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It seemed like a good idea at the time. Just bulldoze over an old sacred Indian burial ground and build a subdivision on top of it. That's what the real-estate developers do in Poltergeist and the unsuspecting Freeling family pays the price for it shortly after moving in. At first glance, the Freeling's new tract home looks indistinguishable from all the other houses in the neighborhood. But soon, what looks mundane and ordinary on the surface takes on a menacing quality. A backyard tree becomes a child-eating monster. A favorite doll tries to strangle its owner. A haunted mirror offers nightmare visions of your face after hands-on surgery. And television screens become the gateway to the spirit world.
Who actually directed Poltergeist continues to be a point of contention. Though Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is given screen credit and was probably responsible for the mechanical aspects of shooting, a close viewing of the film reveals Spielberg's fingerprints all over its aesthetics. As in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) clouds roll in as tension escalates, television broadcasts foreshadow plot developments, toys operate on their own and an out-of-this-world force abducts a small child. Echoing E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), a dog factors large as a symbol of domestic normalcy and a closet is at the heart of dramatic action. But the real giveaway may be Poltergeist's numerous allusions to Hollywood films — a Spielberg hallmark. For example, the 1943 back-from-the-dead movie, A Guy Named Joe (remade by Spielberg in 1989 as Always) is on the television in an early scene. Then there's Mrs. Freeling's line, "Mmmmm...Smell that mimosa," taken directly from The Uninvited (1944). Other Spielbergian elements: bright lights shining directly into the camera; well-lit, cheery scenes alternated with gloomy, dimly lit sequences; pans favored over cuts to reveal new information; and perspective-breaking dolly shots and zooms.
Finally, some argue, Poltergeist features Spielberg's characteristic variation on Alfred Hitchcock's well-known stratagem: an ordinary but resilient family is placed in extraordinary circumstances. We leave it to you to discover more clues about the true authorship of this flick.
Besides the fact that this picture features one of the strangest collaborations on record — Hooper, Spielberg and Frank Marshall (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) — there is the strange series of deaths that plagued the series' cast and crew. Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest daughter in the first Poltergeist, was murdered by her live-in boyfriend shortly after completing the film. Julian Beck and Will Sampson, both supporting players in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), died shortly after that film was finished. And Heather O'Rourke, the 12 year-old star of all three Poltergeist films,died during a routine operation in 1988, making you wonder if this series really carries a curse.
Poltergeist received Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Effects Editing. One especially inventive effect was used for the scene at the end of the film in which a house gets sucked into a black hole. The building used was actually a highly detailed model, about 4 feet across. The camera was placed directly above the model, which was mounted over an industrial strength vacuum generator (the front door was facing directly up, straight at the camera). The model had about 100 wires attached to various points of the structure, which went down through the back of the house, and down through the vacuum collection sack. Once the camera was turned on and running at the required 300 frames per second, the cameraman gave the cue. The vacuum was turned on, the wires were yanked suddenly, and several SFX guys blasted the house with pump-action shotguns. The entire scene was over in about two seconds, and they had to wait until the film was developed before they knew if they would have to do it again. When played back at 24 fps, would take approximately 12 seconds for the house to collapse. Luckily, they got it right on the first go. Spielberg had the remains of the model encased in Perspex, and set it on his piano. The model itself, which took weeks to construct, was worth well over $25,000.
BEDLAM IN THE 'BURBS
Okay, it IS Easter now, so it's time to start the 1982 Tobe Hooper horror
classic, Poltergeist, where, just like the J-man, the dead are restless. And
you know what? I hadn't watched this flick in a long time, and I personally
don't think it's that scary anymore. I don't know what it is, but it just didn't
do that much for me when I re-watched it. The little girl is great--Heather
O'Rourke. She's dead, right?
So is Jobeth Williams as the mom trying to figure out how the ghost zombies are
getting into the house.
And, of course everybody remembers Zelda Rubinstein as the psychic who comes in
and acts like a spiritual Dust Buster. In fact, everybody remembers her sooooo
well that they completely forget that Beatrice Straight is in the movie.
