Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Mark Victor and Michael Grais
Directed: Tobe Hooper
It had been about 10 years since my last viewing of POLTERGEIST; the inferior sequels had soured my desire to revisit the original. Recently, I toyed with the idea of purchasing a discount Laserdisc version, or the widescreen cassette. Now that I can watch DVDs, the decision was made; what better way to test the merits of a new video format than by spinning an older title? Would it rekindle my appreciation for a 1982 horror film? Would they carefully master a movie that, Im presuming, is not in great demand?
POLTERGEIST has become more famous for the offscreen weirdness surrounding it. Co-star Dominique Dunne (who played daughter Dana) was murdered by her boyfriend shortly after its theatrical release. In 1988, young, iconoclastic ORourke (Carol Anne), died on the operating table, mere months before MGM unveiled the (unintentionally) hilarious Poltergeist III (a movie barely redeemed, in fits and starts, by inventive use of mirror photography). And, of course, Craig T. Nelson suffered through years of ABCs "Coach".
What amounts to eerie coincidences may enhance the pop-cultural appeal of POLTERGEIST, much in the way Brandon Lees unfortunate death rescued The Crow from box office oblivion. Luckily, POLTERGEIST is also, like The Crow, a good movie, in no need of behind-the-scenes curse rumours to rend it scarier or creepier.
Consider the opening sequence: "The Star-Spangled Banner" ends a TV stations evening broadcast. Steve Freeling (Nelson) is asleep in his living room chair. His dog bounds up the spiral staircase and visits the other Freelings in their bedrooms: his wife Diane, son Robbie, Dana, and Carol Anne. The sound of TV fuzz stirs Carol Anne awake. She gets up and heads downstairs to the living room, soon to be followed by the rest of her family, for Carol Anne begins a loud conversation that disrupts their sleepwith said TV fuzz. Her answers to unheard questions are cryptic: "I dont know...I dont know..." The family stares on, faces flushed with bewilderment.
Though ORourkes character is a portrait of preschool naivete, the image of Carol Anne at the television set, lit only by the strobing screen, is an indelibly haunting one (it sparked the movies memorable poster and ad campaign), making us wary of her from the outset. What follows is a non-stop ghost tale in which Carol Anne is sucked, physically and spiritually, into another dimension. Steve (so self-referential a name that Im convinced it wasnt intentional) and Diane hire a set of serious-minded spirit busters to help "clean" their idyllic house and rescue their daughter. Credit the writers with continuing on after their all-too-pat pseudo-resolution, and for throwing a suitably frightening clown doll into the mix.
MGMs DVD version is outstanding. It was my first time seeing the film in widescreen (a 2.35:1 Panavision image which is enhanced for 16:9 TVs); this is a horror picture with scope. In the past I have criticized cinematographer Matthew F. Leonettis dark and muddy images, but in this context they have luster: his tendency to underexpose lends even the sunny daytime scenes an ominous gloom. The sound is another vast improvement over my past viewings. Though I cant report on the Dolby Digital remix, I will say that the standard Dolby Surround track was clear, had delightful separation effects, and was surprisingly dynamic considering the age of the film. Perhaps a bit more bass would have been welcomed at the big shocks. I noticed no M-PEG artifacts, though there is slight, inescapable (due to such a wide aspect ratio) aliasing, occasionally. Otherwise, the video quality of this disc is akin to wiping the windshield after a sandstorm; perhaps DVDs biggest advantages over Laserdisc is an absolute absence of video noise and more stable, richer colours. POLTERGEIST fares better on DVD than some of MGMs recent THX Laserdisc titles. Note that on my Pioneer DVL-700, the pop-up menu did not commence automatically when I inserted the discI had to select it. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer (in 2.0), letterboxed at about 1.85:1.
A pan-and-scan version for blackbarphobes is available on side B.
There is, disappointingly, no commentary track to settle the old debate: whether or not Hooper or Spielberg directed this movie. According to legend, producer/co-writer Spielberg helmed the majority of the film after Hoppers footage was deemed unsatisfying, but that because of E.T.s family appeal, Spielberg refused the credit, lest his directorial association with a disturbing supernatural story hurt E.T.s success. Certain sequences in the film are unmistakably his, and the mother figure presented here is one of his strongest.
I'm sure its harried Freelings would disagree, but POLTERGEIST is definitely worth revisiting.