Upon its release in 1982, Poltergeist was almost instantaneously successful. Several prominent critics of the time - including Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, among others - gave the film positive reviews, and it grossed over $75 million at the box office. Carol Anne's eerie line, "They're heeeere," cemented itself into pop culture, and the film is now ranked as one of the greatest horror films of all time.
But while it is rumored the film and its sequels were the victim of a supernatural curse, there's a more down-to-earth mystery plaguing its legacy: Exactly who directed Poltergeist?
A quick Google search of "Poltergeist director" will tell you Tobe Hooper, most famous for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Salem's Lot, helmed the project. And indeed, Hooper receives directorial credit in the film, but critics and fans alike believe Poltergeist belongs on a list of Steven Spielberg movies, rather than one encompassing Hooper's body of work.
Why do people suspect Spielberg actually ghost-directed the film? For one, Spielberg produced and co-wrote the film, and there are a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes that indicate he carried over his producer duties into Hooper's director's chair. But even if one isn't familiar with these stories or the controversy overall, simply viewing Poltergeist can be a strong indicator of Spielberg's specific guidance, particularly if one has a strong knowledge of both his and Hooper's previous works. This is basic Auteur Theory 101, a critical approach to understanding filmmaking popularized by Cahiers du cinéma, the influential magazine produced by members of the French New Wave movement (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Agnès Varda, etc.). Indie Film Hustle provides a solid definition of this theory:
Auteur Theory is a way of looking at films that state that the director is the "author" of a film. The Auteur Theory argues that a film is a reflection of the director’s artistic vision; so, a movie directed by a given filmmaker will have recognizable, recurring themes and visual queues that inform the audience who the director is (think a Hitchcock or Tarantino film) and shows a consistent artistic identity throughout that director’s filmography.
Put another way, Auteur Theory asserts that films are no different than paintings or sculptures. If one is familiar with Vincent Van Gogh's visual style, for instance, it will be easy to identify one of his paintings without having to check the artwork's signature. This idea certainly applies to Spielberg and Poltergeist, given that the film focuses as much on familial drama as scares, utilizes themes of suburban strife, parental struggles, and the notion kids see and understand more than adults accredit them. The film also features camera work, editing, and pacing that match Spielberg's directorial style. Even one scene almost directly mirrors another from Spielberg's catalog: When Diane (JoBeth Williams) struggles with unearthed bodies in a ran-filled pit in her backyard, the manner in which the corpses seem to come alive and attack the woman bears a striking resemblance to the corpses' behavior toward Marion (Karen Allen) in a scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, released a year before Poltergeist.
Moreover, consider how little the movie looks and feels like a Tobe Hooper film. Prior to Poltergeist, Hooper's work was characterized by grisly, violent scenarios, a sense of anarchy, absurdity, dark humor, and psychological torment similar to the tenets of playwright Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. This is especially the case with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but also Hooper's follow-up films Eaten Alive and The Funhouse. Salem's Lot also stands out from the pack, but its more straight-forward narrative and lack of graphic special effects can be attributed to the fact it's an adaptation of a Stephen King novel produced as a television miniseries. And even then, Salem's Lot is much more deconstructed than its literary counterpart, especially with its depiction of Barlow as a snarling, non-speaking creature, rather than the refined gentlemen King created.
This is not to say Hooper was incapable of making such a film, and after Poltergeist, he indeed began producing a variety of films that defied some of his trademarks. Of particular note here is Invaders from Mars: A PG-rated, mostly bloodless sci-fi adventure film that is as much about adolescent fears of losing those we love as it is about conquering aliens. Furthermore, there are elements in Poltergeist that feel distinctly "Hooperesque," especially a rather disturbing scene in which a man has a vision of himself ripping his own face off with his hands.
Artistic considerations aside, as previously mentioned, numerous stories emerged from the film's production that lend credence to the idea Hooper wasn't really in charge. These reports go all the way back to 1982, just after the film's release. Vincent Canby titled his aforementioned review of the film "'Poltergeist' From Steven Spielberg," instantly accrediting authorship to the producer and co-writer, rather than Hooper. He goes on to address the matter head-on:
There's some controversy about the individual contributions to the film made by Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hooper, best known as director of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." I've no way of telling who did what, though "Poltergeist" seems much closer in spirit and sensibility to Mr. Spielberg's best films than to Mr. Hooper's.
Perhaps the most telling contemporary article, however, comes from the Los Angeles Times, which effectively started the Spielberg-Hooper debate. Inverse writer Sean Hutchinson explains:
The rumor about his creative control began with an L.A. Times feature on the making of Poltergeist that ran before the film's release. In it, Spielberg contrasted his input with Hooper’s: "Tobe isn’t what you’d call a take-charge sort of guy. He’s just not a strong presence on a movie set. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump up and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of the collaboration."
