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Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

Poltergeist movie poster Poltergeist

Theatrical Release: June 4, 1982 / Running Time: 114 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Tobe Hooper / Writers: Steven Spielberg (story & screenplay), Michael Grais, Mark Victor (screenplay)

Cast: JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Martin Casella (Marty), Richard Lawson (Ryan), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), James Karen (Mr. Teague), Dirk Blocker (Jeff Shaw), Michael McManus (Ben Tuthill), Helen Baron (Woman Buyer), Virginia Kiser (Mrs. Tuthill), Allan Graf (Neighbor), Robert Broyles (Pool Worker #1), Lou Perry (Pugsley), Sonny Landham (Pool Worker #2)

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Steven Spielberg scored two high-profile hits in the 1970s as director (Jaws) and writer-director (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The 1980s quickly took the filmmaker into high gear, making his prior directorial outing -- the nearly even-breaking war comedy flop 1941 (1979) -- soon forgotten. First came Raiders of the Lost Ark, a giant blockbuster and major award winner. Its favorable response would be dwarfed the following year by E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
In between those, however, was a film that Spielberg worked on perhaps to an even greater degree. Poltergeist, released one week before E.T., credits Spielberg as producer, story author, and the top-billed of three screenwriters. In addition to those three titles, cast and crew anecdotes have strongly suggested that Spielberg also served as an uncredited editor and even director of Poltergeist.

Officially ascribed with directing Poltergeist is Tobe Hooper, whose low-budget 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre announced him as a horror visionary. In response to remarks by Spielberg, the Director's Guild of America opened an investigation into the validity of Hooper's credit. The debacle of authorship continues to this day and watching Poltergeist makes it easy to see why. In look and feel, the film bears a striking resemblance to E.T., which Spielberg moved to immediately after Poltergeist shooting wrapped.

Like E.T., Poltergeist is set in what at first glance seems like a suburban California paradise, where the houses look the same and children dabble in benign mischief. Of course, if you recognize the title as a common noun, you know that ghostly disorder is in the cards. The movie's opening half-hour is clearly the calm that anticipates the storm, but it also serves to familiarize us with the Freelings. Though not torn apart by divorce like E.T.'s unnamed central clan, the Freelings displays a number of attributes which distance them from an idealized family unit. The parents, Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson), would have been of high school age when they had their first child together. At nights, when their young children struggle to fall asleep, Mom and Dad are seen smoking marijuana and goofily enjoying the high that comes with it.

"They're here!" In "Poltergeist", five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) is fixed on the staticky television, which allows her to communicate with another world. The kids are in bed, which means that it's time for Reagan reading, reruns, and a bit of reefer for parents Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson).

Taking a pause from what can be classified as cute bickering, 5-year-old daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) and slightly older brother Robbie (Oliver Robins) find fright at night in an eerie tree outside their window and a scary-looking clown. There's also a frightening thunderstorm, which Dad calmly explains a way of tracking in a memorable exchange. Finally, for Carol Anne, there are "the TV people", with whom she communicates through the static that follows the end of the broadcast day's National Anthem sign-off.
It is this group which most concerns us, for after days of inexplicable phenomena occurring around the house, one stormy night, the supernatural beings which have tapped into the frequency are believed to have abducted young Carol Anne into their world. Poltergeist proceeds to depict the efforts of Diane, Steve, and their hired help -- beginning with a trio of parapsychologists and concluding with Zelda Rubenstein's sassy clairvoyant Tangina -- to rescue the missing girl that they can still occasionally hear through their television's static.

Poltergeist was a hit with audiences in the summer of 1982, though to a much lesser degree than E.T. was. Poltergeist's $76.6 million domestic earnings put it among the year's highest grossers while registering as Spielberg's first film to qualify as a financial success but not an all-out blockbuster. By the horror genre standards, the film's attendance is quite distinguished; even ignoring inflation, the movie's ticket sales would be very remarkable today. The film garnered three Academy Award nominations and spawned two Spielberg-less sequels, which like most '80s follow-ups, failed to recreate the critical and financial reaction of their predecessor.

Revisiting the film 25 years since it was first released reveals it to still be a potent supernatural thriller. As with E.T., there is a little bit of the "Why this one?" factor that makes one question what made the film connect with early '80s viewers as strongly as it did. It's more relevant on the record-shattering E.T., but Poltergeist too maintains influence and, as evidenced by endless parodies and references, lasting power. By today's standards, it's not especially scary. Its successful appeal for a "PG" rating (it was initially slapped with an "R", as "PG-13" was two years away from its Spielberg-inspired creation) seems reasonable, with the exception of one extremely graphic and fairly pointless scene of flesh-ripping. The film is quite gripping, though, getting more mileage than you'd expect out of what largely amounts to little more than people standing around, listening, looking, and calling. The second climax, which opts for more conventional thrills, is a little excessive and less effective. The visual effects hold up moderately well, with only one unconvincing scene of swirling bedroom chaos showing its age.

Even if what the marketing campaign dubbed "the first real ghost story" doesn't shake up contemporary viewers quite the way it did a quarter-century ago, there's still a lot to like about the film, particularly in the depiction of the close-knit, odder-in-retrospect Freeling family. The room of the two youngest children is a shrine to early '80s culture, mostly Star Wars fare, that reminds one of the simpler times that of course the storyline effectively tears through.

