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Warner Bros. // PG // October 14, 2008
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author
It's he-e-e-e-e-ere.

This high-
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def release of Poltergeist may have lagged behind the 25th anniversary DVD release by almost a full year, but Steven SpielbergTobe Hooper's supernatural suburban nightmare has finally clawed its way to Blu-ray.

Most kids back in '82 couldn't tear themselves away from the TV when Sylvester and Tweety were on. Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O' Rourke), though...? She's entranced by the static that buzzes across the screen in the wee hours of the morning after the stations had signed off for the night. Sure, her folks (Craig T. Nelson and Jo Beth Williams) think it's strange, but...y'know, she's five. If the worst thing they have to fret about is their daughter chatting up a screenful of static, they're probably doing alright.

'Course, this is a movie called "Poltergeist", as if you couldn't tell from the big, bold letters at the top of the page, so they have a hell of a lot more to worry about than that. It starts off pretty innocuously -- rearranged chairs and mangled spoons -- but the spirits that have seized hold of the Freelings' completely interchangable suburban home get more and more aggressive. A carnivorous tree gets its twiggy limbs on their son, a mini-tornado wreaks havoc in the kids' bedroom, and...yikes! Carol Anne is sucked into some sort of realm between worlds where she's being held captive by some really pissed-off spirits. Still able to communicate with her through the static in the TV, the rest of the dead-eyed family refuses to step any further outside their haunted house than they absolutely have to. They call in the professionals -- a handful of parapsychologists who think they've seen it all and, later, a pint-sized, Southern-fried medium (Zelda Rubenstein) -- and...well, that's when all Hell really breaks loose.

Poltergeist really used to rattle me growing up, but the older I've gotten, the less and less scary the movie really seems. These days, I don't even look at it as a horror flick so much as...well, the haunted house at the county fair around Halloween. Sure, I can see the chips in the paint all
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over the the scares; ILM's extensive effects work here is really starting to show its age more than 25 years later. The very deliberate pace is kind of a rollercoaster ride, slowly nudging higher and higher throughout the first act before blasting down, settling into a lull to give everyone a chance to catch their breath, and then...y'know, it's arms in the air and screaming at the top of your lungs until the end credits roll.

There's also something kind of playful about the way Poltergeist tries to creep out the audience. There are a few scattered grisly effects -- one of the parapsychologists clawing at his face and taking off fistfuls of bloodied chunks with it, not to mention parades of skeletons popping out of the ground -- but Poltergeist is aiming more at being spooky or creepy than sopping with splatter. Even with all of the elaborate optical effects with screaming spider-like ghosts, flashes of light careening down the stairs, and an otherworldly, halfway-Freudian portal devouring everything in the kids' bedroom, what are the two scares that everyone rattles off first from Poltergeist...? A creepy clown doll that disappears under a bed and a snarled tree that looms outside the bedroom window...a monstrosity pockmarked with knots and bulges that look unsettlingly like human heads. Spielberg's story skews towards those very childlike fears, and that's part of the reason I think of Poltergeist as practically being a family film. No, we're not exactly talking about Milo and Otis, but I loved Poltergeist when I wasn't really any older than the kids in the movie, and as much as it creeped me out back then, there was such an infectious rush about that combination of good-natured scares and a heckuva lot of fun that I continually kept coming back for more.

It helps that the Freelings kinda do feel like a real family -- that sort of sincerity has always been a strength of Spielberg's -- and the scares pack more of a wallop when the folks on the receiving end are so likeable and believable. The movie has an understated but pretty solid sense of humor too, particularly the jabs at the densely-packed, wholly interchangable houses that make up suburbia.

I'll admit that
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nostalgia is probably coloring the way I look at Poltergeist, and if not for this being one of those movies that kinda-sorta defined my childhood, I'd probably be a lot tougher on its relaxed pace, how unevenly the scares have held up, and some of the dodgy effects. I wouldn't even want to take a stab in the dark how some cynical 19 year old might approach a movie like this -- hell, I wonder if they'd even follow the whole idea of TV stations going off the air like clockwork at 2:30 AM. I can't help it, though: I love Poltergeist, and whatever hiccups it has just seem like part of the movie's charm. Poltergeist is a pop culture touchstone -- one of the most memorable horror flicks to lurch its way out of the '80s -- and it's a funhouse ride that's definitely worth hopping on again now that it's made its way to Blu-ray.

