Poltergeist (1982): Supernatural Horror Tale, Produced by Spielberg, Directed by Tobe Hopper, Starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight

Poltergeist, skillfully directed by Tobe Hopper, was produced by Spielberg in the same year, 1982, that he made “E.T.,” which is considered to be one of his masterpieces.

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Theatrical release poster

Spielberg is also credited as contributor to the original screenplay, and according to various reports, he had also staged several scenes.

Spielberg hired Hooper as director, based on the latter’s success in 1974 with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which went on to become a cult movie.

The two films are complementary, representing different facets of Spielberg’s sensibility and world view. Showing the dark side of Spielberg’s California suburbanism, the film revolves around the Freelongs, a typical middle-class family.

Even though Poltergeist is inferior to E.T. on any number of levels, it was nominated for three Oscars, but won none. (See below).

This family, unlike most of Spielebrg’s on screen families, has two parents.

In the first act, we get the family’s routines, how father Steve (Craig T. Nelson) falls asleep night after night in front of the TV.

With his energetic, upbeat wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), Steve has three children: sixteen-year-old daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), eight-year-old son Robbie (Oliver Robins), and five-year-old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke).

Gradually, bizarre, mysterious events begin to occur, such as the pet canary dying, or kitchen dishes and items of furniture moving around.

Before long Carol Ann is “called” into the TV set and a strange green light hits her. Drawn to the TV set, the haunted girl begins to talk to “the TV people,” before disappearing completely.

Unable to find his daughter, Steve consults Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “Network), a psychologist who sees the crisis as a paranormal phenomenon, which needs the intervention of an exorcist named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to find the missing girl.

The movie relies on too many cheap tricks, like Diane blowing her hair at a crucial moment, so she is unable to hear or see the atrocities in her house. The climax, with mommy Diane sunk into a muddy pool surrounded by skeletons is rather cheesy.

Some critics dismissed the film as being vapid, but for me, it’s a competent B-level horror film. If the hero of E.T.” was a boy, here it’s a girl. By standards of the time, most of the visual and sound effects are good, though occasionally, the narrative is too silly and predictable for its own good.

The movie was a commercial hit, earning about $120 million at the box-office against a modest budget of about $10 million.


Oscar Nominations: 3
Original Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Visual Effects: Richard Edlund, Michael Wood, Bruce Nicholson
Sound Effects Editing: Stephen Hunter Flick, Richard Anderson

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Scoring Oscar went to John Williams for “E.T,” which also won the Sound and Visual Effects Oscars.

End Note:

Dominique Dunne, who played the teenage daughter, died soon after the film got made. O’Rourke, who appeared in the film’s sequels (1986, 1988), died after the third film was produced.


JoBeth Williams as Diane Freeling
Craig T. Nelson as Steven Freeling
Beatrice Straight as Dr. Martha Lesh
Dominique Dunne as Dana Freeling
Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling
Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne Freeling
Michael McManus as Ben Tuthill
Virginia Kiser as Mrs. Tuthill
Martin Casella as Dr. Marty Casey
Richard Lawson as Dr. Ryan Mitchell
Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons
James Karen as Mr. Lewis Teague
Lou Perry as Pugsley
Dirk Blocker as Jeff Shaw

Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Written By: Michael Grais, Mark Victor, Steven Spielberg
Released: June 4, 1982.
DVD: April 18, 2000

Directed by Tobe Hooper
Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor, based on story by Spielberg
Produced by Frank Marshall, Spielberg

Cinematography Matthew F. Leonetti
Edited by Michael Kahn
Music by Jerry Goldsmith

Production companies: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, SLM Production Group, Mist Entertainment, Amblin Productions

Distributed by MGM/UA Entertainment Co. (US)
United International Pictures (International)

Release date” June 4, 1982

Running time: 114 minutes
Budget $10.7 million
Box office $121.7 million