Jump Cut 4 - POLTERGEIST
I just purchased POLTERGEIST, only to find the strangest cut in it. About 34 minutes in, the scene changes right in the middle of a dialog line, to a new scene also in the middle of a dialog line. Something has been cut out. What is it? Why is MGM doing this? Is the rest of the movie edited? -- Dave Silva / Louis J. Cassorla / Paul L. Gerspacher
The above is the gist of frequent letters received by MGM Home Entertainment. There is indeed a pretty weird cut in POLTERGEIST, a cut that stands out in a film of impeccable technical polish. At about 34 min. 30 sec., the scene where JoBeth Williams excitedly shows Craig T. Nelson how both chairs and their daughter Heather O'Rourke magically slide across the kitchen floor, comes to a very strange end.
Williams can be heard offscreen chattering away while we watch Nelson in a medium closeup, sitting on the dinette floor. Williams' dialog line is "...and all of a sudden it's like there's no air, except that you can breathe, and, and you're getting pulled along -". This line is interrupted in mid-word, with a CUT to the exterior of the neighbor's door, as it is opened.
On the cut, some odd things happen. The first is a flash of blue light lasting six video frames, or 1/5 of a second. Also, JoBeth is again speaking, and seems to be cut off in the middle of another word. The first clear dialog is Nelson's "Hi, Ben" as he turns to the opening door. Finally, right on the cut, where the blue flash is, is a funny noise, or fragment of a sound which to me has the quality of an old-style car horn, only shorter. The effect of the cut certainly does give the impression that something is missing. The combination of the cutoff dialogue and the blue flash reminds one of a bad theatrical reel change, or a damaged print.
Savant certainly was never aware of this until it was pointed out ... and then it looked wrong, wrong, wrong. Am I hypnotizing myself with these details? With our new ability to judgmentally scrutinize every frame of a movie, awareness of all sorts of so-called 'flubs' is rising, even when the errrors in question are not errors at all, just the simple continuity anomalies that used to pass unnoticed. Once upon a time audiences saw Hollywood movies only once or twice, and paid more attention to the characters and the story, than to oddball technical details. Normally, when someone says they saw a reflection of a studio light or something that shouldn't be there, I answer, "Gee, do you think there really was a camera there? Too much of movie fandom consists of critics complaining about the lack of reality in a medium where nothing is really real, really, in the first place. I mean, really.
Now, I subscribe to the notion that filmmakers Hooper, Spielberg, and Kahn can edit their movie any way they want to: in other words, there is no absolute right or wrong way to edit anything. However, this is the first Jump Cut that has surfaced that, as an editor, I cannot yet explain with any reasonable certainty. The quick blue flash appears to be a studio-manufactured lightning flash - a few seconds later thunder can be heard, and then another similar, but much longer duration, blue flash comes again. Cut so quickly, however, the flash looks more like a light leak on the film, or a timing error in the printing. If the film were intentionally cut this way, I would be very surprised.
All of the newer versions of POLTERGEIST have this same screwball cut. The folks I know who had older videotape versions of the film got rid of them when they upgraded to laser, or now, to DVD, so it isn't as though I can even be sure that all the video releases had this jarring transition. I've checked one older flat version of the film on laser, from 1983, and it has the same odd-looking cut.
Can anyone out there shed some light on this? I urge all of those who wrote in to ask about for friends who might have an older cassette of the film. There is apparently nobody at Turner able to field an answer on this one. Perhaps one of the editors on the movie, or someone who knows Academy-Award winning editor Michael Kahn, can give us a definitive answer.
Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson