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Last weekend, it was reported that director Tobe Hooper had died at the age of 74, another sad passing of a genre great. There were a lot of tributes to his work, particularly mentioning The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and his adaptation of Salem’s Lot, but I didn’t hear nearly as much about his 1982 movie Poltergeist.
Don’t get me wrong. Those other films are perfectly fine horror films, but I was a little bummed that just months before Hooper’s death, the whole question was being raised again about how much Hooper could be credited as the director of Polergeist. (You can read some of that here.) It’s something that movie fans have been obsessed with solving, to the point of wasting valuable interview time with those involved to find out the truth.
For me, there aren’t tons of movies I remember as fondly from the early 80s, but I can remember exactly where and when I first saw Poltergeist. I was a teenager, and in some ways, this could have been one of the first horror movie I was able to see in theaters since I was driving already and could do whatever I wanted.
I can’t remember who I saw the movie with but I do remember getting to the theater after the movie had already started, having maybe missed the first five or six minutes. When we got inside the theater, there wasn’t a seat to be found except for maybe the first row — way too close. Eventually, we settled down at the back of the theater on the floor, watching the movie through the center aisle, which would not fly if we tried that nowadays.
Although I had missed the opening of the movie (something I desperately try to avoid now), I remember how much the movie freaked me the F out. Big time.
That whole scene with the occult investigator and the mirror affected me to the point where whenever I see someone shaving in a movie now, I half expect the razor to start ripping through their skin. That was all Hooper, I’m sure of that.
There were other primal childhood fears that the movie preyed upon like the creepy tree outside the window or freaky clown puppets, and it was very effective at leaving a lasting impression. There are very few movies that I’m reminded of again and again, either while watching other horror films or just lying awake at night hearing bumps in the night.
More than that, seeing the movie with a sold out crowd made me realize I was experiencing what was likely to be one of the first box office sensations I would be a part of on opening weekend. Granted, Spielberg’s Jaws and The Exorcist had already been enormous successes in the ’70s and created a similar buzz. I was way too young to see those on first release, so I never got to experience them with a loud opening weekend crowd in a theater. Similarly, with both Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m sure I saw those well into their runs, probably on a weekday.
The fact is that it never mattered to me how much of my love of Poltergeist could be attributed to Hooper or to the ever-present Spielberg, whose fingerprint was all over almost every movie released that decade. When the movie ended, the credit said “Directed by Tobe Hooper” and that alone probably convinced me to go back and watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I found out he had directed that, too. (You have to remember that moviegoing and researching movies and filmmakers was very different before the internet.)
So yeah, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is groundbreaking in that it was an independent horror film released in the ’70s when studio-driven projects were getting the most attention. I certainly wouldn’t have seen it in theaters in 1974, and I think most of its impact was after the fact when the movie could be watched on VHS. And now, it’s considered a classic. I can tell you right now that few of the people in my circles were raving about it in the ’80s. Nope. It was all about Poltergeist.
While both Poltergeist and Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre spawned a number of bad sequels and modern remakes, I was more interested in what was done with the Poltergeist characters and concepts in the admittedly bad sequels than to see more of the gory splatter-fest that was the Texas Chainsaw sequels. (I’m only remotely interested in the upcoming Leatherface origin movie.
What Poltergeist did was that it made horror more easily accessible and mainstream to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily go to see a horror movie. I certainly wasn’t that big a fan of horror movies until seeing it.
The list of filmmakers that Poltergeist has influenced is too long to mention but the movie was clearly a huge influence on James Wan and Leigh Whannell when they wrote Insidious, and Wan has used a similar crowd-scaring/pleasing formula with his Conjuring movies in that it’s about everyday people encountering supernatural terror. (And those, of course, have been spun-off into even more Poltergeist-inspired films like Annabelle.)
So wherever you are now, Mr. Hooper, I think that I’ll always remember you as the director of Poltergeist, and the impact that movie had on me. I honestly don’t think that movie would have even gotten made if you didn’t go to Spielberg and suggest making a ghost movie in the first place.
It’s a shame your later movies never really had the impact as your movies from the ’70s and ’80s, but I know that at least this moviegoer can watch Poltergeist at any time and place and have the same experience as the first time I saw it.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor