“Welcome… ALL are welcome..” For any movie-lovin’ kid who grew up in the 80s, those words instantly provoke – along with the even more familiar line “They’re Heeeerre” – images and memories of a thrilling rollercoaster nightmare/family film called POLTERGEIST, a movie that’s as American as apple pie and as terrifying to an adolescent as a creepy clown (or an evil tree, take your pick).
Having watched it again recently, I was struck by how dark and somber – not to mention utterly frightening – this PG-rated film frequently is. Despite the well-known secret that producer Steven Spielberg was heavily in charge during its production – the movie sure does look and feel like what would happen if you hired the man behind THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and SALEM’S LOT to direct a Hollywood ghost story.
To celebrate the film’s 25th Anniversary DVD release (on October 9th) I, along with several other journalists, was allowed to chat with “Tangina” herself, Zelda Rubenstein. You can’t hear it, but her affection for the film that launched her career and made her instantly-recognizable is deeply felt – and she certainly made us all feel welcome.
As this was your first spotlight movie, how was it presented to you?
ZELDA: Well, it was by audition, I was actually screen-tested several times before I was entrusted with the role. I do not know who my competition was.
Tangina’s declaration that “this house is now clean” has to be one of the most famous miscalculations in history. All these years later, is it ever a burden to have everybody’s minds slide primarily back to that infamous quote, back to that infamous early 80s character – and away from anything you’ve ever done since?
ZELDA: It’s neither a burden, nor a pleasure. It’s work. I’m not a Southern lady, I’m from Pennsylvania, and we speak sort of… correctly there. People identify me that way, and they also easily identify me on the street, because of my short stature. So I get picked out in many ways.
In this day and age, movies are made with a lot of CGI and high-tech computer effects. Can you talk about the special effects in your film – was it a lot of low-tech stuff, or a lot of cutting edge stuff?
ZELDA: Well, the special effects we added after I had finished my role. I only worked six days, and since it was my first real role, I kept my mouth shut and my ears open, and let things play out. I’m not a technology maven, I couldn’t give a rat’s behind about technology. It’s a necessary evil that put a lot of good people out of work. People that didn’t have special educations
Could you talk about Tobe Hooper, what he was like?
ZELDA: I don’t think I can, because during the six days that I worked, Steven Spielberg primarily took over. Like I said, I only worked six days, I don’t know what happened the other days…
Can you talk about working with Steven then?
ZELDA: He’s magnificent. His image gets on the screen. What I found is that what he wants to show and say, it gets up there the way he wants it. There’s no deviation from that… I’d love to work with him again, as far as I’m concerned he’s the best film director I’ve had so far.
What was your favorite moment from the set- being a new actress, working with an established director like Steven Spielberg – what was the one thing you mainly took away from it?
ZELDA: That I had worked with the best.
And where do you go from there? (Laughs)
ZELDA: That was what I asked myself. After that I got ANGUISH – well, after that I got SIXTEEN CANDLES – and I’m still very good friends with some of that cast… I just had great fortune, because I just kept working with the best…
Would you be willing to go back for another POLTERGEIST film?
ZELDA: Oh of course! But we don’t have the little girl, we lost Carol-Anne in 1988. And that was the end of the series…
What was the impact after you saw this film? How did you react to that? Did you go bonkers after they asked you to do so many sequels?
ZELDA: For me, it was very traumatic when I saw the film, at a screening for cast and crew, I practically had to be carried out of there because I realized it would change my life. It did cost me a 14 year relationship that I was involved in, because neither one of us knew how to handle this… Looking back, it was a fabulous experience.
How did your role with the special effects differ with each POLTERGEIST, was it always a burden or did it become easier with each?
ZELDA: Every one was different, and tested my mettle as an actress. I like the first one best of all, then the third one, and I was least content with my role in the second one.
When you were first reading the script, did you have any idea POLTERGEIST would become such a big hit, and that 25 years down the road you’d still be doing interviews? What do you think makes it so enduring?
ZELDA: The first script was very good. Mark Victor, Michael Grais, and Steven Spielberg wrote a magnificent script – and that’s always the basis for everything that’s gong to be good in film. And he picked people who were in a position to support that script, and I’m just so thrilled that I was allowed to be a part of it. It was a new experience for me – like I said I only worked six days – but I learned so much. I was very happy to be involved.
What kind of preparation did you do for the role of “Tangina?” How did you get ready for her?
ZELDA: I developed the character under a Ficus tree in the corner of my living room. I did not know how to develop a character, but I decided I better do something, because it looked like a really good opportunity. So I sat under there, and I developed an equilateral triangle in my mind, and at the base of the triangle was her knowledge – what she was doing. One side was her life as a boring Texas housewife, and the third side was her dream of becoming a dealer in Vegas. And I kept her dead center in that equilateral triangle at all time. Those were my guidelines, I don’t know where I got them from, that was my mental image. That’s how I developed the character…
There’s been so many ghost movies over the years, and yet POLTERGEIST remains at the top of the class. What is it about it that makes it THE ghost story of the last 25 years?
ZELDA: It’s hard for me to say. I know that my role was one that was very sympathetic. I’m always surprised that people say it’s a horror film – there were some astonishing things in it – but I think what made it so memorable was the quality of the acting. JoBeth [Williams] was so fine! I was just glad to do it.
QUESTION: How would you feel if they presented a remake of POLTERGEIST?
ZELDA: I think it’s worthy. I don’t know if I’d be invited to be involved in any way. It’s very rare that the sequel is better than the original, or the second issuing. I just saw a film that I had seen years ago, 3:10 TO YUMA, and I thought this was a better film, butt hat’s because the technology is so improved… It depends on in who’s hands the direction falls…
What other scary movies do you like?
ZELDA: I don’t particularly like scary movies. I have a little darkness about me, but basically I’m a gentle soul, and I don’t go out to scare myself. I like films that tend to be uplifting. Some of the scariest things that I’ve ever experienced are living through the 20th century. The administration we have currently- now that’s scary.
I’d like to thank Zelda and all the p.r. people at Warner Bros. who helped make this interview happen. It really was great chatting with a horror-movie legend…