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Poltergeist (1982)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 10/9/2007

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/8/2007

When horror-film buffs talk about the great scary movies of the 1980s, they usually hit upon the more violent and visceral classics such as The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, Re-animator, John Carpenter's The Thing, and Aliens. The decade took the violent and over-the-top films of the 1970s and pushed things even further in terms of on-screen content, and this usually comes to mind when thinking about those times. However, there's one classic which is easily overlooked, as it doesn't fit that mold. Yet, Poltergeist may arguably be the scariest movie of the 80s.

Poltergeist takes place in a quiet, suburban neighborhood where every house is nearly identical. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling (Jobeth Williams) live here with their three children, teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), 8-year old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and 5-year old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). The Freelings are a normal, American family. One night, Steve and Diane are awakened to find Carol Anne talking to a TV screen which is showing only static. They are slightly concerned by this, but assume that she was sleepwalking. The next night, Carol Anne does this again, and it's followed by a tremor which shakes the house. The next night, a storm hits the neighborhood and the tree outside of the children's bedroom window breaks through the glass, pulling Robbie outside. While Steve and Diane are helping their son, an unseen spectral force pulls Carol Anne into her closet, where she disappears. The Freelings are distraught when they can't find their daughter, but they are even more upset when they can hear her through the TV!

Steve consults a parapsychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), and she and her crew visit the Freeling house to begin their investigation. They are in awe of the movie objects and ethereal lights created by the ghosts. After assessing the situation, and seeing just how dangerous the ghosts can be, Dr. Lesh calls in a medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to help with the situation. But, none of them realize just how desperate the dead souls are to hold onto Carol Anne.

The screenplay for Poltergeist by Steven Spielberg (whoís also credited with the story), Michael Grais & Mark Victor could easily be viewed as a blueprint for how to write a successful horror movie. Unlike many films in the genre which open with a big, scary set-piece, Poltergeist begins with the National Anthem and the visual of a TV screen. From there, the movie introduces us to the Freelings and we see that these people lead fairly benign lives...save for the fact that their daughter talks to the TV. When the bizarre occurrences begin, they are relatively mild, such as furniture moving by itself. But, then the movie takes a nasty turn and we see that the ghosts involved here arenít fooling around. Instead of diving head-first into the supernatural, Spielberg & co. have focused on very ordinary objects and locations -- a tree, kitchen chairs, a bedroom closet, etc. -- to illustrate the haunting. From this point, the movie becomes a combination of a haunted house story with the tale of a family which is going through an unusual crisis. Then, of course, we have the finale wear the gloves really come off. (Poltergeist is one of those films which really works if you see it in the theater, or have no idea of the running time, as the final chapter is surprising a real roller-coaster ride.)

The filmís emphasis on simplicity and subtlety truly make it successful. By todayís standards, the pacing may seem slow, but Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper (Yes, we all know about the ďwho directed it?Ē debate) take their time in slowly building the mood. They lull you into a false sense of security and then all hell breaks loose. But, again, the manifestations shown in the film are all very subtle to begin with, and itís not until the second half of the film that anything really nasty happens. Itís been mentioned before that Poltergeist is one of the few horror films of the past 25 years where no one dies. Thatís because a characterís death isnít necessary to motivate the frightening nature of this film. The movieís power lies in the fact that it takes a seemingly normal and familiar situation and makes it scary. Television has become a mainstay of modern America and to think that itís a link to the afterlife is chilling. The tagline for the film is ďIt knows what scares you.Ē This simple idea comes to fruition as nearly every fear or anxiety mentioned by the Freelings is turned against them. (This idea would later be used in many other movies.)

Due to the fact that it carried a recklessly lax PG rating, Poltergeist was seen by many youngsters of my generation. A generation which was horrified by this masterful film. Iíve always said that we donít have enough haunted house films, and we certainly donít see many as impressive as Poltergeist. The movie balances a familiar human story with an incredible supernatural tale. This is then peppered with grotesque images which stay with the viewer long after the film is over. Now that itís 25 years old, itís time for a new generation to discover Poltergeist.

Poltergeist haunts DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The newly released 25th Anniversary DVD replaces the prior releases of the film. This DVD contains digitally restored video and remastered audio. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The restored image looks good, but at times the movie still looks like itís 25 years old. Some shots show a notable amount of grain and details are lacking in some scenes. Other than these occasional missteps, the image is sharp and clear. The colors look good, and the image is never overly dark. Despite the fact that itís a horror film, Poltergeist has a very natural look, and the clarity in some of these brighter shots is impressive. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Now, Iíve often had issues with 5.1 tracks created for older films, as they usually sound stereo at best. Not with this track. This track provides a wealth of stereo effects and a nice amount of surround effects. But, itís the bass response which is really impressive, as the booming thunder and the exploding coffins are greeted with a great rumble from the subwoofer. Owners of the older DVD will want to upgrade.

While the transfer impresses here, the extras do not. The lone special feature here is ďThey Are Here: The Real World of PoltergeistsĒ, a 31-minute documentary about ghost hunting. Through comments from experts, we learn about the science used by those who attempt to contact and observe ghostly phenomenon. While this piece has constant clips from Poltergeist, the connection to the film is tenuous at best. I used to have Poltergeist on laserdisc and that release had a ďmaking ofĒ featurette which has a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. Why wasnít that included here?

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long