Before there was Paranormal Activity 15 and Insidious 12,there was Poltergeist—the classic horror movie set in the suburbs starring unknown actors who could have been your neighbors. But this movie was so much more than a collection of timeless scares and crawling meat; it was a model example of practical magic. So let's celebrate this horror staple with a list of surprising facts that you may now know about the TV people.
1. One-Shot Chair Scene
How did those kitchen chairs stack up so quickly? Was there a cut while Mrs. Freelig was rooting around in the kitchen? Nope. The whole thing was done in one shot. When the camera pans away and back into the kitchen, a collection of crew members speedily replaced the loose kitchen chairs with an already preassembled pyramid of chairs. Voila, creepshow!
2. Spielberg Hands
That shot of the paranormal investigator Marty ripping his own melting face off had a lot riding on it. Intead of putting makeup on the actor Martin Casella, the FX crew built a whole lifelike bust of the actor. But the production had only one bust to rip apart. Feeling the pressure Casella, asked Steven Spielberg to step in and rip the face flesh to bits. So the hands you see in the film belong to Spielberg.
[via Terror from Beyond the Daves.]
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3. Fish Tank Lights
The closet that was the opening to the other world and housed all the glowing, blue spectral light was dubbed by Spielberg as the most difficult scene lighting-wise. They used strobes lights, a Las Vegas spotlight, smoke machines, four large wind machines, and even a couple of fish tanks were put in front of the beams to give the light a ghostly presence.
4. "The Beast" was the villain set up for Poltergeist II and Poltergeist III
Were you confused by the random importance of the Reverend Henry Kane in the second and third Poltergeist installments? Well be confused no longer! Kane was always in the first movie (or so the creators behind the following films insist). "The beast" that appears in front of Carol Anne's room and in the closet is actually a spooky variation of Kane, who later becomes the number one menace in both Poltergeist 2 and 3. So you see they totally didn't just pull that villain of their ass. *Cough Cough*
5. Babies Having Babies
When Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) is meeting with the paranormal investigators for the first time, he lists off the names and ages of his family. He mentions that his wife, Diane Freeling, was 32 and that their eldest Dana is 16. That would make Diane only 16 when she gave birth. Insert Teen Mom joke here.
6. Evil Tree
The evil tree that attacked Robbie Feeling was allegedly inspired by another very real tree that Spielberg was terrified of as a child. And according to the actor who played Robbie (Oilver Robbins) the scene where the tree beasts swallows up the little boy was actually shot in reverse. Instead of being swallowed up, he was spit out. The footage looked better this way.
[via Terror from Beyond the Daves]
7. Climbing Up The Walls
Just when everything appears to be settling down for the Freeling Family, the ghosts strike, ripping poor Diane Freeling off of her bed and rolling her up the walls and across the ceiling in her bedroom. It's pretty horrific, not just for the suggestive ghost play pawing at her shirt, but for the horrendous thumping and sliding of helpless, actress JoBeth all over her bedroom. This scene was achieved by attaching a static camera onto a rotating set. Actress JoBeth Williams had to time her rolls with the movement of the giant set. It was actually a pretty huge undertaking for a fairly short scene in the finished film. Still looked amazing.
8. Practical Hell Mouth
Industrial Light And Magic created a GIANT practical hell mouth inside Carol Anne's closet. In order to erect the giant, pulsing, pink wormhole, they had to build the whole set from scratch. It's pretty amazing. And again, wasn't really in that much of the movie... but LOOK AT IT!
9. Goodbye House!
A 6-foot model scale of the Freeling home was constructed for the fantastic end shot of the suburban home being sucked into nothingness. The scale took four months to create. After crafting many ways to implode the family home, the FX crew decided that the best way to destroy this dwelling was by threading thick cables through the model and to simply pull it into a funnel attached to a high powered vacuum.
After the model destruction shot was completed, it then took two months of additional FX work to perfect the effect.