Video: I grew up with Poltergeist looking washed-out, grainy, and heavily cropped on TV and VHS, and even the movie's first release on DVD was kind of a train wreck. I'm floored by how incredible Poltergeist looks on Blu-ray, though. It's not a perfect presentation, no, but this disc completely eclipsed my expectations.

Poltergeist's palette is punchy and vibrant, and although film grain is rarely intrusive, the faintly gritty texture I'd hope to see is still intact. I didn't spot any signs of heavy-handed digital scrubbing, and definition and detail continually impressed me. It can be a little uneven -- edges sporadically look a little fuzzy, some softness occasionally creeps in, and the scope image isn't as richly detailed as the most immediately striking catalog titles I've seen -- but I frequently caught myself being wowed by just how sharp and clear Poltergeist looks. Speckling is light enough to be shrugged off, and the VC-1 compression never buckles under the weight of the constant strobing. The only flaws that really stand out in my mind date all the way back to the original photography; in a few scattered shots, the edges of the anamorphic lens are distorted, and pans can look kind of skewed with some of these particular lenses. Still, Poltergeist looks much, much better on Blu-ray that I ever could've expected, and especially for fans of the movie who held out on picking up last year's DVD remaster, this is a pretty compelling upgrade.

Audio: Poltergeist does
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sport a 16-bit, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix, and although it's nothing earth-shattering, this is a decent sounding track. The low-end is solid, of course, thanks to the supernatural rattling throughout the house, claps of thunder, and a bulldozer carving out a spot for a pool in the backyard. The surrounds are used somewhat sparingly, providing a passable amount of atmosphere and punctuating more and more of the scares as the ghostly attacks escalate. The rear channels kind of just stay buried under layers of dust when there's not a torrential downpour outside or some sort of spook zipping around the house, though. One mild disappointment is that too many elements of the mix sound mashed together, not boasting that same sense of distinctness and clarity I'm used to hearing on Blu-ray. It's pretty much on target with what I'd expect for a remix of a movie ringing in its 25th anniversary, and that's good for me.

English soundtracks have been provided in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 as well, along with dubs in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Castilian. Poltergeist also offers a sprawling list of subtitle streams.

Extras: I guess Poltergeist isn't a movie the cast and crew feel all that comfortable talking about -- the rumors swirling around that Spielberg took over the directing chores, and there's that 'curse' some think still looms over the film -- and maybe that's why this 25th anniversary edition has virtually no extras to speak of.

The only extra on the disc itself is the half hour documentary "They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists", which uses the movie as a springboard to delve into the real-life (wrap sarcastic finger-quotes around that if you want) world of ghost hunting. Poltergeist is referenced frequently, although hardly anyone from the movie pops up, and even then, it's just to lob out a sentence or two. No, "They Are Here" is anchored around a parade of parapsychologists,
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mediums, and even an extreme cliff climber who pals around with a spirit guide. They chat about detecting spiritual presences through science and the metaphysical, what a poltergeist is, exactly, and how it differs from a garden variety, off the shelf ghost, how to suss out if a house is haunted, and how grounded in reality Poltergeist kind of is. The documentary is presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen.

"They Are Here" is okay, but it's a drag that Warner couldn't or wouldn't dig up something else more directly tied to the movie, even if no one was willing to sit down for a retrospective: vintage EPKs, that episode of "E! True Hollywood Story", an isolated score, a trailer...something.

Despite being shrugged off as any sort of special edition, Warner has assembled a slick digibook package for Poltergeist, complete with a couple dozen pages of production notes, photos, essays, trivia, and biographies for the key talent on both sides of the camera.

Conclusion: Still spooky and creepy more than twenty five years later, Poltergeist is a great flick to grab off the shelf for Halloween, especially with as crisp and polished as this high definition remaster is. The slick digibook packaging kind of makes up for the near-total lack of extras, although a more decked-out special edition -- or at least a more reasonable sticker price -- would've snagged a much higher rating. Still Recommended, though.
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