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Case Number 12206

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Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition

Warner Bros. // 1982 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // October 15th, 2007

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All Rise...

Judge Brett Cullum is afraid of a visit from the TV People—particularly Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Poltergeist (2015) (Blu-ray) (published October 22nd, 2015) and Poltergeist (Blu-Ray) (published October 13th, 2008) are also available.

The Charge

Diane: Sweetheart, last night, when you said "They're here"…?
Carol Anne: Can I take my goldfish to school?
Diane: Sweetheart, do you remember last night when you woke up, and you said "They're here"?
Carol Anne: Uh huh.
Diane: Well, who did you mean?
Carol Anne: The TV People.

Opening Statement

One week before E.T. landed in theaters during the summer of 1982, another Steven Spielberg production debuted, cementing his dominance of the box office that year. While the touching story of an alien and his favorite earth boy insured there would not be a dry eye in the house, Poltergeist was the film destined to make certain there wasn't a dry seat in the house. Originally slapped with an R rating, the studio appealed and made sure plenty of kids got nightmares, thanks to a successful bid for a more family-friendly PG. Psychotic clown dolls, man-eating trees, and a swimming pool full of skeletons all converged in front of a typical American family to scare them senseless. This movie has it all, except it's never had a special DVD edition until now. Come into the light, and let's see what's haunting fans with Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition from Warner Bros…

Facts of the Case

Seemingly safe in their suburban California world, the Freeling family is living the American dream. But out of nowhere strange things start to happen, like when their daughter Carol Anne claims to hear voices coming from the television when it is transmitting nothing but static. Paranormal activity starts to ratchet up as furniture moves on its own, and soon family members can slide on the kitchen floor with no effort. The spirits seem playful and almost silly. One stormy night all hell breaks loose. A tree grabs the little boy, and Carol Anne is sucked in to the closet and disappears into another dimension. Now the Freelings must consult a team of psychics and ghost hunters who soon find themselves out of their league. The house has a secret, and it's about to shout it out the rafters of this American family's perfect home.

The Evidence

Poltergeist is my favorite example of a modern horror movie that is truly terrifying without any deaths and only one minor scene of gore. Think of it as The Haunting remodeled for the '80s with bombastic special effects from Industrial Light and Magic. It trucks along with plenty of shocks, but the beauty of the film is how much we come to care about the family as the terror unfolds. The film works on several levels simultaneously, and can be a different experience depending on your age. It taps in to childhood fears of dolls, monsters in the closet, and thunderstorms. At the same time it's every parent's nightmare to lose a child and not be able to fight back, and there's a spectral rape scene to get women gnashing their teeth. It's even a smartly constructed satire on American consumerism, how we've sold our soul for cheap housing in good locales. This is solid storytelling and a handsomely crafted film that works even twenty-five years after its initial release. E.T. won out in the box office, but how many sequels did that one get? There was something about Poltergeist that captured America's pop-culture conscious just as well.

It's a slick film, and it fits easily into the Steven Spielberg cannon. It looks like he directed it, but Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gets his name right above the title. Spielberg was only credited with producing the film, as he was forbidden by contract with Universal not to direct anything the same year he was working on E.T.. It's been a subject of long debate how much control Spielberg actually handed to the credited director Tobe Hooper, or if he was a name only by the end of the process. No need to rehash any of that at length. Suffice it to say, Spielberg wrote, edited (he wasn't credited with this, but he did), and produced the film while Hooper shot the sequences. Some claim Spielberg story boarded every scene and made adjustments after Tobe did the initial setup. Yet Hooper to this day claims he did at least half the story boards, and the two were collaborative. Whatever happened with the directing controversy, you can see both Spielberg and Hooper's fingerprints on the film negatives. We get all the glossy family fun of one of Steve's blockbusters, but there are some raw scenes which imply Hooper's bombast wasn't completely stifled. Hooper messed up the perfect hair the film would have otherwise, and Poltergeist is all the better for it. Though the movie plays out like a Spielberg fantasia, Tobe Hooper seems to be haunting the set enough to shake things up and make it feel slightly more dangerous. Yet the rumors persist even today, and actress Zelda Rubinstein claimed in a recent interview with Ain't It Cool News Spielberg directed her all six days she was on set (see Accomplices section for a link).

