Tobe Hooper and Poltergeist (1982)

October 26, 2017

Today I have a special guest post from my friend Ana Roland, who wrote an in depth, fascinating report about Tobe Hooper's work on the 1982 film Poltergeist. The movie is airing on TCM at 6PM EST on Halloween. I personally haven't seen the film yet, but now I'm looking forward to watching it with this production backstory in mind! - Kate

"Just don't ask me about Poltergeist..." ~Tobe Hooper

"Poltergeist is what I fear and E.T. is what I love" ~Steven Spielberg

In Memoriam: Tobe Hooper known for his sweet, gentle Texas reserve died of natural causes on August 26 of this year at the age of 74.

William Tobe Hooper born on Jan. 25, 1943, in Austin, Texas is best known for turning the horror genre upside-down and influencing future generations of horror directors. He conjured some truly shattering, unforgettable moments in film that are still enduring. Among his most recognized films are low-budget cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has a print stored in the Library of Congress and Poltergeist, a box office hit, which received three Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Effects Editing. Fun fact, Poltergeist was beaten in all three categories by E.T., which was of course directed by Steven Spielberg. Nothing like beating yourself!

What I didn't know before, but while researching for this post I discovered, is there was a controversy over whether Hooper or writer/producer Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist. The rumors were so rampant even before the film was released that the Directors Guild of America did open an investigation. Spielberg insisted that Hooper deserved sole credit on the film. The Hollywood Reporter printed an open letter from Spielberg to Hooper in the week of the film's release. "Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship, which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist." Author Warren Buckland wrote an in-depth study on Spielberg's technique and choices in his book "Directed by Steven Spielberg." He comes to the conclusion that in the aggregate Poltergeist is very much a Tobe Hooper film. John Kenneth Muir did something similar for Tobe Hooper in his book, "Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre" and he reached the same conclusion

Some backstory on this controversy. Spielberg always had an eye for talent and was eager to mentor young directors. Spielberg hired Tobe Hooper after being impressed with his film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974.) Spielberg offered "Night Skies," a script written by John Sayles which would later evolve to become E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Tobe Hooper, but Hooper felt the alien aspect wasn't really his thing, telling Spielberg he'd like to do a ghost story instead. Hooper claims to have pitched Spielberg on an idea he had been developing off and on for the past few years at Universal. According to Hooper, initially he worked with William Friedkin (The Exorcist) to try to get Universal interested in the project. Hooper and Spielberg collaborated by mail on a treatment while Spielberg was shooting "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Spielberg wanted Stephen King to write the script but King claims he asked too much money because he didn't want to be the hired help.

Poltergeist was Tobe’s first studio movie. Spielberg is a consummate filmmaker and was a very hands-on producer. E.T. and Poltergeist were filmed in the same neighborhood at the same time. Both films were made to complement each other. E.T. represented suburban dreams, and Poltergeist represented suburban nightmares. Hooper submitted his cut of the film, he withdrew from the production and Spielberg finished the post-production (editing, music and effects.) Time and Newsweek tagged the summer of 1982 "The Spielberg Summer" because E.T. and Poltergeist were released a week apart in June.

There is no doubt it must have been daunting for Tobe to direct with Spielberg (a film he wanted to make) at the height of his popularity. My belief is that Spielberg would have never taken the film as far in the horror and violence, not wishing to alienate his core audience. The MPAA initially gave Poltergeist an R rating. Spielberg lobbied the MPAA board stating that he made PG movies not R ones, and successfully got it changed. This film collaboration has haunted Hooper's film legacy, although they did work together again on other projects.

Thanks for the scares Tobe. One of the highlights of his life was receiving the Texas Hall of Fame Award which honors those who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of the Texas film industry.

I am providing a link to one of Tobe’s early panels at the Austin Film festival, THE SCARE TACTIC: THE DYNAMICS OF HORROR WRITING, which he spoke on with fellow horror master Wes Craven in 1996. It is available here On Story show and podcast:

Poltergeist airs on TCM October 31 6PM (EST) HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Donna Lamour's Hollywood Take @donnalamour on twitter

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