[via Single Minded Movie]
10. Dr. Fantasy And Friends
At the Holiday Inn where the Freelings take, refuge the sign welcomes "Dr. Fantasy & Friends." Dr. Fantasy is Poltergeist producer Frank Marshall's magician stage name. And sometimes Dr. Fantasy performs special magic shows for the crew at the end of whatever film he's working on.
11. Who really directed Poltergeist?
If you believe the credits, Poltergeist was co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper. However, the cast and crew has been telling a much different story since the film's production. Speculation got so intense that the DGA led an inquiry after the The LA Times printed a story on May 24, 1982 implying that Spielberg was the real director. Stocked with quotes from the cast on who was running what, Spielberg outright states that he wasn't the director and didn't want to be the director (because he was too busy working on ET). But that didn't stop him from altering a large percentage of the shots, storyboarding the entire movie, editing, and being a large presence on set almost every day.
On the 25th anniversary Hooper told the A.V. Club that the whole thing was just a giant misunderstanding brought on by the LA Times.
AV Club: History has shifted some of the credit toward Spielberg. Can you set the record straight on that?
TH: I've kind of talked that one to death, really. I've been asked that so many times that I feel the record should be straight already. The genesis of it came from an article in The L.A. Times: When we were shooting the practical location on the house, the first two weeks of filming were exterior, so I had second-unit shots that had to be picked up in the front of the house. I was in the back of the house shooting Robbie [actor Oliver Robins] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, so Steven was picking those shots up for me. The L.A. Times arrived on the set and printed something like, "We don't know who's directing the picture." The moment they got there, Steven was shooting the shot of the little race cars, and from there the damn thing blossomed on its own and started becoming its own legend. Really, that is my knowledge of it, because I was making the movie and then I started hearing all this stuff after it was finished. I really can't set the record much straighter than that, because Steven did write the screenplay and there are other credits on there, but it came down to Steven and myself sitting at his house....
However, that same year Zelda Rubinstein told Ain't It Cool News (in a less than flattering manner) that Hooper wasn't the one calling the shots. So your guess is as good as ours. Actors Oilver Robbins and Martin Casella disagree. That being said, we can't imagine it would be easy to direct a movie Spielberg wanted, but couldn't have (due to contractual restraints)—especially when he's still a major part of the film.
12. The Skeletons Were Real?
JoBeth Williams' admitted on VH1's "I Love The 80s" that the skeletons that attacked her on set were, in fact, real skeletons. This was allegedly backed by makeup artists Craig Reardon who commented that real corpses were cheaper to purchase than plastic ones back in the day. However the actual quote from Reardon seems to be lost in the ether. So we're not so sure about its authenticity.
That being said, perhaps Williams was referring to the real skeletons used on Poltergeist II. In E! True Hollywood Story: The Poltergeist Curse the screenwriter for the sequel admitted that they let actor Will Sampson after on set hours to perform a blessing upon discovering that the corpses they were using on set were not dummies, but real skeletons.
13. The Poltergeist Curse
Unfortunately, the real-life skeleton rumor also led to another much-whispered-about bit of Poltergeist gossip, the Poltergeist curse. Many actors who worked on this film died tragically. The franchise star Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died just before the release of the third film. The actress who played her older sister in the first movie (Dominique Dunne) was murdered by her ex-boyfriend after the first movie was released. The man who played Kane (Julian Beck) died of cancer while shooting the second film, as did the foil to the evil Kane, Will Sampson. All very tragic, but likely just sad stories that surround a popular horror franchise and nothing more.
Ok what did we miss? Can anyone actually prove that ET and Poltergeist were filmed in the same neighborhood? Or that there is an ET poster on the wall in Carol Anne's room?Because we, sadly, couldn't back those up. In the meantime, here is an amazing documentary created by Frank Marshall. It is criminally unavailable in high-res and was created for a TV special after the original Poltergeist was released and blew the doors of the horror world. It's pretty fantastic (and where we pulled a lot of our facts from).