The casting of the film was purposefully done to showcase some faces that weren't too familiar at the time. In 1982 JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill) and Craig T. Nelson (The Family Stone) were the perfect couple to play the Freeling parents. Both were attractive but relatable, and, by not being big Hollywood stars, would appear normal. The production team wanted the film to be about a typical American family, and felt like big-name stars would distract from this. The kids were cast perfectly as well which seems like a Spielberg trademark. Dominique Dunn and Oliver Robins were the oldest girl and only boy. Dunn tragically died in 1982 at the hands of a spurned abusive boyfriend. Robins only returned to the screen as a young man including the sequel Poltergeist II: The Other Side, then went to film school; he now works behind the camera. The real find was Heather O'Rourke, who beat out Drew Barrymore for the role of Carol Anne (no worries since Drew got a great part in E.T.). Heather died while filming Poltergeist III, but will always be remembered for her signature blend of innocence and wonder. She's the perfect child for a Spielberg production, and who can forget her creepy "They're here!" proclamation at the foot of her parent's bed? Beatrice Straight (Network) and Zelda Rubinstein (Southland Tales) get campy turns as the ghost hunter and psychic who come to the family's aid when things get spooky.

This is the third time Poltergeist has surfaced on DVD. Early in the format's history in 1997 MGM released it with two transfers (widescreen and full-screen) and a trailer. When MGM's library was bought by Warner Bros. it was re-released in identical form. In 2002 rumors began to swirl that a twenty-year anniversary edition would come out. That never happened, although some claim it was available in promotional form on eBay. When this version was announced many DVD fans hoped it would have a better transfer and plenty of extras. Well, I can proclaim one thing for Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition

"This transfer is clean!"

Colors are warmer, skin tones are more natural, and there is no pan-and-scan option. Some digital noise has been eliminated, and the whole thing looks more fluid and less like the artificial boost used on the previous editions. Overall this is a much better image, although you will still detect grain and edge enhancement if you look closely enough. There is still the most awkward edit in film history at about thirty-three minutes in, when we cut from the kitchen to the Freelings asking the neighbors about strange happenings. Although they did a nice enough job with the visuals, the truly amazing upgrade is the sound. We get a full surround bump that seems less forced than these things usually are. Whoever mastered this track knew how to keep the art of subtlety when called for, and unleash the bass on the frightening bits.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Want some really solid extras for the 25th anniversary release? Well, Carol Ann, they are not here. What passes for a bonus feature will make you want to throw numbered tennis balls in the closet, and hope they land on a studio executive's head through the magic of temporal displacement and DVD fan anger. What do we get? "The Real World of Poltergeists," a two-part documentary on ghosts that has minimal ties to the actual movie other than frequent use of footage from the film. Sure, a couple of minor actors and producer Frank Marshall talk about some of the intentions to present an accurate haunted house. Mainly what we get are talking heads who claim ghosts are real, and that the dead can do these things. It's silly, badly produced, and pointless. Thirty minutes of a bunch of dubious ghost hunters is not what I was looking for. Baffling when you consider the laserdisc had "making of" footage, and even the older issued discs had at least the original trailer. In 1982 there was a "making of" documentary produced, but it isn't included. This is a major misstep to not include cast and crew for interviews or a commentary.

As much as I love the film, it can be a showcase for what's wrong with Spielberg and Hooper making a horror movie. Like most Spielberg movies, Poltergeist can be annoyingly slick and too family friendly. There are touches that seem "too cute," such as when we see the Hulk riding horseback in miniature in a haunted room. Then some touches remind me of what Hooper tends to do with loud sound effects and certain shock elements used only for their value. The gratuitous face-peeling scene instantly comes to mind in this department. Let's face it, this is a screechy movie, it's overlong, and has no real plot other than an extended "boo!," but somehow it doesn't suck. The good outweighs the bad, but I'm not going to go on record saying Poltergeist is perfect. It's a well-made movie, but it has cloying imperfections here and there.

Closing Statement

Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition is worth the upgrade for the stunning transfer and nice audio work in the full surround mix. The biggest disappointment is the extras which only include a two-part look at the not so scientific science of ghost hunting. There's nothing movie specific, and that's a shame. The film has a rich history, including a debate over who directed, a pair of young actresses who died not long after making it, and special effects that were state of the art when it was released. And what of JoBeth Williams' claim that the skeletons in the pool were real? There are plenty of stories to tell, and this anniversary edition leaves them untold. We'll have to settle for the film and the film only. Thank goodness it's still a great story with some satisfying scares.

The Verdict

Warner Bros. is sentenced to a trip into the kid's closet, and they can't return until they find some extras. The movie is free to go on making seats wet and scaring kids away from clown dolls and dead trees.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 96
Extras: 15
Acting: 94
Story: 94
Judgment: 84

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
• English
• Chinese
• French
• Portuguese
• Spanish
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Blockbusters
• Family
• Horror
• Paranormal

Distinguishing Marks

• "The Real World of Poltergeists" in Two Parts

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