Beatrice Straight is actually the head paranormal cleaner.
Zelda is just somebody that comes in for the big last scene. But you could ask
30 people what Beatrice Straight does in this movie, and they wouldn't know,
Anyhow, it's worth watching again, just because it's one of those movies that
any horror fan needs to be intimately familiar with. Let's take a look at those
Thirty undead bodies.
One dead bird.
And the biggest nightmare of anybody living in California-- groady zombies in
the pool, clogging the filter.
Three and a half stars. Check it out and I'll be
checking in with you during the movie, telling you everybody you're watching who
is now a DEAD PERSON. Okay, roll it.
[fading] Beatrice Straight--is she dead? Zelda Rubinstein? What about the
Dead or alive? They were dropping like flies on this picture. I'll find out for
I like to put you in the Easter mood.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #1
Well, I must commend the TNT high sheriffs for restoring the footage they so
ruthlessly cut out last time we showed this flick. They even put back that
scene where Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams are smoking the Arkansas polio
weed in bed. When was the last time you saw THAT on TNT?
You know, this was directed by Tobe Hooper, director of the greatest horror
flick of all time, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but it was PRODUCED and co-
written by Steven Spielberg, so you got an oil-and-water thing going on here.
Evidently Big Steve kept messin with Tobe's direction, because you KNOW that
Tobe wouldn't make his movie sweet and cutesy. Tobe would have the poltergeists
eating faces off right from the git-go.
But it's got that Spielbergian glow to it, doesn't it? Kinda make you puke,
doesn't it? There was even a big controversy when the movie first came out in
1982, about who REALLY directed it, and Spielberg took out a full-page ad in
Variety telling everybody how much he LOVED Tobe's direction. Right. Okay, back
to the movie. This next segment has what I consider the scariest scene in the
whole dang flick.
Roll it. Go.
[fading] Craig T. Nelson looks like he's probly done a little weed in his
day, what do you think?
I think so.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #2
I still think the scariest scene is that one where the chairs are all set up on
top of the table, in a pyramid. How did they do that? That's what I wanna know. Cause the camera never leaves the mom. No cuts, no edits. It moves away from the kitchen table, just a couple of seconds, moves BACK--and the chairs are changed. That's not even a special effect, really, but it's danged scary. Okay, back to Jobeth Williams in short shorts.
[fading] She looks pretty good for someone who's supposed to be the mother of
three, doesn't she? When MY mother wore cut-offs--well, let's not go there.
My mama's a good-looking woman. You know why? Sliced peaches and cottage cheese salad. Diet plate. Her favorite food.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #3
Little Heather O'Rourke, lost inside the TV set. That's supposed to be one of
the scariest scenes in the movie, where the tree comes through the window and
grabs little Robbie. And Industrial Light and Magic spent all these jillions of
dollars making the toys fly around the room and all that stuff. But I still
think those chairs being stacked up was way scarier.
Okay, time to go get the paranormal researchers. Roll it.
[fading] Do you realize that Spielberg kinda BELIEVES in this stuff? I mean, he
would have to, wouldn't he? Oh, excuse me, I forgot--do you realize that Tobe
Hooper BELIEVES in this stuff?
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #4
All right, in the scene we just saw, who was the ONLY Academy Award winner?
Beatrice Straight, the Numero Uno paranormal researcher.
She won the Academy Award for "Network" --she was William Holden's wife. But do
you even remember she was IN this picture? No, we're waitin for Zelda, aren't
We want Zelda, we want Zelda. Zelda and Beatrice don't even agree in the movie,
do they? One says "Stay away from the light!" The other one says "Go to the
light! Go, go to the light!" And by the end of the movie, you're thinkin, Should
she GO to the light, should she AVOID the light, where the heck IS she, why is
the wind blowing all the time? What is the light?
Okay, continue, go. Honk if you like maggots.
[fading] I promised to give you the "Poltergeist" death report. Next
commercial break. Guaranteed. Boy, I'm just a FOUNT of wisdom tonight, aren't I?