According to Hutchinson, the Director's Guild of America investigated the film's production on the basis of these statements, prompting Spielberg to formally apologize to Hooper in the Hollywood Reporter just days before the film's release. Though even then, he never entirely refuted the idea he ghost-directed the film, and this kept the rumors going for decades afterwards, even if both Spielberg and Hooper remained more or less quiet on the matter. A behind-the-scenes featurette further fueled these rumors, since the footage seems to show Spielberg running the show, while Hooper hovers in the background.
A Definitive Answer?
As the years wore on, the debate over Poltergeist's directorship persisted. Hooper only ever said that he and Spielberg split directing duties between the first and second units, and he maintained this version of events right up to his passing in 2017. Members of the cast also weighed in - with Zelda Rubinstein, who played the psychic Tangina - insisting Hooper was only there to set up the shots, while JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson (Diane and Steve, respectively) countered that Hooper was far more involved than their costar claimed (though, much like Spielberg before them, they stop short of saying Hooper was the only director). And so it went, with no one person offering up a definitive answer one way or another.
That is, until 2017 when, a little over a month before Hooper's passing at the age of 74, John Leonetti, an assistant to the director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti (and also the cinematographer's brother), decided to set the record straight once and for all. During an interview with Blumhouse's all-things-horror podcast Shock Waves, one of the hosts casually asked whether Leonetti could tell them who directed Poltergeist. His reply:
It was a very intense, very fun, very technical movie to work on. There’s a lot going on. And candidly... Steven Spielberg directed that movie. There’s no question.
Leonetti goes on to explain that while Hooper had creative input, he was only on set due to a looming director's strike. With Spielberg officially directing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for Universal Pictures at the same time, having Hooper as his right-hand man for Poltergeist insured the project would be completed before the strike (similar fears of shuttering a film before it could be finished also rushed the production of Blade Runner). Leonetti also asserts Hooper was both aware of this arrangement and "cool with it." This explanation somewhat contradicts the rumor (printed in Moviefone, The Independent, and numerous other sources, though never substantiated) that Spielberg was contractually prohibited from directing a movie for a competing studio (MGM distributed Poltergeist), necessitating Hooper's presence, though theoretically this could also be true.
But filmmaker Mick Garris tells a different story. The director of several horror movies, Garris did publicity work for Poltergeist. On his podcast Post Mortem, he addressed the Spielberg-Hooper controversy in the wake of Hooper's passing and Leonetti's claims. Quoted via Entertainment Weekly, Garris said:
From my perspective, it was Tobe’s first studio movie. Here he is, on a studio lot, on a big soundstage. Steven Spielberg had written the shooting script, was on the set, and was producing, and Spielberg is a consummate filmmaker and he lives and breathes movies. He probably has sprockets up and down his spine. Very passionate, very intelligent, very articulate. And, yes, I would see him climb on the camera and say, "Maybe we should push in on a two-shot here," or "do-this-or-that," there... Steven is a guy who will come in and call the shots...
Garris further elaborates on Spielberg's penchant for taking the reins on a given production, whether he's officially the director or not:
It happened to Bob Zemeckis too on Used Cars... Kurt Russell [the film's star] said to Spielberg, "I can take direction from you or I can take direction from Bob Z. I don’t care who it is, but it can only be one of you, it can’t be both of you." And Steven just backed off and said, "You’re right, I’m sorry." Nobody did that for Tobe... I don’t think it’s that Steven was controlling, I think it was that Steven was enthusiastic as a filmmaker who has celluloid running though his veins, and nobody was there to protect Tobe.
Effectively, Garris contradicts Leonetti's claim that Hooper knew his place in the production and was comfortable playing second banana. This echoes the statements Spielberg initially made about Hooper and later recanted he wasn't a "take-charge sort of guy." But if there was any bad blood between Hooper and Spielberg over this alleged, unintentional railroading, Hooper never indicated as much - he insisted, in fact, they were good friends, and pointed out in an 2014 interview that he worked with Spielberg on several other occasions after Poltergeist (namely, Hooper directed episodes of the Spielberg-produced television show Taken). This attitude, combined with Hooper's insistence the whole director debacle was a misunderstanding, bolsters Leonetti's version of the story.
As such, it may very well be accurate to say that Spielberg did, in fact, ghost-direct Poltergeist, but he did so as a collaboration with Hooper. While his influence on the production and the narrative is certainly palpable, his contributions don't outweigh those of Hooper, and vice versa. But perhaps the best final word on the topic goes to Drew Taylor, writer of the aforementioned Moviefone article, who said:
Poltergeist feels like a Spielberg movie, but it undeniably has the edge and gallows humor more closely associated with Hooper. In fact, growing up and watching the movie repeatedly it never dawned on me to question who was behind the film, since it so perfectly feels like a synthesis of the two filmmakers' sensibilities. At this point, it doesn't really matter who directed it; it's an all-time masterpiece and the behind-the-scenes bickering doesn't lessen that one iota.