40 years ago, Steven Spielberg made the scariest suburban thriller ever
Poltergeist’s Hooper-Spielberg collaboration has been debated. Its terror has not.
Tobe Hooper never wanted to be a studio filmmaker. Spending most of his twenties as a college professor and occasional documentary cameraman, Hooper carved a niche for himself as a celluloid rebel, eschewing the luxuries afforded by maintaining narrative in favor of a cinema predicated on biting social satire and aesthetic experimentation.
Though originally conceived as a means to explore isolation and darkness, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre saw Hooper unceremoniously dumped into the lap of every major studio in Hollywood. The film made contemporaneous horror cinema seem antiquated. It was gangly, sweaty, uncompromising. Its visions of blood and smoke brought home the iconography many Americans associated with wars happening continents away. Audiences had never seen anything like it, and the box office receipts showed they wanted to see whatever this horror acolyte from Austin was going to make next.
Hooper initially chose to ignore major studio courtship, reteaming with Massacre co-writer Kim Henkel to write and direct 1977’s Eaten Alive! As if to wipe the patina of Massacre out of his mouth, Hooper delivered a film that, while mechanically similar to his previous film – a group of stranded young people are stalked by a serial killer with a gimmick – couldn’t have been any more antithetical to Massacre’s construction.
Hooper’s depiction of violence served to titillate rather than shock, relishing in the expressionistic glee of Technicolor blood and guts. To the few who saw Hooper’s third feature in its theatrical run, it became clear that Hooper was no longer interested in implementing documentary aesthetics into his diegesis. Instead, he would transition into the sort-of horror-as-pop-art that filmmakers like Roger Corman or David F. Friedman were producing in the 1950s and ‘60s, these burgeoning sensibilities growing more refined in his next theatrical feature, 1981’s The Funhouse. Distributed by Universal Pictures, the film would put Hooper in contact with another disciple of pulp: New Hollywood wunderkind Steven Spielberg.
If one were to base their assessment of the working relationship between Poltergeist’s main creative forces solely on reports released concurrent to the film’s production 40 years ago, a central conflict seems to overtake the narrative: Though Hooper is given final directorial credit, Spielberg was the film’s true author.
This perspective seems to be echoed by some of the film’s principal players, with actress Zelda Rubinstein and cameraman John R. Leonetti stating that Hooper would set up shots while Spielberg would go in and make adjustments, going so far as to give direction that seemingly contradicted Hooper’s. When pressed on the identity of Poltergeist’s true author, Spielberg published an open letter to Hooper in The Hollywood Reporter.
Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me, as a writer and a producer, a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.
To say that Poltergeist is entirely the work of either Spielberg or Hooper is an exercise whose ends are reductive. Though the assignment of total vision to one author is impossible, the semiotics of the film point to Hooper as its main creative force. The premise, which follows the middle-class Freelings as they attempt to rescue their daughter after she’s abducted by a group of malicious spirits, doesn’t feel out-of-place within the greater Spielberg milieu, nor do the film’s aesthetics betray the Spielberg credit that looms large over the film’s title. These surface-level elements are where Spielberg’s creative contributions seemingly end and Hooper’s contributions begin.
Working within the confines of The Amblin Aesthetic, Hooper seeks to explore the rot inherent to the center of post-hippie malaise in the burgeoning middle-class. As the hippie becomes paunchy, Hooper surmises that the death of massive cultural movements bring with them a response which seeks to restore Eisenhower-era consumer culture as the dominant form of existence.
Central to Hooper’s assessment of American culture is the home. Upon first glance, The Freelings’ home has the same residential charms as that of other Spielberg Suburban Units, though the house begins to take on a new light when placed under the lens of Hooper’s expressionist satire. Much in the way that the middle-class façade around The Freelings themselves begins to collapse as malevolent forces take over, so too does the physical state of the house curdle. The carpet begins to turn a moldy brown. The sunflower wallpaper that adorns the living room begins to peel. Toys, working as symbols of economic welfare, turn on their owners, reversing the roles of the consumer and the consumed.
In one of the film’s many instances of suburban cruelty, The Freelings discover that their entire neighborhood was founded on the remains of an excavated cemetery, literally bulldozing over the lower-class. This imagery becomes clear when assessing the narrative as to who Poltergeist’s true author is. Those who assume that Spielberg maintained complete creative control fail to account for the fact that he lacked the capacity for this specific type of meanness. Where Spielberg always sought to absolve the crimes of the middle-class, Hooper sought to punish.
Poltergeist sits in a unique position in Hooper’s filmography, acting not only as one of his few major studio works, but as one of the most bitingly cynical films he’d ever make. Though Hooper had all-but-abandoned the aesthetic violence of the film that made him a household name, he never lost the bitter anger that helped give it a sense of immediacy. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was about the cultural conflict that existed at the end of the Vietnam War, Poltergeist represents the existential fear of those who survived and grew to middle-age, watching in horror as the consumer culture they sought to destroy eats them alive.