The question of authorship of 1982's Poltergeist is not going to be resolved here. It is one of the great stubbornly unanswered question of film production in modern days: whether producer/scenarist/co-writer Steven Spielberg (it is one of only three films for which he took a screenwriting credit) in fact directed the movie for which Tobe Hooper received credit, or if he was simply a very, very, very hands-on producer. It is a situation that undoubtedly happens more often than anybody supposes, and the history of the studio system is thick with movie for which the producer had more of a firm hand on the final product than the director, or directors (for it is also the case that many more old films than you could imagine went through multiple directors, with only the last one, or the one who did the most work, getting the onscreen credit; the studios were factories then, not art classes). But in this case, fanboyism kicks in: an anxiety over whether the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the director, also in 1982, of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial "really" made Poltergeist, and how we're supposed to value it as a result. Which is nonsense, of course; whether Hooper was just there to facilitate Spielberg's vision, or if he was just there to serve as a blind for the DGA while Spielberg facilitated his own vision (and what is not contested is that Hooper had little to nothing to do with post-production, where the bulk of any film's actual personality emerges anyway), there was never any point whn Hooper might possible have ended up as the auteur of what is, every inch, a Spielberg film. And this is not the first time that a producer, and not the director, served as the primary creative spirit behind a movie: one needn't look beyond David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun for two especially clear-cut examples. The desire to discover who "really" directed Poltergeist is a farrago, mired in 1970s-style belief in Director as God and the way that singular artistic visions can be communicated though an especially collaborative art form. But we are in the 1980s now; the director's artistic vision is dead, and it is now time for branding and marketing and a new iteration of the old studio machine to make movies for us, and not individual genius so much.

Anyway, the point of any film is the film, and whoever really directed Poltergeist, the film does not cease to be the thing it has always been and will always be: a fascinating and in some ways disastrously compromised dark twin to E.T. that also represents a weirdly family-friendly horror movie from an era when "horror movies" almost exclusively meant stories of grotesque psychos stabbing sexually active teenagers with lots of stage blood ensuing. It's one of those haunted house movies about the unpredictable terrors of home ownership, looking at the literal suburban hell faced by the Freeling family: dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson), who got the gorgeous new tract home they all live in as a perk for being the most awesome of all the sales reps for the Cuesta Verde subdivision; mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), teen daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), young son Robbie (Oliver Robins), and youngest of all, little Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), who's the first member of the family to actively notice the odd shifts and bumps that everybody else overlooks. She also develops, early in the movie, a peculiar fascination with the static that the family television receives when programming ends for the evening (ah, the days when TV wasn't broadcasting every hour of every day!). In fact, by the end of the first scene, she'll end up staring intently at the blasting white noise with an implacable look of calm on her face that contrasts mightily with the raging flickers of white light that make her close-up look unnaturally freakish for such a small child.

Something or someone is communicating to Carol Anne through that static, and it starts to mess with the Freeling household at large, creating a weird zone in the kitchen where objects and people slide across the floor, while also battering things about and shaking the house to no end. Inexplicably, the family doesn't take this as their cue to leave immediately; it's not until one particularly violent event during a terrible storm results in Carol Anne having been spirited right out of the house that Steve and Diane begin to suspect that something terrible might be going on; this sends them to call on local parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) to help figure out what the hell is happening, and when she proves no better equipped to to explain the paranormal activity, she brings in the psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), whose beatific attitude in describing the unholy nexus of dark psychic energy residing in the Freeling home is the freakiest part of the whole movie.

Poltergeist is a garden variety haunted house movie in a lot of ways; it benefits most from coming at a time when, after years and years of treating horror as a shoddy B-commodity to be hidden with shame, the studios were starting to realise, en masse, that there was some money to be made in the genre. And it especially benefits from being a pet project of Spielberg's right in the window of time when he could basically do no wrong: he had, between 1975 and 1981, directed three of the most indescribably enormous hits in the history of American cinema (and also the mega-flop 1941, from which he sprung back quickly), and if he wanted to oversee the first special effects horror extravaganza of the new popcorn movie era, nobody was likely to step in and tell him no. And so Poltergeist is executed with a tremendous array of cinematic tricks that were the absolute state of the art in 1982, most of which have aged fairly well. Though a lot of it feels sort of identical to his 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and therein lies the problem.

