Throwback Thursday: Original ‘Poltergeist’ conjured controversy over ratings creative control

May 21, 2015 | 1:20 p.m.
Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke and JoBeth Williams in "Poltergeist." (MGM)

Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke and JoBeth Williams in “Poltergeist.” (MGM)

It’s an image ingrained in the memory of horror film fans: A little girl in front of a static-filled television set, holding out her hands to touch the whispering screen. As director Gil Kenan’s remake of “Poltergeist” opens in theaters Friday, this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday revisits the seminal original, about a suburban family whose young daughter Carol Anne communicates with spirits who can throw objects, move furniture and manipulate weather.

“Poltergeist,” co-produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, stepped into the light on June 4, 1982. The film, which contained no graphic sex, no slasher gore and no deaths, was frightening enough to spark a ratings controversy. The MPAA initially gave it an R rating because “cumulative effect” was “too intense,” co-producer Frank Marshall told The Times before the film’s release.

Spielberg was so upset about the R rating, he rushed to the New York offices of the MPAA and appealed for a PG rating. “I don’t make R rated movies!” he told The Times. There was no PG-13 rating at the time, and the board assented to a PG rating. Though pleased, Spielberg called for an additional category between PG and R.

“We have to face the fact that this generation of kids is more mature than we were,” he said.

Heather O'Rourke is grabbed by an unseen force in 1982's "Poltergeist." (Handout)

Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne is grabbed by an unseen force in 1982’s “Poltergeist.” (Handout)

“Poltergeist” was also haunted by confusion over the creative roles of Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper.

“My enthusiasm for wanting to make ‘Poltergeist’ would have been difficult for any director I would have hired,” Spielberg told The Times before the film’s release. “It derived from my imagination and my  experiences, and it came out of my typewriter. I felt a proprietary interest in this project that was stronger than if I was just an executive producer. I thought I’d be able to turn ‘Poltergeist’ over to a director and walk away. I was wrong.”

Instead, Spielberg engaged in “creative production.”

“Both people were on the set all the time, and Tobe was very much involved, as far as I could tell. But Steven was the creative force in my opinion: his stamp is on the film,” said Willie Hunt, who supervised the film for MGM.

Hooper, whose previous credits included the cult classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” said he couldn’t understand why his oversight was being questioned.

“I always saw this film as a collaborative situation,” he said. “I directed the film and did fully half of the story boards. I’m quite proud of what I did.”

Actress JoBeth Williams, who played the terrified mother Diane Freeling, credited both men with leading the film’s production.

“This film was his baby,” Williams said of Spielberg, “and he worked very closely with our director, Tobe Hooper. We were working against the threatened directors’ strike at the time, so he drove us all like racehorses, and, in fact, we finished ahead of schedule.”

For Williams, shooting “Poltergeist” was hard and dirty work.

During one of the scenes, she falls in a newly dug swimming pool, “slithering down into the mud and water with giant wind machines blowing rain on me,” she told The Times. “Every time I try to climb out, I slide back into more mud. I wound up just covered with filth.”

Sadly, real-life tragedy came soon after the release of “Poltergeist” with the deaths of two of the film’s young actresses.

In October 1982, 22-year-old Dominique Dunne, who played teenage daughter Dana Freeling, was strangled.  Los Angeles chef John Sweeney, her former boyfriend, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received a prison sentence of 6.5 years, of which he served three.

Heather O’Rourke, who played little Carol Anne, died at just 12 years old from intestinal stenosis on Feb. 1, 1988. Before her death, she also appeared on “Happy Days,” “Webster” and “Still the Beaver.”

The remake stars Kennedi Clements (“Wayward Pines,” “Rogue”) as the haunted youngster. The film opens Friday.

— Denise Florez | @LATHeroComplex

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