Don't answer that.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #5
Okay, "Poltergeist" is one of those flicks that's Haunted By Death. A few
months after the movie came out, the older daughter, played by Dominique Dunne,
was murdered by her live-in boyfriend. Dominique was the sister of Griffin
Dunne, the actor, and the daughter of Dominic Dunne, who is probly one of the
greatest journalists of the 20th century. He wrote an O.J. book I was looking
forward to, but then a bunch of OTHER people wrote books on O.J., so he made his
a NOVEL. Big disappointment. Not that I read it. Anyway, then the little girl,
Heather O'Rourke, she made both sequels, but before "Poltergeist 3" even came
out, SHE died, at age 12. "Intestinal obstruction" was the official reason.
Oliver Robins, the little boy, made the first sequel, but then was never seen in
Hollywood again. Which means, he didn't die, he just wised up and left town.
And two other people from the second movie died; kinda creepy, right? Especially
the little girl.
All she did before this movie was a Barbie commercial, and Spielberg discovered
her having lunch in the MGM commissary. And he said, "Would you come over here
and stick your hair in front of this fan? Great! You're hired!" She was just
five years old. That's another reason I think Spielberg didn't let Tobe Hooper
direct the picture--cause, if Spielberg wasn't directing, what was he doing
hangin around the commissary, giving out jobs? Anyhoo, let's move on, because
you know who's comin now? This movie FINALLY starts pickin up, because ZELDA
appears. Here's the little midget-woman now. Roll it.
[fading] I shouldn't say "midget." Here's the little dwarf-babe now.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #6
Zelda Rubinstein single-handedly saves this movie, in my opinion. "A
terrible presence is in there with her." You take a line like that, give it to
anybody else to read, and it's corny.
Put it in Zelda's weird voice, add in that strange little Dr. Ruth Westheimer
body, and you've got movie magic.
I think Zelda was a little upset that she didn't get more movie offers after
this performance. She did the sequels. She had already played a backstage
munchkin in "Under the Rainbow." She was the voice of Atrocia Frankenstone on
"The Flintstones." But it wasn't until "Picket Fences" that she got her first
regular acting gig. Life is tough for a four-foot-tall swami woman, I'm tellin
you. Don't you just love her, though.
Okay, let's go rope Carol Ann.
[fading] I think Zelda's a local gal, don't you? "Yall are jammin my
frequencies." We oughta see if she's in Dallas, have her come do the show
sometime. The two of US'll look like a pair, huh? I must have two and a half
feet on her. But we could give her a booster chair. It's not a problem.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #7
Okay, which do you think was more disturbing: the big roaring head, the mom and
the kid falling out of the ceiling covered in red slime, or Beatrice Straight
having to stand there smiling while Jobeth and Craig T. Nelson smooched? That
was weird, wasn't it?
The two of of em are layin a big wet one on each other, Zelda is yelling
instructions, and Beatrice Straight has to just stand in the doorway of the
bedroom smiling and pretending that she's not really p.o.ed about being upstaged
by a munchkin with a drawl. Okay, Zelda says the house is clean, but there's
some serious special effects still to come, so let's roll.
[fading] Now tell me one more time. Do you go TO the light? AWAY from the light?
Does the light make you dead? Where is the light? What is the light? Why do we
care about the light?
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #8
This little "Poltergeist" interlude allows me to point out that Craig T.
Nelson and Jobeth Williams, familiar to us all as the Freeling parents, both got
their big breaks in this film. This was the first lead role for both of them,
even though they'd both worked for years and were well known in Hollywood.
In fact, Craig was a comedy writer and performer.
He used to be partnered with Barry Levinson, the director of "Diner" and
"Rainman" and many other fine pictures.
But this took him to a whole new level, culminating in ... "Coach." I don't get
it, either, but that's what happened.
Okay, now, the thrilling conclusion of "Poltergeist," directed by Tobe Hooper, we THINK, although Steven Spielberg hung out on the set a lot and messed with Tobe's head, and probly influenced the zombie footage because Steven was way too proud of the fact that there's not very much gore in this movie and Tobe LOVES gore, but we won't dwell on that now, because it's almost over. Let's boogie.
