Directed by Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist presents us with the average American family, the Freelings, who live in a burgeoning Southern California housing development. Headed by Steve and Diane (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), the family often enjoys relaxing at home in front of the television. When their youngest child, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), develops a habit of conversing with the TV set in the wee hours of the morning, when the picture is only static, Steve and Diane dismiss the odd behavior as a form of somnambulism — until furniture in the house starts rearranging itself, a freak tornado touches down in the backyard, and “the TV people” suck Carol Anne through the TV and into another dimension. To get their daughter back, Steve and Diane first enlist the help of some paranormal investigators, and then, finally, a powerful clairvoyant (Zelda Rubenstein).
In more ways than one, watching Poltergeist puts the viewer into a kind of time warp. There are the clothes, the cars and the Star Wars paraphernalia that fills the Freelings’ home, and then there is also the visual aesthetic of the film itself, which is so unlike anything onscreen in a modern cineplex. Using hard light and little-to-no diffusion, director of photography Matthew Leonetti, ASC, lends a comfortable, almost sitcom-esque feel to the film’s early scenes, when we’re getting to know the Freelings. Once the spirits start to lay into the family, the visuals take on a much darker, eerie tone while retaining that sharp, high-key look. The approach works and perfectly complements the groundbreaking visual-effects work done by Richard Edlund, ASC, and his team. In terms of visual effects, Poltergeist was an attempt to do something that had never been done before: create a fantasy world within the confines of the house next door. Edlund and his collaborators employed a battery of techniques to do this, including cloud tanks, hand-drawn animation and matte photography. Because each element was actually photographed, even the most fantastic effect feels tangible and, within the context of the narrative, believable.
Unfortunately, Poltergeist’s home-video history is anything but fantastic. MGM Home Video released a bare-bones widescreen/pan-and-scan DVD in the format’s formative years, and in 2007, Warner Bros. Home Video issued a 25th-anniversary DVD in a 16x9-enhanced version that preserved the film’s original aspect ratio but featured a single supplement, a featurette about “real” hauntings similar to the one the film depicts.
Although Warner’s new Blu-ray DVD is the same skimpy package in terms of bonus material, it boasts a new picture transfer, offering a clean, crisp 1080p image in the 2.20:1 (JDC Scope) aspect ratio with VC-1 compression that holds in the darkest shadows to the brightest white light, and a solid, occasionally booming Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio mix. Some reviewers commented on the “pristine” transfers of the film’s previous DVD releases, but in a recent conversation with AC, Leonetti described those versions as too bright and contrasty. Not surprisingly, the standard-def “25th Anniversary” transfer doesn’t hold a candle to Blu-ray’s impressive presentation of Leonetti’s electrifying, pastel-driven photography. And considering the high number of visual-effects shots involved, it’s a testament to Edlund’s expertise that any and all matte lines and/or other evidences of optical compositing are almost completely invisible in the HD image.
It’s probably safe to say Poltergeist hasn’t looked this good since its original theatrical run. For that reason, this DVD would be a worthy addition to any home collection despite the disappointing lack of supplements.