltergeist II successfully recaptures the middle class suburban atmosphere of the first movie, but it also imprints that ambience with its own distinctive flavour courtesy of H. R. Giger's creature designs and the themes of Native American spirituality. Those ingredients help set the film apart tonally from its predecessor and give it an identity of its own. Most of Giger's designs ended up not being used, and even the few that were used aren't terribly well realised. But his unique imagination is nevertheless represented in the film's nightmarish monsters. I don't think Poltergeist II's meatier ghosts are necessarily superior to the more ethereal variety showcased in the first film, but I appreciate that the filmmakers tried something ambitious and aesthetically different.




I also enjoy the Native American elements surrounding Will Sampson's character, as well as the use of the breathtaking Arizona scenery. The opening scene of the film, where Taylor is sat beside the fire atop Spider Rock, kicks the story off on a strong metaphysical note that sets the tone for the battle to come. The film's imagery and atmosphere are potent, and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is great. The music for the first film was excellent too, but I think Goldsmith surpassed it with The Other Side's soundtrack. The heart of the story, which the music helps to accentuate, is the tender maternal bond between Carol Anne, Diane and Diane's mother. The scenes depicting Diane's grief over losing her mother add a layer of emotional depth that elevates Poltergeist II above being merely a hollow retread of the first film. It confronts the issue of family bereavement, which is something the previous movie took care to circumvent.


I know some people actually prefer Poltergeist II over the original because it's quicker paced and has a more developed central antagonist. Some fans just find it scarier. Personally, I don't think it's as good as the first film, but I do like it in spite of its flaws. It's a decent sequel and an interesting horror film in its own right.


POLTERGEIST III (1988)

This is the one film in the trilogy that I don't like and I usually skip it when I revisit the other two. The dramatic strength of the first two movies lay in the chemistry between the actors playing the Freeling family. This time the only Freeling family member to return is Carol Anne. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams wisely opted out, and in their place we get Carol Anne's aunt, uncle and cousin. The chemistry isn't as strong between these characters, and consequently the family dynamic feels fragmented. It's also weird seeing Lara Flynn Boyle play a character named 'Donna' one year before she shot the pilot for Twin Peaks, though that coincidence will be lost on anyone who isn't a Twin Peaks fan.


The middle class suburban setting is also absent from Poltergeist III, and in its place we get a skyscraper in the heart of wintery Chicago. This reflects a late eighties trend for movies set in towering buildings, and while it makes for an interesting change in location it does so at the expense of the suburban normality that grounded the first two pictures. Admittedly the building itself is strangely off-putting in a vertiginous sense. There's one particular low-angle shot looking up at it early in the film which always strikes me as ominous. The idea of Carol Anne being in the middle of a bustling city, and yet secluded by the height of her apartment, is also quite unnerving. The setting is one aspect of the movie I like, though I think the filmmakers could have made better use of it and ultimately I prefer the suburban settings of Poltergeists I and II.


The story is a retread of the earlier films and doesn't add anything substantially new to the mythology. The second half of the film has too many scenes of people running around empty corridors yelling "Carol Anne!" How many times is Carol Anne's name spoken in this film? According to the IMDb trivia page, 121 times!


There's really no excuse for this. It's just bad writing. None of the writers of the first two films returned for Poltergeist III, and neither did Jerry Goldsmith, which might partly account for the drop in quality. It does have some cool optical effects involving mirrors, but most of the set pieces lack suspense or dramatic impetus. There's always a sense of having seen this done before, and done better. The second half of the film is particularly tedious in this regard and the story, such as it is, mostly coasts along on the strength of the special effects. The first half of the movie isn't too bad, but it doesn't take the viewer anywhere worth going.