"POLTERGEIST" Commercial Break #9
And so ends "Poltergeist," with the destruction of the lovely Cuesta Verda
subdivision. Better known as Irvine, California. That's where they filmed that.
Actually, 90 per cent of that flick was filmed inside Stage 27 on the lot at MGM in Culver City, but the subdivision they used was Irvine, one of those "cities of the future" where there aren't any trees, like being in one big Ben-and-Jerry's commercial your whole life.
You know, if I can just say one more thing about this battle between Tobe
Hooper, the director, and Steven Spielberg, the producer, you see it right there at the end. Zombies poppin up out of the swimmin pool--classic Tobe Hooper. Strange lights that make the house collapse --classic Steven Spielberg. They're real proud of that 12 seconds of film where the house explodes. They built a miniature that cost about $25,000 and was about six feet long, and then they filmed it at 360 frames per second as they blew the sucker up with shotguns. That took two seconds, which they stretched out to 12 seconds in the movie when they slowed the film down. Anyhow, I'll take one of those pop-up zombies any day. I'm sure that if they just woulda LEFT TOBE ALONE, he could have had even GROSSER zombies.
That's it for me, Joe Bob Briggs, reminding you that Jesus loves you, but
everyone else thinks you're a jerk.
Did you guys hear the one about this mangy-lookin guy who goes into a bar and
orders a drink? The bartender says, "No way. You don't look like you can pay
for it." The guy says, "You're right. I don't have any money, but if I show you something you haven't seen before, will you give me a drink?" The bartender says, "Only if what you show me ain't risqué." So the guy says, "Deal!" and he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a hamster.
He puts the hamster on the bar and it runs to the end of the bar, down a
barstool, across the room, up the piano, jumps on the keyboard and starts
playing Gershwin songs. The hamster's really good. The bartender says, "You're
right. I've never seen anything like that before," and he gives the guy a drink. The guy downs it and asks for another. The bartender says, "Money or another miracle, or else no drink." The guys reaches into his coat again and pulls out a frog. He puts the frog on the bar, and the frog starts to sing. He has an incredible voice and great pitch, he's really a fine singer.A stranger from the other end of the bar runs over to the guy and offers him $300 for the frog. The guy says, "Deal," takes the three hundred and gives the frog to the stranger, who runs out of the bar with it. The bartender says to the guy, "Are you some kinda nut?! You sold a singing frog for $300? It must've been worth millions. You must be crazy!" And the guy says, "No. The hamster is also a ventriloquist."
Joe Bob Briggs, reminding you that the drive-in will never die.
[fading] A farmer lives alone in the Irish countryside with a pet dog that he dotes on. One day the dog dies, and the farmer goes to the parish priest and asks, "Father, my dog is dead. Could you please say a Mass for the creature?"
The priest says, "No, we cannot have services for an animal in the church, but
there's a new denomination down the road, not telling what they believe, but
maybe they'll do something for the animal." The farmer says, "I'll go right
now. Do you think $50,000 is enough to donate for their services?"
Priest says, "Why didn't you tell me the dog was Catholic?
Previous broadcasts in 2007:
Feb 17, 2007 on Turner Classic Movies
Apr 7, 2007 on American Movie Classics
(not currently scheduled)
Toolbox Murders (also directed by Tobe Hooper)
Mar 7, 2007 on Starz Edge
Mar 7, 2007 on The Movie Channel
Mar 28, 2007 on Starz Edge
Apr 1, 2007 on Showtime Beyond
In 2009, a family in Saudi Arabia filed suit in Sharia court against a genie for stealing cell phones, whispering threats and occasionally flinging stones for 2 years. "We began to hear strange sounds. At first, we did not take it seriously, but then stranger things started to happen, and the children got particularly scared when the genie started throwing stones." Saudi daily newspaper Al Watan says that Sheikh Amr Al Salmi will investigate the family's claims for the court. Sounds more like an evil jinn than I Dream Of Jeannie
Host segment transcript for 11/20/99 broadcast ©1999 Turner Network Television. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved