Nothing’s scarier than the suburbs
That phrase, uttered by the late child actress Heather O’Rourke in the horror classic “Poltergeist,” has sent chills up moviegoers’ spines for 25 years. And undoubtedly, they’ll do it once more Thursday, as the Motion Picture Academy’s Science and Technology Council presents a “Prime Tech” screening at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
Cinefex founder and publisher Don Shay will host the anniversary screening, which will feature a newly struck 35-mm print from the Academy Film Archive and a panel discussion with key members of the crew, including visual-effects supervisor Richard Edlund, who received an Oscar nomination for his work.
With two additional Oscar nods -- for sound effects editing and Jerry Goldsmith’s score -- “Poltergeist” revolved around a happily married, pot-smoking couple who live with their three adorable children in a picture-perfect housing development. But setups like that are made to be fractured, and soon the house is invaded by evil poltergeists -- “ghosts” who want (and eventually get) the youngest daughter (O’Rourke), a girl who communicates with “the other side” via the TV set.
Steven Spielberg produced the film and Tobe Hooper directed, though it’s no state secret that Spielberg had a hand in directing some of the scenes. “Poltergeist” was released the same time as Spielberg’s landmark “E.T.,” which offered a far more bucolic, endearing look at life in the ‘burbs.
“ ‘Poltergeist’ was kind of my coming-of-age movie, I think, in visual effects,” recalls Oscar-winner Edlund. “It was so difficult to do. I had done the three ‘Star Wars’ movies and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ ‘Raiders’ was kind of a semi-fantasy, but ‘Poltergeist’ was like next door -- it was your neighborhood.”
His main concern was “what does a ghost look like? How do you disarm the audience with effects without it looking hokey?
“It was all optical,” says Edlund, adding that the visual-effects shots were much more difficult than on the “Star Wars” movies or “Raiders.”
“Poltergeist” went into production before Edlund and his team had designed any of the effects. “There was a Directors Guild strike that was supposedly going to happen,” he said. “The directors were rattling their sabers.”
If the strike had happened, Edlund explains, the director wouldn’t have been available to work with Edlund on the visual effects. “Because Steven was the producer, he would be free to work with us on that. So we worked closely with Steven throughout. In fact, he came back the weekend before we started shooting with a new script. He rewrote the script. So he had a lot to do with the movie.”
Edlund and his team had to design the shots on the fly.
One of the movie’s pivotal fight moments occurs when the ghost comes down the stairs in the family’s house. Edlund decided he wanted the spirit to be self-illuminated.
“The ghost was this light source. The ghosts were the light. So essentially, I had a grip in the green beds -- they are platforms that are hanging from the stage ceiling -- and he was walking with a 10K lightbulb hanging from a wire, walking down the stairs with it. The lightbulb actually caused the railings on the side of the staircase to cast eerie shadow on the walls.”
After shooting that plate with the shadows and light, he hired an actress who was playing Peter Pan in San Francisco and used to working on wires. “We dressed her in this wedding-veiled gossamer kind of costume,” he says. “She was swinging into the shot. Then I reversed the action in the shot, so these streams of this wedding veil that were trailing behind her, they reached out in front of her in reverse. I shot at 500 frames a second at 16mm, to get the slowness and this kind of ghostly, ponderous movement. Then I built a special printer to blow that up to VistaVision. We had to replace the ceiling and lose the wire. We didn’t have digital wire removal, so there was matte painting involved. It was a real complicated shot.”
Where: Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 Vine St., Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Price: $3 to $5
Contact: (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org