Of course we have to take into account the untimely death of lead actress Heather O'Rourke, who passed away at the age of 12 prior to the movie's release. This tragedy casts a shadow over the entire film, and I believe reshoots were conducted as a consequence of it. This might help explain why the second half of the film is so poor. O'Rourke delivers a strong final performance, and you can plainly see how her acting ability had grown across the three films. Sadly her contribution is not enough to save the film from its myriad shortcomings. The setting of the skyscraper had potential, many of the in-camera effects are impressive, and the central performance by O'Rourke is good. But everything else about Poltergeist III falls flat for me. Hence why I usually skip it when I watch the other two movies.


So that covers my thoughts on the movie trilogy. From best to worst, I'd rank them as follows:

1.   Poltergeist (classic)
2.   Poltergeist II (good)
3.   Poltergeist III (rubbish)

I never watched the TV show Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996-1999), so I can't comment on that. I did catch the 2015 remake on Netflix, and from what little I remember it was as unremarkable and as pointless as you'd expect.

What does everyone else think? Are there any fans of this trilogy on the site? How would you rank them? Do you like the second movie more than the first? Does anyone fancy presenting a defence of the third film or the remake? What about the controversy surrounding who directed the first movie? Was it Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg? Here's a great fan site that includes a lot of information on that subject: http://www.poltergeist.poltergeistiii.com/

Feel free to post any news, opinions and observations relating to the Poltergeist franchise in this thread.


I've been waiting to do a Poltergeist rewatch. And come to think of it, Poltergeist is on HBO Max. At least in the US, no idea about anywhere else.

Not tonight. But soon. And I'll report back.

Full disclosure: I have basically zero attachment to Poltergeist. I haven't seen it since the Eighties, I think. So, I think I can be objective about it.

I am interested in plumbing the depths of who directed it tho. I am aware of the controversy disagreement.


QuoteWhat does everyone else think? Are there any fans of this trilogy on the site? How would you rank them? Do you like the second movie more than the first? Does anyone fancy presenting a defence of the third film or the remake? What about the controversy surrounding who directed the first movie? Was it Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg? Here's a great fan site that includes a lot of information on that subject: http://www.poltergeist.poltergeistiii.com/

Nice write up on the Poltergeist franchise, SN.

Truth be told, I don't think I've ever really and truly sat down and watched any of the Poltergeist films to be perfectly honest. It's not that I am disinterested in them, but evidently I've never really had the itch to seek them out for whatever reason (I've only fairly recently taken an interest in checking out The Exorcist films, so anything can change I guess).

I remember when the remake was out in theaters however many years ago, a friend of mine asked if i was interested in seeing it? Because he knew I generally like horror movies, and I pretty much said the same thing about not being familiar with the movies whatsoever. You mentioned the 1990's series, and apparently that show was completely off my radar as i didn't know a television show even existed. I vaguely remember back when the E! channel was still doing pretty good "True Hollywood Story" documentaries back in the late '90s-mid/late 2000's, focusing upon the "curse" of Poltergeist, but I don't remember many specifics.

The deal with Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper, with whom REALLY directed Poltergeist is something I've read about from time to time though. It's interesting to think about, but it did wind up being Tobe Hooper's swan song in mainstream Hollywood movies. As it was, from there on out, his stint with Cannon films, and a variety of low-budget horror movies for the remainder of his career.


"Imagination is a quality given a man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humour was provided to console him for what he is."

Quote from: thecolorsblend on Thu, 30 Jun  2022, 20:20I am interested in plumbing the depths of who directed it tho. I am aware of the controversy disagreement.
Quote from: The Joker on Fri,  1 Jul  2022, 06:07The deal with Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper, with whom REALLY directed Poltergeist is something I've read about from time to time though. It's interesting to think about, but it did wind up being Tobe Hooper's swan song in mainstream Hollywood movies. As it was, from there on out, his stint with Cannon films, and a variety of low-budget horror movies for the remainder of his career.

