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Tobe Hooper’s (Sort Of) Poltergeist



Poltergeist, USA 1982. Directed by Tobe Hooper, written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor; story by Steven Spielberg.

Bambi Theater 2, Row 2, Seat 5. Original version with German subs.

(This post originally appeared, without the addendum, at my Instagram account betweendrafts.)

Right off the bat, this is a Spielberg, not a Hooper movie. Abundant facts along this decades-long controversy support this, and one shouldn’t forget that story, screenplay, storyboards, and full post production control were all created and handled by Spielberg. Also, really—meeting a movie aficionado at the theater who declares, “yeah, this is a great Hooper movie!” would be equivalent to meeting Bigfoot at Domino’s.

That said, both the movie and my memories of it had held up well. It’s great! I love the characters, how the story develops, and the special effects of the time. What I didn’t remember, however, was how much this movie is a relentless advertorial for Star Wars merchandise—but I guess it didn’t register back then because that was the way rooms inhabited by teenagers actually looked in the early eighties.

Another thing I had missed was a peculiarity of Goldsmith’s score. His lullaby, suburban life, and occult themes are both very specific and outstanding. But when it comes to the horror sequences, holy shit does he channel his Alien score wholesale, from harmony and timing to instrumentation and orchestration. And once you’ve noticed that, you also begin to notice other little things—many pieces and elements, from the characters’ dispositions to action beats, that bear more than a passing resemblance to Alien.

I think several things are at work here. As for the music, Goldsmith at the time was still being pissed that Scott had thrown out part of his score for classical pieces (Hanson’s 2nd, in particular), and this was a good opportunity to even the score, so to speak. As for Alien and Star Wars, these two movies had just revolutionized the sf and horror movie genres, respectively, and everything was affected by that. But maybe, just maybe, consciously or subconsciously, Spielberg—who had just revolutionized the action-adventure movie genre with Riders of the Lost Ark, which is nothing to sneeze at—also would have loved to have accomplished one or the other himself.

Now that CRT TV sets are a thing of the past, many things once taken for granted become incomprehensible for younger generations. This is particularly true for how Poltergeist’s TV set works as a dramatic device in the movie.

First, channels didn’t broadcast 24/7. Then, the last thing they broadcast every night was the national anthem. Finally, when the broadcasting had stopped, the TV set would display the “snow” and static noise of a dead channel. And when they shot the—completely gratuitous and perfectly forgettable—Poltergeist remake in 2015, the original effect fell flat (excuse the pun) on a digital display.

Two more things that are gone for good: when you go home late at night, you will never again see blue light flicker behind every window; and when you’re at home and the TV set’s on but muted, you will never again hear that high-pitched sound from the flyback transformer around the 15.75 kHz mark. (Provided, of course, you were able to hear it in the first place.)

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