DVD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras F
BD - Image A Sound A Extras F
starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke
screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais & Mark Victor
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Walter Chaw Time has made it impossible to see Poltergeist as anything other than a Steven Spielberg-directed picture. The hallmarks are there, from the microscopic attention to the family dynamic to the ridiculous, set-piece bombast of the grand finale. The only moments that feel like a Tobe Hooper joint are tiny throwaways that lack the polish Spielberg's visual savant-ism demands, such as an artless shot of a killer clown doll, or a sequence where a guy rips his face off beneath an inexplicable sodium light over a likewise-inexplicable industrial wash basin. The rest of it is Spielberg clockwork: great suburbs, great special effects, great abuse of an expositive score (here Jerry Goldsmith fills in for John Williams), great overuse of the slow push-in, great hot mom, great irrelevant dad, great plucky little kids.
The best moment of the picture utilizes each of these things as hot mom Diane (JoBeth Williams, at peak hotness) discovers that her breakfast nook is filthy with spooks, not long after eldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne) is sexually harassed by workmen and just before youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) is sucked into the TV. You could make something of the birth imagery later in the film as Madonna and Child are belched out of a womb-like portal, covered, for all intents and purposes, in blood and amniotic fluid, but why bother? Poltergeist isn't a smart movie, nor is it a thoughtful one in the slightest. Indeed, what one's most left with is the feeling that it's an exercise in clever in which Spielberg has done every single thing he can to announce himself as the author of the piece. It's Jaws and the rolling boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the setting and visitation of E.T. and the extreme backlighting of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's the manic destruction at the end of 1941, and it's shot through with this extraordinary affinity and interest in the thought processes of children. If I were Hooper, I wouldn't even try to claim this one.
That being said, twenty-seven years after its release, Poltergeist holds up pretty well--occasionally, if very occasionally, brilliantly--as an example of, if nothing else, Spielberg at both his technical prime and the nascence of the puerility that would define him as the pre-eminent director of childish entertainments for all time. In other words, the picture starts well, gives the impression that it's headed for classic status, then fucks itself royally and violently for almost the whole of its conclusion and epilogue. Still, there's that first two-thirds, starting with a wonderful sequence with the family dog as the secret sharer of the house and the astonishing reveal that Diane and Steve would've had to have had Dana when Diane was sixteen, progressing through a flat-genius reveal of the chair-stacking abilities of the titular ghosts, and ending roughly around the time of the fake-out ending when a giant monster head yells at poor dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson). The image of Carol Anne before the hearth of television and TV's omnipresence in the earlygoing suggest a note of real interest as Spielberg begins to excavate the cancers eating away at the bonds of familial connection that receive a bookend in the picture-framed conclusion of the domestic portion of Catch Me If You Can. You can even feel in the cold emanations of the flickering blue cathode fire the sense of alienation that is, sadly, the picture's lingering impression of its suburban wonderland. Its parting shot of daddy banishing a hotel television is game-set-match in the Freeling's struggle between a father who works too much and the family that misses him.
But first, join the Freelings as they go through the motions of their day-to-day. Diane enacts a funeral for the canary of her grieving kinder and Spielberg does a dry-run of his red-coated Holocaust victim from Schindler's List in an affecting bit where bulldozers dredge up the pet's cigar-box coffin. As cultural signposts go, Poltergeist isn't a bad one, with me and most of my generation counting it among the first contemporary fright films we were allowed to see. (The final coffin nail in the Hooper-as-director myth.) My memories of it are largely unsullied upon looking at it so many years down the line--this distance mainly offering me the perspective that all those things about it I thought were scary once upon a time were not nearly so sticky in my memory as Williams, in panties and a football jersey, thrusting her pelvis at the camera and getting pulled up the side of a wall. That marriage of sex and fear in a semi-literal rape towards the end of the film is where Hooper's influence could be argued with the most heat--that, and the fact that the suburban-oriented Spielberg, especially in the year he presented to the world My Friend Flicka with a toad-like alien Christ subbing for the horse, seems unlikely to have it in him to destroy an entire housing development. In spite of any defenses thrown in the path of the picture, Poltergeist remains that paragon of the "good" movie. It looks great, it has committed performances and a sprinkling of legendary sequences, and there's something in it for anyone with the mildest interest in Spielberg. And for the morbid, there's all that extracurricular intrigue surrounding the murder of Dunne by a jealous boyfriend in the aftermath of the film's release and poor little O'Rourke's death from a weird tummy thing as the Poltergeist trilogy neared completion.