Poltergeist is a Steven Spielberg movie. I've said it, but it needs to be repeated: whether Tobe Hooper "directed" it or not, he was only executing Spielberg's very specific and very characteristic vision. That the film came from the exact same period in Spielberg's adulthood reminiscing about Spielberg's childhood as E.T. is absolutely impossible to miss, as both present a version of the California suburbs as a nexus for childhood fantasies - happy fantasies of finding a best friend and having adventures in E.T., scary fantasies of looming spooky trees and creepy clown dolls and the ineffable terror of thunderstorms in Poltergeist. But Steven Spielberg, for all the thrillers dotting his career, has an attitude that is completely at odds with the impulses of horror, and however much influence Hooper had on the pre-production and production (and nobody denies that he was active in the film's pre-production), the fingerprints of a man who certainly isn't known for his family-friendly work are clearly to be felt in patches here and there. So we have, on the one hand, a writer and producer whose instincts are unyieldingly safe and juvenile in focus: let's make Poltergeist a spooky story about the things that scare little kids, but not too spooky. And on the other, we have a collaborator who made America's most widely-seen film about cannibalism prior to The Silence of the Lambs. Given how much of the film ends up walking back all of the actual scary material with lengthy conversations about metaphysics and light shows in which ghosts look like even more gentle Spielbergian aliens, it's remarkable that Hooper, or whoever, was able to get as much of the legitimate nightmare fuel smuggled into the film as he was: it's never sustained for more than a scene, and it's usually only a single isolated effect at a time, but there's a reason Poltergeist started the conversation that ultimately led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Rotting flesh hallucinations and giant hell-skulls and some acutely terrifying sound effects come along just often enough to pierce through the "let's tell a scary bedtime story!" attitude that is Poltergeist's main mode for it to feel legitimately darker and harsher than a first approximation of the story and the way the story has been told would ever lead one to believe.

At the same time, it leaves the film feeling erratic and lumpy: not like the largely gentle-touch of the horror was a deliberate choice to let those occasional high-impact moments land harder, but like the film was being torn in two directions. And again, we don't know that happened; but the story about how Jerry Goldsmith (hired to give a disappointingly generic John Williams impression) was shocked to find that he'd be working with the producer, not the director seems awfully telling in at least one respect. For the score, more than anything else, is the film's keenest tool in knocking the edge off its horror with a sweetness and even Romantic air that significantly undercuts the moody lighting and looming camera angles (particularly in the very last shot, which seems for all the world like it should be brooding, except that the music insists, in a most bullying way, "all is well, the heroes have won, la-la").

The production values alone are enough to make this one of the 1980s' most distinctive and important horror movies, showcasing what the genre could do when given unprecedented resources and support; its thematic concerns - living in the suburbs is actually bad for your soul! - make it essential viewing for any even semi-serious Spielberg aficionado, of whom I understand that there are at least one or two out in the world. Its interpolation of enormously ambitious shot set-ups and effects sequences into the modest domestic setting of a single family home set it out as one of the most unique of the first generation of post-Star Wars effects showcases. And yet for all that I'd basically recommend it as necessary viewing for everybody, I can't convince myself that Poltergeist actually works all that well. Truly, it achieves the exact goal it sets for itself, to provide the most intense scary movie experience that the whole family can enjoy. But speaking as a grown-up horror fan, I can't help but wish for more out of this one-of-a-kind marriage of Spielbergian extravagance with genre mechanics, and while Poltergeist does not fail on its own terms, it still feels very much like a missed opportunity.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1982
-Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger learns what is best in life in Conan the Barbarian, and becomes the most unexpected superstar in generations
-The lingering memory of the Holocaust poisons the present, as Meryl Streep is forced to make Sophie's Choice
-Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the film that launched a thousand puberties, and proved the teen sex comedy could be pretty darn good cinema, too

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1982
-The Palme d'Or victory for Yol brings Turkish cinema to new international prominence
-In the last year of his life, ultra-prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder releases his final masterwork, Veronika Voss
-Contemporary history is solemnly embalmed by the British-Indian co-production Gandhi