Judge Dan Mancini knows what scares you.
…in high definition.
Facts of the Case
The Freelings are a happy middle class family living in sunny California. Steve (Craig T. Nelson, The Incredibles) is the top real estate agent for the Cuesta Verde subdivision, where the Freelings also live. His wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill) is beautiful and devoted. His children—Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins, Airplane II: The Sequel), and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke)—are happy and well-adjusted. Their lives are perfect until they begin to experience strange disturbances in their house—objects move, things go bump in the night, apparitions speak to Carol Anne through the family's television set.
When the ghostly activity turns nasty and Carol Anne is abducted into the ether, they consult paranormal researcher Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight, Network). The intensity of the paranormal activity inside the Freeling home baffles and terrifies the doctor and her team. Unable to recover Carol Anne, they bring in Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon), a medium who may know how to rescue the girl and clean the house of evil spirits.
The story goes that Steven Spielberg had two productions in the hopper in 1982, but was contractually bound to only direct one of them. He first offered Melissa Mathison's screenplay for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). When Hooper passed, Spielberg opted to direct E.T. himself, while handing his original screenplay for Poltergeist over to Hooper. Assuming the story is true, I'm sure I'm in the minority in wishing that Hooper had taken Spielberg's initial offer. It's not that I dislike E.T. or even that I think Poltergeist is a great movie. It's that Poltergeist would probably be a more interesting movie if Spielberg had exerted directorial control over his script. Even under Hooper's direction, it plays like the dark cousin of Spielberg's most Spielbergian movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The screenplays for Poltergeist and Close Encounters are among the few written by Spielberg himself. Both offer the most explicit statements of the themes and ideas that Spielberg returns to again and again in his career: the tension between family cohesion and individual self-discovery, and the anxiety (sometimes terror) of children separated from their parents. Close Encounters is fundamentally male in its perspective. Roy Neary's quest for U.F.O.s is presented with such romantic idealism that, once he gets going, we hardly think twice about the ugly future consequences of the dissolution of his family caused by his single-mindedness. The subplot involving the abduction of Gillian Guiler's young son is peculiarly male in its execution—the boy isn't so much abducted by the aliens as he runs away with them, severing (temporarily, anyway) his family bonds as he goes. Poltergeist is like the female flip-side of Close Encounters. The earlier film's love of the quest is replaced by a focus on protecting and restoring family cohesion. Unlike Barry Guiler, Carol Anne Freeling is taken from her mother by force and against her will. With JoBeth Williams at the center of the action, Poltergeist is like Gillian Guiler's tale of maternal anxiety stretched into a feature-length ghost story with laughs, scares, and special effects galore. I don't want to dive too deeply into the morass of semiotics, but if Close Encounters' central symbol (Devil's Tower) is obviously phallic, then Poltergeist is packed to the gills with effects sequences that are decidedly vaginal and evocative of birth (you don't have to be Jacques Derrida to pick up on the symbolism when Williams and O'Rourke fall from the ether, clutching each other in the fetal position and covered in ectoplasmic goo).
Sitting down with this new Blu-ray release of Poltergeist gave me the opportunity to view the movie again for the first time in a long while. It was a pleasantly nostalgic experience, but I can't say the movie has aged all that well. Some of the optical effects work remains convincing; much of it does not. One scene, for instance, starts off with skin-crawling vigor as the malicious ghosts fool one of the paranormal investigators into believing the chicken drumstick he's eating is crawling with maggots, but devolves into unintentional laughs when he tears away flesh from a hokey and poorly-lighted prosthetic replica of his own head. Still, the effects are top-notch for the time they were made and won't distract anyone willing to suspend disbelief and cut the 26-year-old picture some slack. The larger problem with the effects is that they make Poltergeist a ghost story that is often too visually explicit (do we need to see animated ghost hands emerging from television sets?) when eerie and macabre might have been better. As ghost stories go, Poltergeist doesn't hold a candle to Robert Wise's more restrained and terrifying The Haunting.
More troublesome than the aged effects (which are still mostly fun) are Hooper's directorial excesses. Subtlety isn't the man's forte; he prefers that his cast overstate the obvious. They leave little doubt as to how you're supposed to respond to a scene—shrieking dialogue instead of speaking it, repeating lines three times when once would suffice. Moments in the film cross the line into kitsch. As written, the Freelings are an affable if one-dimensional middle class American family of the '80s—Steve and Diane dabble in pot, read Reagan biographies, and get mildly frisky in the bedroom; teenage daughter Dana is bright, fun-loving, and benignly loose; and tykes Robbie and Carol Anne are cute little moppets. Hooper's direction adds no depth to the character framework in Spielberg's script. The actors, though, do a fine job of screaming, emoting wide-eyed terror, and chewing scenery. The cast is anchored by Williams, who is appropriately distraught over Carol Anne's plight and proves to be a damned fine screamer (de rigueur for horror movie heroines).
Compared with modern torture porn and horror gorefests, Poltergeist is refreshingly low-key. The first act is a comfortable blend of character introductions, scenes of domestic tranquility, and (frequent) foreshadowing of the horrors to come. The second act see-saws satisfyingly between suburban normality and the escalating malice of the grieved souls occupying the Freeling house. Act Three is pure screaming mayhem. The movie frequently overreaches emotionally (especially during the finale), but a likable cast and a script that offers more than rote scares make it an entertaining trip back to 1982. Oh, and coulrophobics may want to skip the flick's final half hour.
This Blu-ray presentation of Poltergeist is so clean you can eat off of it. The image is pristine and stable. Colors are accurate. Black levels are solid without overpowering the overall image. It hasn't been given the same deluxe restoration treatment as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it still looks fantastic, with a level of depth and detail unattainable on DVD. The TrueHD audio track is a strong presentation of a decent but dated source track. A number of stereo dubs are also provided as well as subtitles in no less than 13 languages.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When Warner Bros. released the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD of Poltergeist last year, they skimped on the extras. They make no amends to fans with this release. Again, the only supplement is a two-part documentary called They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed. Part one, "Science of Spirits," brings together paranormal experts, mediums, and others to talk about ghost hunting. Part two, "Communing with the Dead," covers the work of mediums, clairvoyants, and channellers. Together, the two featurettes run about a half hour. Both are pretty lame.
The decades haven't been entirely kind to Poltergeist, but it remains an entertaining picture—especially for those of us old enough to remember the splash it made when it arrived in theaters in the summer of 1982. The thin supplemental content on this Blu-ray edition is disappointing, but the movie sure looks great.
This house is clean.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed"
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