Steve, middle child Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Diane look up at the bright light. In real life, the actors in these three parts are the only Freeling family members apparently not affected by the so-called Poltergeist curse. Zelda Rubinstein is one of the movie's scene-stealers (along with the Freelings' dog), playing the interestingly-voiced clairvoyant Tangina Barrons, one of just two characters to appear in all three "Poltergeist" films. Here, Tangina assuages the fears of the Freelings and parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight, left).

Poltergeist was among the first movies released to DVD when MGM issued it in April of 1997. Distribution rights passed over to Warner with its acquisition of Turner, but their version was identical to MGM's, offering both widescreen and fullscreen presentations plus the trailer. Supposedly, the film was pegged for a multi-disc 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD in 2002, which, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, has occasionally surfaced on eBay in an unfinished promotional form. Five years later, Poltergeist is actually revisited by Warner, in a set they're calling a 25th Anniversary Edition in some places.

In conjunction with this new DVD, Warner teamed up with National CineMedia's events satellite network NCM Fathom for a one-time-only screening of Poltergeist in select theaters nationwide this past week on Thursday, October 3rd. Excited as always for a chance to catch an older movie on the big screen, I was able to attend one of the two offered in my state. Sadly, the ball was dropped on what should have been an exciting common experience. The movie was bafflingly exhibited in what looked like a 1.33:1 presentation, noticeably cropping the film from its wider theatrical aspect ratio (credits sequences were letterboxed within). To top it off, improper projection gave the movie a trapezoidal look, ghosts weren't limited to a few scenes thanks to some slightly errant focus, and the Oscar-nominated sound design was reduced to a quiet monaural mix.

Not altogether deterred, the medium-sized audience responded to the film with a mix of nervous and relaxed laughter at all the right places. After the film, they were treated to half of the new DVD's bonus featurette. The experience cost $10 a head, which I can't help but think would have been better spent on the DVD that, in spite of some letdowns, offers a much superior presentation. Read on for more on the good, the bad, and the ugly of this anniversary rerelease.

Buy Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Dolby Surround (English, French, Spanish),
Dolby Digital Mono (Portuguese)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese;
Closed Captioned
Release Date: October 9, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $14.96 (Reduced from $19.98)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black keepcase with holographic slipcover
Later released on Blu-ray Book ($24.98 SRP; October 14, 2008) and Blu-ray ($19.98 SRP; September 7, 2010)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The DVD cover art boldly proclaims its movie to be "Digitally Restored and Remastered"
and the largely pleasing 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation confirms that to be true. There's some very light grain in a few places and those looking will find the occasional anomaly. But by and large, the transfer is clean, rich, and a massive improvement over previous non-16x9-enhanced incarnations.

The engulfing Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack allows one to appreciate the fine score by Jerry Goldsmith and the nice sound design, each of which was nominated for an Academy Award. The recurring thunderclaps encompass you with such sharpness and force that you may be tempted to make sure it's not storming outside your window. In addition, the peaks in instrumentation will have you jumping or glued as intended. Short of tampering with the elements, this is probably as good as Poltergeist will sound on the format.

If there's something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? ...This guy? With an EPK meter knock-off, ghost "hunter" Richard Senate tries to make sense of the spirits in "The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed." Paranormal investigator Barry Conrad is among the, um, experts who talk about ghost stuff in "Part II - Communing with the Dead." An iconic image makes for a simple main menu screen.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The DVD slouches in the supplements department, supplying only a 2-part, half-hour documentary that's more about actual poltergeists than the movie itself. Arbitrarily divided into two even halves, "They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed" (31:00) liberally employs film clips, contains brief appearances from actor Richard Lawson and producer Frank Marshall, and occasionally discusses Poltergeist and certain scenes in particular.
But for the most part, it's just a showcase for ghost hunters, psychics, and those who have written on the paranormal to talk about spirits' behaviors without a shadow of a doubt. Sadly, it's not even as interesting as a weak episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" or a special that could briefly halt flipping through the informational stretch of cable TV.

Some may view this as a downgrade in the bonus features department, when compared to MGM's decade-old disc's inclusion of the original theatrical trailer. For a movie being given a clear marketing push and being treated to a new edition celebrating the passage of a quarter-century (no small milestone), it's certainly strange and disappointing that more wasn't done in the way of bonus features. Heck, even previews of the movie's two sequels would have been preferable to the disc's barren slate.

The DVD's simple, effective slipcover art features Carol Anne's hands-on-television pose, which is made snazzy by selective holography around the title and TV. The keepcase artwork below mostly recreates it, with a different color palette. No inserts are found in the case. Though the disc and press materials both call this release a 25th Anniversary Edition, the packaging does not, aside from a sticker that points out the milestone. The subdued menus opt for more understatement with no animation, but some excerpts of score.

Coach (Craig T. Nelson) explains to Robbie how to tell if a storm is coming or going by counting the time between lightning and thunder. JoBeth Williams does her best extremely scared face.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As a movie, Poltergeist holds up relatively well, proving itself to still be captivating and intriguing if not especially scary or smart. The 25th Anniversary disc, however, registers as a disappointment for fans who have been waiting up to ten years for deluxe DVD treatment. While it does deliver a much-welcomed remastered, 16x9-enhanced presentation, the paranormal featurette that stands as the only supplemental inclusion seems like an insult to those craving genuine behind-the-scenes goodies from then and now. If you don't already own either MGM's or Warner's old DVDs, this disc offers more and at a reasonable price. But there are far more satisfactory upgrades out there, making this one to wait for bargain bin prices on for all but the most ardent fans, who may very well have just gotten burned on Thursday's underwhelming cinema screening.

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Reviewed October 6, 2007.



Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1982 MGM and 2007 Warner Home Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.