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So who really wrote 1982’s Poltergeist!?

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Caffeinated Clint

Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

I’ve long held a fascination with Tobe Hooper & Steven Spielberg’s “Poltergeist”. Just love the movie. It’s horror at it’s best. It’s not bloody, carcass-crushing torture-porn-style horror either – it’s more of the good ol’ fashioned mesh of high-volume frightening sounds and pupil-basing visuals. It’s as close to a ‘family’ horror movie as you could get. But I’m fascinated with the film beyond it’s pants-wetting themes. I don’t need to tell anyone about the “Poltergeist” curse, do I? I mean, the History Channel runs a special on it each and every year. But wow, it’s such captivating stuff. So many stories from that set – many that’ll keep you up at night, too!

As many of you know, I was lucky enough to know Zelda Rubenstein, who played Tangina Barrons in the films. Wonderful lady. Miss her dearly. She shared some wonderfully insightful and entertaining stories about her time on the films. She was always happy to share information, and wasn’t shy in claiming who the real director of “Poltergeist” was – Mr Spielberg, of course. That, the whole ‘who directed Poltergeist?’ question, is one of Hollywood’s most unremitting dinner table conversations. Ah, to be a fly on the wall of the film set, I tell ya! But I think we finally solved that one, didn’t we!?

David Furtney over at Poltergeistiii dropped me a line today, filling me in on a story he’d just filed that he knew I’d be interested in reading. It’s a goodie. It has to do with who wrote “Poltergeist” (yeah, they’re no longer arguing about who directed the film… it’s who wrote it now!). Now we know that Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor are credited as writing the 1982 film, but according to Furtney’s sources, the story may have been ripped off from two other writers.

Says Furtney, “The official story goes something like this: “Poltergeist” and “E.T.” began originally as “Night Skies,” which was to be the sequel to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at Columbia Pictures. Steven Spielberg had the idea of a farm family who is terrorized by a group of evil aliens, with one of the aliens who becomes friendly with one of the family’s children. A script was written by John Sayles, and an SFX artist even began work on the alien creatures. Columbia later decided they didn’t want the project, so Spielberg pitched it to MGM. He would produce, and find someone else to direct. At first Spielberg offered “Night Skies” to Tobe Hooper, but Hooper felt the alien aspect wasn’t really his thing and said he’d like to do a ghost story instead.”

Okay, so we know most of that. We knew of Sayles’ involvement.

“Hooper claims to have pitched Spielberg on an idea he had been developing off and on for the past eight years at Universal”, continues Furtney. “He’d happened to get the old office of director Robert Wise, who made “The Haunting.” Hooper found a book about poltergeists in Wise’s desk, and thought the idea would make a good movie. Supposedly, according to Hooper, he worked with William Friedkin to try to get Universal interested in the project. The idea was to use the studio’s surround sound process for the poltergeist effects. He and Spielberg collaborated by mail on a treatment while Spielberg was shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Hooper claims to have come up with the idea of a family situation, people who were next door neighbors to a cemetery, but that his version didn’t have an ending. He claims that the idea of the ghosts kidnapping the child didn’t come until late in the development process, and that the idea was both his and Steven’s. Now, how credible this version of events is remains unclear.”

Here’s where things get interesting!

“…in January of 1980, two writers named Paul Clemens and Bennett Michael Yellin submitted, via their agent, a script treatment called “Housebound” to Spielberg’s production company, Amblin’…. It was a haunted house story concerning the tribulations of a three child family whose youngest daughter was kidnapped by the house, and hidden somewhere inside it. As the family attempt to get her back, they can hear her voice calling out somewhere within the house for help. It’s discovered that the home was built on top of a swamp where people had died under mysterious circumstances, and at the climax, the bodies of those who died come crashing up from beneath the home’s floorboards. Clemens and Yellin never heard anything back from anyone at Spielberg’s office after their treatment was submitted. And, in what was to become significant later on, Clemens’ agent did not retain (or lost) the messenger receipt proving that the treatment had in fact been delivered to Amblin.'”

Two months later Spielberg had finished his treatment for “Poltergeist”, then called “Nighttime”.

“In late 1981, Paul Clemens first became aware of the similarities between “Housebound” and “Poltergeist” while at a party at the home of “Alien” producer Ronald Shusett….He decided to obtain a copy of the “Poltergeist” script as soon as possible. Once he and Bennett Yellin read it, they got it to Clemens’ attorney/business-manager, and then it quickly found its way to the desk of the barrister/solicitor copyright infringement specialist team (that became their lawyers on the case). The legal team agreed to take their case solely on a contingency basis, as they felt it was that strong.”

“There were allegedly 67 points of similarity between “Housebound” and “Poltergeist” (including the young daughter stolen away by the house and an ongoing search for her, the tree coming to life, the bodies coming up out of the water beneath the shattered floorboards of the house, a room turning into a throat with a tongue, etc.). What the plaintiffs in the case believed was that an intern or other lower level “ghostwriter” employee at Amblin read the treatment, and then jotted down a bunch of ideas from it which were then presented to the “Poltergeist” creative team as their own (the intern/ghostwriter’s) contribution. It was not believed that Spielberg himself “stole” or authorized the theft of the material; he was simply too busy a man to be reading spec submissions from then unknown writers. What remains unclear is exactly when these alleged unauthorized “borrowings” took place.”

Furtney says that he’s heard that the Clemens and Yellin actually won their case 20 years ago. Spielberg’s troupe paid them.

You can read the whole article here

A remake of “Poltergeist” is currently in development. Juliet Snowden and Stiles White wrote the libretto.

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About Caffeinated Clint

Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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