Practically every horror movie ever made has had at least one official book or documentary produced about it, but Poltergeist is an exception. I remember hearing about a writer who began working on a book about the first movie, but after approaching a number of key figures in the hopes of interviewing them he was threatened with litigation by the studio. No reason was given for this, but he had to abandon his project. It's no wonder there's so much intrigue surrounding the film's production.

I assume the issue of who directed the film is the reason for the secrecy. The best resource for information on that topic is the fan site I posted a link to earlier. They've gathered numerous quotes, and even some anonymous statements from people who worked on the film, in an effort to determine who really directed it. Before I summarise the main points, I should mention that Poltergeist was originally developed as a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) titled Night Skies. The abduction scene from Close Encounters foreshadows Poltergeist in several obvious ways.


Night Skies ended up being split into two separate projects: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Poltergeist. Supposedly Spielberg had signed a contract with Universal prohibiting him from directing any other film until he'd finished directing E.T., so he brought in Hooper to handle Poltergeist on his behalf. That way he could get both films released in the same summer. But who actually directed it? Here are the main points supporting each director.


Evidence suggesting Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist:

•   Hooper is credited as director, not Spielberg.

•   It was Hooper's idea for the movie to feature ghosts instead of aliens, which altered the entire central premise of the film.

•   Hooper produced some of the storyboards and was actively engaged in the pre-production phase.

•   Hooper was on set every day of the shoot. The crew have confirmed that there were times when Spielberg would clock off early and leave Hooper to direct on his own.

•   Several cast members, including Craig T. Nelson, James Karen and Oliver Robins, have stated that Hooper was the main director and that it was him they worked with.

•   Hooper's influence, while not as recognisable or distinctive as Spielberg's, is still present in the finished film. For example, the parents are shown smoking marijuana early in the movie. This detail was not in the original script and was more likely to have been added by Hooper than Spielberg (Hooper had a drug problem at the time and entered rehab as soon as filming on Poltergeist wrapped). There are also some low-angle exterior shots of the house and the tree in the back garden that resemble exterior shots of the Sawyer residence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Hooper fans have identified various other moments in the film where they claim his cinematic style can be seen.

•   Spielberg published a letter in The Hollywood Reporter in which he denied rumours that he directed the movie and deferred directorial credit to Hooper.


Evidence suggesting Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist:

•   Spielberg initiated the project as a sequel to his earlier movie Close Encounters. The movie looks and feels very much like a Spielberg film of that era, exhibiting both the humour and sentimentality that characterise his work. His creative stamp is more obvious than Hooper's.

•   Spielberg was on set for all but three days of the shoot.

•   While Hooper created some of the storyboards, Spielberg is said to have drawn most of them himself. He also worked on the script.

•   Director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti and his brother, John R. Leonetti, who was first assistant cameraman, have both stated that Spielberg was the main director.

•   Actress Zelda Rubinstein implied that Hooper was unable to direct on account of his drug problems and that Spielberg stepped in to cover for him.

•   Spielberg took charge of the post-production phase, with editor Michael Khan and composer Jerry Goldsmith both saying that they worked with Spielberg and not Hooper.

•   The press visited the set one day and found Spielberg directing a scene in front of the house while Hooper directed another in the back garden. When the confused reporters asked about this, they were told that Spielberg was merely directing some second unit photography. However, the small amount of existing behind-the-scenes footage strongly suggests that Spielberg was the main creative driving force on the picture.


•   The Leonetti brothers have shared photographic evidence that seems to show Spielberg directing them while Hooper sits to the side watching. They've said this was typical of the shoot.



To my mind, Poltergeist definitely feels like Spielberg's movie. It would probably be most accurate to say that they co-directed it, but Spielberg seems to have been the dominant creative driving force. I suppose you could compare the situation to that of Spielberg and Lucas working together on the classic Indiana Jones trilogy. Only there Lucas' creative input was more evenly balanced with Spielberg's, whereas with Poltergeist Spielberg's input into the collaboration appears to have almost eclipsed Hooper's. I'd be interested to know what others think about this, and if anyone can pinpoint particular moments in the movie that indicate one filmmaker's influence more than the other.

