One of the worst kept secrets in horror history is that Steven Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist (1982), which is credited to the great Tobe Hooper. It’s a weird Hollywood myth that causes such conflicting emotions in us horror fans because, well, we love Hooper but this is a huge knock against his legacy. If it’s not true, it’s an awful and horribly insulting rumor that continues to infect the director’s reputation. That said, where there’s smoke there’s fire.
In fact, we’ve sort of confirmed this here on Bloody Disgusting multiple times. One piece of evidence was shared this past February, in which a mini-doc ended the debate once and for all. Before her passing, Zelda Rubinstein, who starred in the film as Tangina, had told AIC this shocker back in 2007: “I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments.”
While there have been shreds of evidence over the years, it’s hard to understand why this happened. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to not think that Spielberg was saving the film from Hooper’s incompetence. Even Rubinstein suggested in the aforementioned interview that he was allowing “unacceptable chemical agents into his work.” Revisionist history is allowing this to become the facts even though there’s actually a much more believable reason.
Promoting his new film Wish Upon, director John Leonetti not only confirmed that Spielberg directed Poltergeist but that Hooper was used as a pawn to allow this to happen. You see, his brother is cinematographer Matt Leonetti, who was Director of Photography on Poltergeist. Because of this, John was assistant camera and was on set for every single shot of the film, which is how he learned the truth behind this long-debated mystery.
“It was a very intense, very fun, very technical movie to work on,” Leonetti told Shockwaves. “There’s a lot going on. And candidly… Steven Spielberg directed that movie. There’s no question. However, Tobe Hooper – I adore. I love that man so much. But, had I known you were going to ask me that question, I would’ve brought this one picture I have, which is the whole movie in one shot!”
Below is the shot in question, which he further explains. “It’s the scene where the tree comes in to grab the boy, and we have two cameras set up. In the foreground on an apple box is (an excited) Tobe, standing right behind him is Spielberg pointing. Next to him was my brother on camera and me.”
While Zelda was only on set for a week, the Leonetti’s where there for every. single. shot. Hearing this from John’s mouth is the best confirmation we’re going to get next to Hooper or Spielberg finally coming clean. This brings us back to the aforementioned question I asked, WHY? John explains and it gives us motive:
“Hooper was so nice and just happy to be there. He creatively had input. Steven developed the movie, and it was his to direct, except there was anticipation of a director’s strike, so he was “the producer” but really he directed it in case there was going to be a strike and Tobe was cool with that. It wasn’t anything against Tobe. Every once in a while, he would actually leave the set and let Tobe do a few things just because. But really, Steven directed it.”
There you have it. The 35-year-long mystery has been solved. Poltergeist was always supposed to be a Steven Spielberg-directed movie and a young Tobe Hooper played the role to avoid a shut down in the midst of a director’s strike. It all makes sense, and now that it’s in the open it would be pretty cool if Hooper or Spielberg would come clean and talk about it in length. No matter, I think Hooper has carved out a nice legacy for himself and Spielberg doesn’t appear to care one way or another who gets the credit so long as his company delivered a quality product to moviegoers. You have to respect that.