Poltergeist: the sizeable technical challenge of a 1980s ghost story

How Tobe Hooper (and Steven Spielberg) crafted a spine-tingling horror classic...

The late director Tobe Hooper – a man who also had The Texas Chainsaw Massacre amongst his impressive list of credits – faced a whole host of challenges when he decided to embark upon the now-classic 1982 horror, Poltergeist. Notwithstanding, as we’ll explore a little in the video below, the ongoing questions he faced over authorship of the movie, there was the small matter of realising something so complex on screen, and making it look anything but. All in an era where a computer couldn’t do the heavy lifting for you.

Hooper actually got involved in Poltergeist in the first instance back in the mid-1970s, when The Exorcist director William Friedkin was his mentor of sorts, and Hooper earned a studio development contract. He landed in the former office of Robert Wise – whose directorial career spun West Side Story through to Star Trek: The Motion Picture – and discovered, as the story goes, the novel of Poltergeist there. For the best part of a decade, he’d develop the film, eventually working with Steven Spielberg to bring it to the screen.

One thing that made Poltergeist stand out from other horror tales is when it took place. Lots of spooky films take place at night, for fairly obvious reasons. With Poltergeist, though – and the recent IT movie would tap into this, too – a lot of the narrative building was done during the day, and the light. Bright lights, rather than dark shadows, are often harder to build tension in.Here are a few more nerdy Poltergeist facts to wrap your brain around…

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When it came to actually making the film, Hooper firstly heavily storyboarded the key moments in the movie. He had the advantage of the bulk of the movie being set in a domestic home (save for two weeks of location shooting), and thus the bulk of the effects-driven moments could be filmed at a contained environment. That work was done at MGM’s studios, and one of the biggest investments was on a gimbal.

A gimbal is a device that rotates an object, or in this case, a set. Christopher Nolan used a rotating set to optimum effect in 2010’s Inception. In the case of Poltergeist, Hooper got there nearly three decades before. Multiple sets of the children’s bedroom were made, one of those was mounted on the gimbal (and the parents’ bedroom would use it too). And what makes so many of the key moments in Poltergeist work is that they’re very clearly in-camera, relying on filming ingenuity.

It’d be remiss to say that there was an absence of off-set effects work in Poltergeist. It was a project that was worked on by the-then-in-its-relative-infancy Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). But still: pretty much every key spooky moment you see in the movie was grounded on a movie set. Something a subset of modern big budget horrors could learn something from.