Sat, 2 Jul 2022, 02:29 #4 Last Edit: Sat, 2 Jul 2022, 20:40 by thecolorsblend
I think co-directors is probably a fair assessment. Hooper might be the official director. But let's face it, by the time you get into the early Eighties, nobody (and I DO mean nobody) was willing to say no to the guy who directed Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders.

Considering Spielberg co-wrote the script and co-produced the movie, he already has considerable creative input. Combine that with his willingness to be on set every day as well as everyone's willingness to do whatever he says and I think you've got a solid case that Spielberg deserves considerable credit for the movie.

As to the threats of litigation... honestly, that part is the easiest to believe.

First off, the subject itself is a massive can of worms for everyone involved. Second, the DGA credits Hooper as the director. Challenging that could create a lot of trouble. If there's one institution that Spielberg has always been deferential to, it's the DGA. But third, Hooper is deceased. And something tells me that his estate wouldn't take kindly (at all) to arguably his biggest hit getting essentially coopted and given to someone else who already has plenty of hits of his own. This alone is probably good reason to keep a lid on the thing no matter what the truth might be. Who wants the headache of dealing with a deceased director's estate AND possibly the DGA as well? That's trouble nobody needs.

Having said all that, certain things do seem like quintessential Spielberg to me. The remote control war Steve has with the neighbor guy is one example. Maybe I'm selling Hooper short. But it's hard to picture the guy who directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre deftly executing a scene as silly as that without it looking contrived.

For anyone interested, there are other instances of similar disputes. Tombstone is a good example. Officially, George Cosmatos directed it. But Kurt Russell has publicly claimed credit.

Rewatched Poltergeist last night. Again, I hadn't seen it for probably thirty some odd years. And it was pretty enjoyable. When it comes to horror fare, I don't usually go in for ghosts and stuff. But Poltergeist was still a pretty fun little ride.

And this rewatch reinforces SN's "dual-director" theory. I mentioned the remote control scene before. Which seems very much like Spielberg to me. But at the same time, the sequence where the paranormal investigator hallucinates peeling his own face off seems a lot more in line with Hooper's sensibilities. I can't picture Spielberg going in for body horror stuff like that.

As to the other two entries in the trilogy... y'know, I think I'm good. Not very interested in checking the second and third movies out.

Sat, 2 Jul 2022, 18:58 #6 Last Edit: Sat, 2 Jul 2022, 19:02 by Silver Nemesis
Quote from: thecolorsblend on Sat,  2 Jul  2022, 02:29Having said all that, certain things do seem like quintessential Spielberg to me. The remote control war Steve has with the neighbor guy is one example. Maybe I'm selling Hooper short. But it's hard to picture the guy who directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre deftly executing a scene as silly as that without it looking contrived.

That scene is very Spielbergian. Also the scene just before, where the kids use the remote-controlled car to make the cyclist lose his balance, is definitely a Spielberg scene. In fact I'm pretty sure that was the 'second unit' scene he was directing on the day the press visited the set. If you look at Hooper's other films, he generally didn't invest a lot of time in developing his characters or their familial relationships. He'd develop them just enough to facilitate the plot (e.g. establishing that Dennis Hopper's character in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II is the uncle of two characters from the first film in order to explain his motive), but he didn't dwell on sentimentality or parent-child relationships to the extent Spielberg often did. Dare I say it, Poltergeist even contains hints of that patented Spielberg schmaltz that is otherwise alien to Hooper's work.

Some Hooper fans have compared the imagery of the skeletons emerging from the ground at the end of Poltergeist with the imagery of corpses in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. I can see where such comparisons are coming from, but look at the Well of Souls sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).


Now compare that with the pool scene in Poltergeist (incidentally, it's been reported that they used real skeletons in this scene as it was less expensive than manufacturing fakes).


