So here we are with a second installment of tributes to dead directors. You know, this is starting to feel like a horror movie onto itself – one where all of the famous directors of horror movie classic all die within 3 or 4 years of each other in some secret pact to take over –
Dibs. I’m so writing that story now. It’s my idea. I called it first.
So, Tobe Hooper passed in away in August, just a month after George Romero shuffled off to that beseiged black and white farmhouse in the sky. As with that article, I am not going to get into the career summary of Tobe Hooper. If you needed that, you should be watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot now and not reading this. Instead, we’re going to talk about the directing of Poltergeist. Lot of controversy, rumors, and stupidity around the making of that flick, and I can’t resist delving into it.
A quick side story before we get into the weird shitshow that was Poltergeist: I belong to a Facebook group of horror movie buffs/fanatics. There’s about three thousand people in the group, which means that periodically will be a completely asinine post – and by periodically I mean twice a day.
I got roped into a flame war (the kids still say that, right? Flame war? I got into an online fight. Whatever) over The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. About four or five idiots got into with me because the statement ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sucks and is a terrible movie’ makes no sense, kind of like ‘the current President of the United States is a thoughtful, kind, intelligent, hard-working, capable leader.’ I was there to defend that point, at which time it turned into me defending the honor of a movie that should never, ever have to have its honor defended against 5 dickheads who think a horror movie is only good unless there’s at least seven sets of boobies in it. I would have reached that point in my life where I say, out loud, to no one, “the next generation sucks. This planet is doomed,” weren’t for my 18 year old daughter, who conveyed to me her opinion that TCM is one of the greatest movies ever made. Well, Autumn, maybe not one of the greatest movies ever made, but certainly one of the best horror movies.
Anyway. This is about Tobe Hooper, and not some assholes on the internet (probably Russian spam bots to try to get Americans to like the Wrong Turn series)
There are no less than 4 documentaries on the making of Poltergeist – most of which focus on the weird and tragic coincidences that occurred around the making of this movie. Dominique Dunne, who played not-Carol Anne in the movie, was strangled by her boyfriend 5 months after the film was released. Heather O’ Rourke, who played Carol Anne, was dead six years later after complications from a bacterial infection. Oh yeah, and this fucking guy:
But none of those documentaries really get into the directorial controversy that sprung up around this movie. The “official” credit goes to Tobe Hooper of course, but how’d it really go down? Did Steven Spielberg do more than just produce? According to Zelda Rubenstein (the weird crazy lady, only marginally acting while on camera as her real life persona is not that different than what you see in the movie) in an interview with Ain’t It Cool Sexual Harrassment News, Steven directed all six days” that she was on set: “Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments.” She also alleged that Hooper “allowed some unacceptable chemical agents into his work,” and felt that “Tobe was only partially there.”
Alright Zelda. So you’re saying Tobe got fucked up off set? Wow. A director using drugs. Big deal. Michael Bay just did three lines in the time it took me to type this sentence. I think I’ll take anything Zelda Rubenstein says with a huge grain of salt. I’d rather hear from Spielberg:
”Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me… a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.”
So, here’s the thing with Tobe Hooper. He’s not a guy that dealt with studio interference well. Not a bad thing for a true auteur, not a good thing for a director that delivered a seminal genre film and then became a sought-after director by same studios. Hooper’s film Eaten Alive ended with Hooper walking off the set towards the end of production after conflicts with producers over the inclusion of gratuitous violence. It’s a movie about alligators guys. Get a grip.
I think, at least in some part, Tobe wanted to make an effort to not be known as a “difficult” director after that. The Funhouse would go off without a hitch. Salem’s Lot, although made for TV, was no top 5 horror movies of all time, but great by most critics’ standards. Not a lot of meddling with either.
With Poltergeist, Tobe was thrust back into the spotlight with having to work with the most powerful individual in movies looking over his shoulder. Bearing in mind that E.T. was released the same year, I find it very difficult to believe that Spielberg was the “real” director as some people claim. Sure, Steven was probably there and even had final say on a lot that went into Poltergeist – but some of the more frightening and graphic scenes of the movie vis-à-vis the “rebirth” of Carol Anne and her mother through the closet covered in afterbirth/ectoplasmic residue and the mud and corpses pool party just do not have the Spielberg stamp on them. What I do believe is that Spielberg was likely meddling and controlling while that movie was being made because his name was in the producer credit. Because of that, I feel that El Spielbergo was up Hooper’s ass 24-7. And, I think Hooper went along with it because of his experience making Eaten Alive. In short, Hooper was probably doing the best he could in a shitty situation. Somebody ask Colin Trevorrow how Jurassic World was to make.
Hooper’s career was never quite the same after Poltergeist, and I at least partially believe that Spielberg had something to do with that. Sure, there was Lifeforce and TCM 2 (I actually hate part 2. How Dennis Hopper’s heart didn’t just burst from his chest cavity in an explosion of cocaine and overacting, I’ll never tell). But Hollywood is a shady, shady place and unfortunately, Hooper’s career never got back to the same level. Hooper’s skill however, remained in place. I recommend you check out the Masters of Horror episode “The Damned Thing” if you like to see a piece of work he did towards the end of his career that showcases that he still had something left in the tank.
Tobe Hooper: January 25, 1943 – August 26, 2017.
Today’s guest review was by Wally Quigley, a creative writer and director as well as a fan of horror movies. He last discussed George Romero’s legacy.