Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition Review

The problem with Potergeist isn’t that it’s a bad film - far from it - but that it’s two good films battling for possession of the one. On the one hand, we have a gripping and sympathetic story of a family fighting to free their youngest member from a supernatural force that they don’t understand. On the other, we’ve got a balls-to-the-wall horror rollercoaster with rotting corpses, malevolent trees and that old chestnut, an Indian burial ground. It would be easy to say that the two different sides of the movie reflect the two principle creative forces behind it but I really don’t think it’s that simple.

A poltergeist is a ghost that identifies itself through the vast amount of noise and disruption that it causes. In this case, it disrupts the peaceful suburban existence of the Freeling family who live on the newly constructed Cuesta Verde estate. The youngest daughter Carol Anne begins to communicate with a supernatural force that comes through the television and, gradually, this force begins to control the house - taking Carol Anne into some kind of limbo.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Poltergeist is the question of authorship and it’s this which explains, to some, the schizophrenic nature of the finished product. The film is credited to Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a couple of other underrated films prior to 1982 - Death Trap and The Funhouse. However, right from the time the film was in production, rumours were circulating that Steven Spielberg, who is credited as co-writer, originator of the story and co-producer. It’s very hard to pin down exactly what happened on the set. The gossip was that Hooper’s decisions were rubber-stamped by Spielberg; when the boy wonder was on the set, it’s rumoured that the director of photography would look to him to approve Hooper’s shots prior to filming. Aware of this, Spielberg took out a full page advert in Variety to praise Hooper’s work on the film and their “unique collaboration”. What is known for a fact is that Spielberg did the storyboards for the film, controlled pre-production, what frequently present during shooting and took over post-production. He worked with Michael Kahn on the editing, supervised Richard Edlund’s special effects and was the sole collaborator with Jerry Goldsmith on the score. Since the film was released, members of the cast and crew have all indicated, either implicitly or explicitly, that Spielberg did more of the direction than Hooper. On David Furtney’s excellent Poltergeist website, there is a page which contains information that would, if entirely accurate, make a devastating case for Spielberg being the director of the film.

If this is the case, then it’s certainly obvious that the film contains many typical Spielberg touches, beginning with the decision to introduce the members of the family by having the pet dog visit them one by one. This is appropriate since we find ourselves in much the same corner of suburbia as we do in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The opening has many similarities to that of Close Encounters with Carol Anne in the Cary Guffey role and the poltergeists behaving much like the aliens. When the ghosts first come out of the television, the effect is identical to the white mist that emanates from the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the famous shot of the researcher’s face dissolving in the mirror would also seem to derive from the climax of that movie. The performances of the child actors are uniformally excellent, showing distinct signs of having been directed by someone with extensive experience of working with youngsters. There’s a lot of offbeat humour in the portrayal of the family which is highly reminiscent of Jaws and Close Encounters.

As for Tobe Hooper, his hand can perhaps be seen most clearly in the suspense scenes which have a genuine intensity as they build remorselessly to moments of horror. There’s also the problem of the climax, which feels tacked on anyway, and its obvious debt to the work of Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, an influence which seems more likely to have come from Hooper than Spielberg. Hooper had also done good things in a suburban setting before this - the chilling TV version of Salem’s Lot for example, and the very traditional opening scenes of The Funhouse. But, Spielberg really didn’t need a horror director to help him. Spielberg’s films have always contained lengthy scenes which minutely build tension up to a shocking pay-off and he has shown a ruthless cruelty in some of his movies - notably Jaws - that is a million miles away from the critical stereotype of the sentimental director. Much of his best work has a nasty streak, one which became a mile wide in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and, more recently, in The Lost World. When looking at the rotting corpses so prominent in the finale, one is irresistibly reminded of the Indiana Jones movies. Spielberg’s ability to horrify his audience, to manipulate them at a very basic level, has always been an important skill and it may be that in Poltergeist, it found its ultimate expression. It would be nice to think that Spielberg contributed the family scenes and Hooper contributed the visceral horror but I don’t think that argument holds water. My own conclusion is that this is a Spielberg film in all but name that was shot with considerable competence by a director for hire and then turned over to its real author to be completed.

This debate has always overshadowed the film but there’s no doubt that the it’s a very effective horror movie, albeit one with an uncomfortably split personality. It’s at its very best during the first two-thirds which exploit childhood and adult fears to often devastating effect. The opening section features a clown which is easily one of the most terrifying things on film; surely no-one would give this horrible object to a child. When Robbie is attacked by the tree, it’s a classic childhood nightmare come to life. We have all the classic terrors, from monsters hiding under the bed to something nasty lurking in the closet. These scenes are lit quite beautifully by Matthew Leonetti and edited with sublime skill by Michael Kahn. When Carol Anne is taken into the light, there is an agonisingly believable portrayal of the anguish felt by parents of a missing child - these scenes are portrayed with immense skill by Jobeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson. The dramatic intensity of these sequences is genuinely horrifying - especially for parents - and far more disturbing than the over the top finale.

Throughout, the quality of the performances is superb. Both Williams and Nelson are totally convincing in their roles with Nelson in particular bringing a physicality to his role which is very different to the style of, for example, Richard Dreyfuss who has played similar parts in the past. The kids are all wonderfully credible, particularly Oliver Robins and the irksomely voiced but unforgettable Heather O’Rourke, and there’s an unforgettable performance from Zelda Rubenstein, one which she repeated in the sequels. The weak link comes in the shape of the parapsychologist played by Beatrice Straight. She’s not a very interesting actress and she is unfortunately landed with the expository bits of the script which are much too verbose. I don’t think these scenes are well thought-out and seem to exist for purely structural reasons - although it’s nice to see the influence of Nigel Kneale alongside that of other great writers like Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. Holding the film together at such times - and at the end when it seems to go off in a very odd direction - are two things; Jerry Goldsmith’s charming score and the quite magnificent effects devised by Richard Edlund and ILM.

The Disc

Allegedly, this release of Poltergeist is a “25th Anniversary Edition”. It’s nice of Warners to put this on the cover since otherwise, you wouldn’t guess. Generally, such editions contain lots of extra features, amounting to a complete retrospective look at the film. Here, we get a half-hour documentary divided into two parts and, er, that’s it.

Luckily all is not lost since this is a very nice DVD transfer. The film looks brand, spanking new in this anamorphically enhanced 2.40:1 incarnation. The level of detail is staggering and, throughout, the image is gorgeously crisp and clear. There is no noticeable artefacting present, the level of grain is minimal but suitably filmlike and the colours are spot-on. Not a lot else I can say except to note a certain amount of edge-enhancement which mars the overall impression.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is presumably sourced from the 6 track mix created for the 70MM prints of the film. It’s not the most eventful of soundtracks with most of the sound concentrated on the front and the rears coming into play only during the special effects sequences. Still, it’s atmospheric enough and very clear throughout. The music score comes across especially well.

As for the extra feature, it’s a two-part documentary about poltergeists and ghost hunting which uses vast amounts of footage from the film to illustrate some very obvious points. There is, sadly, nothing specific to the film in this piece. Considering how much there is to say about the history of the film, this is a serious waste of a good opportunity. Perhaps there are still too many ruffled feathers for the full story to be put on the record.

The film is fully subtitled as is the documentary.

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