Or how about the face melting scene from Raiders.


Compare that with this.


Spielberg went through a horror phase in the early eighties. He'd directed one of the greatest horror films of all time when he made Jaws (1975), and he later injected touches of horror into Raiders. Apparently he and Lucas had originally intended for Indiana Jones 2 to be set in a haunted house. Even without that ghost element, The Temple of Doom (1984) remains the goriest and most horrific product of Spielberg's eighties filmography. You could also add The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) to the list of his eighties horror projects. His own segment in that film is easily the weakest and schmaltziest of the lot, but the movie as a whole is still generally categorised as horror. So while the visceral shocks in Poltergeist might well have come from Hooper, I think they could also have come from Spielberg.

Another example of Spielberg's touch can be seen in those emotional reaction shots where the camera zooms to a close-up. Here's an example from E.T.


And here's one from Poltergeist.


Obviously Spielberg did not invent the emotional zoom reaction shot, but he did make more prominent and consistent use of it in his films than Hooper generally did. Spielberg also had a fondness for using cloud tank special effects as a pathetic fallacy to indicate something intense was about to happen. He does this in Close Encounters.


And in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


And in Poltergeist.


To be clear, I am not saying that Hooper didn't direct Poltergeist. I stand by my earlier assessment – it sounds to me like they co-directed it. In Hooper's defence, I can see his influence at work too. For example, take the scene where the parents are laughing at a shared joke while they talk to their neighbour on his doorstep, and the neighbour regards them with bemusement. There's a similarly acted scene in The Funhouse (1981) where the teenagers are smirking while talking with a bemused carny. The performances in those scenes are similar enough for me to believe that Hooper directed both sets of actors.

Another argument that's been put forward is that Hooper likely directed the movie the way Spielberg wanted it directed, which would naturally entail adopting elements of his cinematic style. In other words, many of those Spielbergian touches could actually be Hooper trying to please Spielberg. At the same time, Spielberg wouldn't have chosen to work with Hooper unless he wanted the latter's creative talents added to the mix. Spielberg is more of an auteur than Hooper, and his style is more easily recognisable, but with Poltergeist Hooper might have intentionally leaned into Spielberg's style for the sake of collaborative harmony.

Anyway, here's Spielberg's letter that was printed in The Hollywood Reporter.


Quote from: thecolorsblend on Sat,  2 Jul  2022, 02:29For anyone interested, there are other instances of similar disputes. Tombstone is a good example. Officially, George Cosmatos directed it. But Kurt Russell has publicly claimed credit.

Supposedly it was Stallone who recommended Cosmatos to Russell, since Sly had had a similar working relationship with the director on Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Cobra (1986). With Rambo II, I can see similarities with Cosmatos' earlier film Escape to Athena (1979). But with Cobra, I could swear that it was Stallone who directed that movie. Just watch Rocky IV (1985) and Cobra back to back and you'll see that they're shot and edited in a strikingly similar fashion.

Quote from: thecolorsblend on Sat,  2 Jul  2022, 17:51As to the other two entries in the trilogy... y'know, I think I'm good. Not very interested in checking the second and third movies out.

Fair enough. I like Poltergeist II and consider it a decent sequel, but it definitely isn't essential. Poltergeist III is best avoided. 

Quote from: The Joker on Fri,  1 Jul  2022, 06:07I vaguely remember back when the E! channel was still doing pretty good "True Hollywood Story" documentaries back in the late '90s-mid/late 2000's, focusing upon the "curse" of Poltergeist, but I don't remember many specifics.

Here it is. The question of who directed Poltergeist comes up at the following time marks: 23:50 to 27:00, and then again at 29:20 to 29:50.


Here are a couple of interesting videos about Poltergeist II. The first is a 'making of' featurette from 1986 and includes some rare footage of H.R. Giger discussing his creature designs for the movie.


And here's a 2016 interview with Oliver Robins who played Robbie Freeling.