One of the great authorship debates of our time, arguably the video era's equivalent to "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?" is "Who directed Poltergeist?" Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper receives onscreen credit, but the 1982 hit suburban horror film certainly looks and feels like a creation of Steven Spielberg, who co-wrote the script and was by all accounts a hands-on producer.
Revisiting Poltergeist for its 25th-anniversary rerelease on Thursday, Oct. 4, you can see Spielberg's fingerprints all over it, almost literally: Reportedly, those are Spielberg's hands pulling the flesh off the face in the bathroom-mirror scene. It seems fair to treat Poltergeist as an "unofficial" Spielberg film while giving Hooper the benefit of the doubt for successfully transplanting the occult obsessions of 1970s fare like The Exorcist to the generic American subdivision.
Then, as now, Spielberg takes the blame for Hollywood's blockbuster mentality and a childish flattening of onscreen characters. What's striking about Poltergeist, however, is how natural the hapless Freeling household seems. With JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, the Freelings aren't overly exaggerated demographic types, or walking emblems of therapy issues that need resolving. They're just a funny, loving family, with children who are spontaneous without sounding too "written." Perhaps they're just a little oblivious; when youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) watches the white noise of a television's dead channels, her mother tells her she'll ruin her eyes – and puts on a violent war movie.
Despite its marauding trees and evil clown dolls, Poltergeist offers a rather comforting vision of the afterlife through the warm, leisurely speeches by Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein as middle-aged ghostbusters. Then again, the film's second climax gives the angry dead the last word, while proving more conventional and schlocky than the suspenseful "Go into the light" rescue that precedes it.
Poltergeist's gory special effects and rumors of having a curse (due to the untimely deaths of such actors as O'Rourke and Dominique Dunne) can distract from the film's puckishly witty critique of American cultural trends like television and bland family housing. "The Star-Spangled Banner" opens the film, signaling the end of a TV station's broadcast day, and perhaps the beginning of some soul-draining flaws in the national lifestyle.
Poltergeist. 4 stars. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Stars JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson. PG. Opens Thurs., Oct. 4. Regal Cinemas Atlantic Station and area theaters.