Poltergeist (1982)


Every generation or so there comes a haunted house movie that everyone goes crazy for. Back in 1963 came The Haunting, which many still consider to be the very best of its kind. Then in 1982 came Poltergeist, which is now considered a true classic of the sub-genre by anyone with half a brain. All the other haunted house flicks fall somewhere below these two films. OK, and The Changeling, sure. And maybe House on Haunted Hill as well, but only the original. Not the remake. Ditto The Amityville Horror, fine. And no, The Shining doesn't count: It's got the Haunted Hotel sub-genre all to itself.

So what exactly is it about Poltergeist that helps it hold up so damn well 25 years after it arrived? I'd contend that it's the "everyman suburban" vibe that runs throughout the whole of the film. If John McClane (from Die Hard!) was the action hero from around the corner, than the Freeling family (from Poltergeist!) lived in the haunted house right down the street. Many would attribute the suburban setting -- and all its clever touches -- to "screenwriter" / producer Steven Spielberg, but it's actually Tobe "Texas Chainsaw" Hooper who sat in the director's chair. Or so the credits say.

What begins as almost a satire on early-'80s suburban living slowly turns into a warm-hearted semi-sitcom that's full of characters we like. And then the spooky stuff kicks in. For reasons I'll not spoil (just in case you forgot), it turns out that the Freeling's middle-class abode has been invaded by ... well, ghosts. And not the Beetlejuice or Casper kinds, but mean-spirited and aggressively nasty specters. The final straw arrives when little Carol Anne is sucked into a nearby netherworld ... so the Freelings call in some experts. And that's when the fun really begins.

Shocking and creepy in a way that's effective but never too dark or mean-spirited, Poltergeist has become the perfect "family-friendly" horror flick -- but even then I'd only toss it in for Family Movie Night if your youngest kid is above, say, nine or ten years old. That seems a suitable age for a nice, healthy scare! It's scary in the same way a (really good) carnival ride is scary. Things get pretty intense (and even GORY!) from time to time, but Spielberg and Hooper know just when to ease off on the tension and give the younger fans some time to breathe. (Plus hell, a few cinema-inspired nightmares never killed anybody.)

Slick and funny, gruesome and creepy, but colorful and fun through and through, Poltergeist is so darn good it makes me wish Spielberg hadn't given up on the horror genre. Ah, and the parents! Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams: great character actors exhibiting some very capable chemistry. I could go on and on, but everyone already knows how fun this flick is...

What you really want to know is ... what's up with this 25th Anniversary Edition that Warner Bros. is unveiling? Well, the video transfer (anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1) is a definite improvement over the previous DVD release, that's for sure. So that alone should please the fans. Audio is also quite strong: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is the default. Other options include English 2.0, French 2.0, Spanish 2.0, and Portuguese 1.0. If you're looking for subtitles, choose between English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Portuguese.

OK, so all that stuff you just read is the good news: Great horror flick, a dandy new transfer, above-average audio (and a pretty low sticker price). But here's where the fans start to get mad: There's only one extra feature, and it barely has anything to do with the movie! It's a half-hour documentary called "They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed." It's not half-bad, as far as Discovery Channel-style programming goes, and it does include some interviews with some Poltergeist folks, but ... that's it? Really?

My guess is that this featurette was meant to be the icing on top of a big fat cake of a Special Edition. Commentaries, interviews, you name it, etc. It was all produced at one point, but has never been released on DVD. (Do a Wikipedia search for "Poltergeist" and scan down to where it says "home release." And try not to weep at the goodies we're missing.) But really, you shouldn't call something a "25th Anniversary Edition" and then not make with the presents.

So here's the deal: If, like me, you love the movie enough to add it to your collection, then this release is an absolute no-brainer. Even if you already own that antiquated old flipper disc from ten years ago, you should junk it and upgrade to this edition. Does it suck that we don't get any commentaries and what-not? Sure. But the movie's what matters, really. And going by that standard, this is a very fine DVD.

Maybe we'll get something cooler for the movie's 30th anniversary?