I have a completely irrational, unfailing love for 'Poltergeist.' It was my favorite film as a kid, so much so that I saw it about six times in the theater and watched it incessantly on HBO. Here was a great story with great characters and great special effects, and since I've always loved horror movies, this PG-rated spookfest made me feel like a kid in a candy store. (Even better, I didn't need to sneak in to see it!) I've since revisited it many times over the years, and continue to be surprised at how well it holds up, both as familial drama and a highly-entertaining, compulsively watchable ghost story. So to say that this review will be at all objective is, of course, completely laughable. I'm just gonna gush.
The story idea for 'Poltergeist' came from Steven Spielberg (who also executive produced), and he ensures that the heart of the film is not the scares or the effects but our protagonists the Freelings, as all-American a family as any seen in a Spielberg movie. They live in the epicenter of suburbia, with dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson) making a killing in real estate, while Diane (JoBeth Williams) stays home with their three perfectly precious children, including little Carol Anne (the late Heather O'Rourke). That's what's so effective about the opening scenes of 'Poltergeist' -- how quickly and slyly Spielberg and the film's de facto director Tobe Hooper ('The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'The Funhouse') make the Freeling clan identifiable and likeable so that when the thrills begin we wholly believe the supernatural shenanigans. Here's the ideal American family that is not idealized -- Steve and Diane's love for their children feels organic and natural (Williams and Nelson have great chemistry), and they are surely the kind of family we'd all love to live next door to.
Unlike most modern ghost stories, which quickly descend into an overabundance of setpieces and CGI, Spielberg and Hooper avoid most of those pitfalls and continue to perfectly balance the scares with the human element throughout the rest of 'Poltergeist.' By now, everyone knows that following a visit from the playful poltergeists of the title ("the TV people!"), Carol Anne will get sucked into another dimension via her bedroom closet. Desperate to retrieve their little girl, Steve and Diane will call in a trio of parapsychologists (led by the late Beatrice Straight), and eventually a diminutive medium (Zelda Rubinstein). Yet, even as the film gets more and more fantastical (leading up to a tour de force climax that literally implodes the entire Freeling house), the familial bond of the Freelings grounds 'Poltergeist' and allows it to do what all great horror movies must -- get us to suspend our disbelief and make the unreal feel absolutely ordinary.
Though there have been reams of discussion on who the real author of 'Poltergeist' is -- Spielberg or Hooper -- it's clear that thematically, this is Spielberg's show all the way. It displays in spades his penchant for generalized spirituality without overt religious allusion. Nowhere is this more clearly defined than in what may be the film's thematic centerpiece, when Straight explains to Diane and son Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robbins) the nature of "the other side." Rather than some sort of apocalyptic judgment day, Spielberg's afterlife comes off as a sort of heavenly paradise whose only requirement for entrance is that you die. There is no Christian fundamentalism or gooey new-agey gobbledygook at work in Spielberg's intentions -- just an all-encompassing, admirable wish-fulfillment fantasy in which a wondrous world of pure love awaits us on the other side.
This conceit is the anchor that gives 'Poltergeist' it's true dramatic weight. Spielberg makes it essential that Diane and (in particular) Steve are ex-'70s liberals who have now been fully Reaganized, yet still have the heart of hippies (they are even seen rolling a joint late one night while the children fall asleep). On the surface, 'Poltergeist' is often dismissed as little more than an effects-filled story of one family's supernatural rescue mission of their little girl. But the real reason the film has resonated for twenty-five years is because it's really the journey of two modern suburbanites who must reclaim their belief in the spiritual, at least if they are to restore their metaphysically-fractured family. That it is the ultimate symbol of '80s consumerism -- the TV set -- that the ghosts use to first attract Carol Anne is certainly no coincidence.
Of course, 'Poltergeist' also works purely on the level of great, spooky entertainment. No, the film isn't really scary -- it's PG shocks are certainly a far cry from Hooper's blood-soaked 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' -- but it's like a great carnival funhouse that never lets up. 'Poltergeist' has endured despite zero body count and bloodless setpieces (a boy-eating tree, a demented clown hiding under the bed, a swimming pool filled with corpses) by expertly exploiting both childhood and adult traumas with a perfect fairy-tale touch. For once, we have a PG-rated horror film that doesn't feel like a fake-out. Spielberg once called 'Poltergeist' the dark side of his own 'E.T.', and that is perfectly apt. 'Poltergeist' is arguably the best modern ghost story of the past few decades, and one with just as much heart as scares.
'Poltergeist' hit DVD as one of MGM's initial launch titles way back in March 1997. Of course, I immediately ran out and bought it the first day it was available, and at the time I thought it looked pretty darn good. (In any case, it was better than the old laserdisc.) Unfortunately, time has not been kind to that ancient DVD, which now looks like complete and utter artifact-riddled mush. Thankfully, Warner finally restored the film for its 25th anniversary last year, and now, after another year wait for us high-def fans, the film has finally crossed over to Blu-ray.
This new 1080p/VC-1 encode may not be perfect, but it is light-years beyond the 1997 DVD. 'Poltergeist' has never looked better. Though there are still some print deficiencies, namely sporadic shots with pronounced grain and a bit of dirt here or there, overall the print looks very clean. Colors are superior to any previous version, including the remastered DVD, with the film no longer looking like a drab TV movie. Reds and blues are noticeably superior, in particular the film's nighttime scenes as well as the extended climax that boasts striking oranges (particularly in the "closet becomes big mouth" scene). Warner has also done a very fine job keeping blacks consistent while boosting contrast without overdoing it -- I've never seen 'Poltergeist' enjoy such a visible sense of detail and three-dimensionality. Sharpness is also up to par, with only a tad bit of softness at times. This is also a solid encode, with only some noise (particularly during the opening credits) to distract. As a diehard 'Poltergeist,' I was more than happy with this remaster.
Warner upgrades 'Poltergeist's audio to Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit), and it's a nice little remix. The film still doesn't truly overwhelm our aural senses, but it certainly sounds good for a 1982 film.
'Poltergeist' boasted state-of-the-art sound in its day, and holds up well here. Dynamic range sounds spacious enough, with solid (if unexceptional) low bass and a perfectly pleasing airiness to the rest of the spectrum. I still find the highest-register a bit on the brittle side, but there are no major defects here. Dialogue also sounds good, and is generally well-balanced in the mix. Surround use is likewise good but not fantastic. Discrete effects appear largely in the effects sequences, and during these moments are sustained and fairly well directed around the rears. Ambiance suffers, however, with little going on during quieter scenes. Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful score is a highlight, however, and it's never sounded better on video than it does here. It's also nicely bled throughout. 'Poltergeist' is a solid remaster, and as with the video I was pleased with the results.
Here's the huge disappointment of this set. These extras totally blow. In fairness to Warner, however, a birdie in the know tells me it has always been camp Steven Spielberg that has nixed the idea of a true 'Poltergeist' making-of (due to the still-sensitive issues over who really directed the film, etc.) So instead of cast and crew interviews and all that sort of good stuff, all we get is an utterly lame "documentary" on real-life spook hunters. Ugh...
I love 'Poltergeist.' It was one of my favorite films as a kid, and twenty-five years has not diluted its entertainment value. It is compulsively watchable, filled with memorable characters, and still spooky (if not actually scary). This Blu-ray is a great remaster, with sharp video and audio. The only disappointment is the utterly lame extras which even the Blu-ray-exclusive DigiBook packaging can't save. But buy this Blu-ray for the movie and tech quality, and you won't be disappointed.