More's the pity, then, that Poltergeist would return to DVD to commemorate its 25th anniversary with almost nothing in the way of special features. A commentary track was not expected from Hooper and certainly not from Spielberg, but how 'bout something from DP Matthew Leonetti, who lathers on the gloom to combat Spielberg ladling on the schmaltz? Leonetti's work on Johnny Handsome and Strange Days remains impressive--I would've liked to hear what he had to say. Apparently there's a Poltergeist LaserDisc box set with documentary footage of Spielberg giving the actors direction; shouldn't this particular controversy, like the Warren Commission findings and the Nixon Tapes, have an expiration date for its Top Secret status? In place of anything of possible interest for fans of the film, find a pathetic thirty-minute featurette interviewing real-life paranormal researchers (and, briefly, fourth-Ghostbuster prototype Richard Lawson) as they wax profound about energy and life forces and EM fields with the detail and information of Yoda. Their bug-eyed pronouncements are the kind of drivel Discovery Channel uses to pass the off hours, and the repeated declarations that Poltergeist almost, just almost, gets the facts right makes me want to punch someone in the throat. You can't tell me it wouldn't have been as easy--and volumes more entertaining--to recount tales of actual hauntings?
Luckily, more care is taken in the "Digitally Restored and Remastered" 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Edge enhancement does prove to be a distraction now and again (though not nearly as much as it did on the old MGM platter from 1997 -Ed.) and grain is too absent too often, I fear, yet there's an overall crispness that unearthed new details for me. (Before this, I had only seen the film on the beat-up VHS bootleg I had as a kid.) It's the first time, for instance, I could see with absolute clarity the skull beneath the flesh in that face-ripping scene. Neat. Less cool is how the overzealous-at-times restoration renders the special-effects badly dated. What was surprising to me was an edit from the kitchen demonstration to the bemused neighbours next door that apparently elides Steve's line, "I hate Pizza Hut." Guess I gotta go dig that VHS out of mothballs to see if said cut is there as well. It's such a discordant leap that I believed, until I did some snooping around, that there was a defect on the disc. Presumably sourced from Poltergeist's then-state-of-the-art 70mm 6-track soundmix, the DD 5.1 audio is similarly revelatory, with a mid-film thunderstorm (and near kid-eating) filling the discretes with well-distinguished noise. There are no other extras, unless you count the slightly-holographic slipcover. Originally published: February 23, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner has reissued Poltergeist on Blu-ray, dropping the DigiBook packaging but keeping everything else the same. I'm disappointed by not only the continued suppression of the featurette that graced the LaserDisc box set but also the apparent unwillingness of any content producers to step up with fresh making-of material. This movie's production is a rich, mostly-untapped mine and the first real excavator is going to have a hell of a story on his or her hands, one that will probably take the form of a contemporary Rashomon--although at this point, I'd settle for an interview with Richard Edlund about the special effects.* They're impressive for their time and, moreover, they're impressively well-preserved in this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer, betraying neither the usual truckload of optical debris nor a notable amount of noise-reduction. Quite frankly, this is one of the best-looking discs of an '80s title you will ever encounter. The stars aligned for a tight, clean presentation full of pitch but never crushed blacks and sun-bright but never "hot" whites. Fine detail, though blunted at a cinematographic level by the anamorphic lensing, is crisper simply by virtue of relieving all that NTSC congestion; I think this is the first time I ever noticed that the clown doll's teeth are kind of pointy--'nuff said. Listening to the attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track, I marvelled at the discrete imaging, especially when the ghostbusters check out Carol Anne's bedroom post-abduction and her toys swirl around the room. It's actually more convincing aurally than it is visually. Apparently this is a "remaster" as opposed to a "remix," so I'm going to give the sometimes digital-sounding foley the benefit of the doubt. As for extras, the lame 2-part "documentary" "They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed" has been dutifully recycled. Originally published: October 29, 2010.
*UPDATE (11/15/10): Reader David Furtney writes: "I run a fan site dedicated to all three of the Poltergeist movies. I've done a lot of research into the various production controversies surrounding the film. Thought you might be interested in these particular links: Spielberg's 'shadow direction'; the controversial writing of the film (a settled lawsuit resulted); Spielberg's never before seen treatment, called 'Night Time'; and why the 25th anniversary DVD sucked as far as special features go." Thanks, David--great site.