POLTERGEIST - Blu-ray review

Think of it more as a fun-ride than a horror movie.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"They're heeeere."

Before you get to my comments on the 1982 ghost story "Poltergeist," I thought it would be good to hear from an expert in the field of parapsychology, so I asked my friend and neighbor Loyd Auerbach to make a few prefacing remarks. Loyd is the Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations, and he's been investigating psychic phenomena for close to thirty years. He is the author of seven books on the subject, teaches at HCH Institute and JFK University in California, and is on the Boards of three major parapsychology organizations. His media appearances on TV, radio, and in print number in the thousands, including a recent appearance on ABC's "The View." In addition, he's a professional mentalist and psychic entertainer, performing as Professor Paranormal, a title that follows him into his more serious work. Yes, Loyd is a real-life ghostbuster, whose Website, www.mindreader.com/loyd.htm, is as fascinating as he is.

Take it away, Professor:
As a parapsychologist who focuses on field research and investigation of cases of apparent apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists, I'm both a fan of and critical of movies that present the phenomena, the methods of investigation, and the terminology.

I have very much enjoyed "Poltergeist" every time I've seen it, as a fan of science fiction and some horror. But from a parapsychologist's perspective, there were a few things right and more things wrong with the way the phenomena and the investigation were portrayed.

A poltergeist, an old German term translated as "noisy ghost," does indeed have to do with physical effects such as moving objects --often destructively so. But parapsychologists have known for decades that the word better describes a situation caused by the subconscious mind of a living person, generally someone in the household undergoing emotional and/or psychological stress. The effects are caused by psychokinesis (PK), also known as mind over matter.

Most often, the results of a poltergeist "attack" are more like those of telling a bunch of sloppy kids to "run wild" than what was seen in "Poltergeist." Unlike that film, we do not get reports of all the items in a child's room flying around at once (such as the scene where the parapsychological team first went up to the children's room), or children-grabbing trees, or little girls or houses vanishing into other dimensions and so on. Spielberg and Hooper's "Poltergeist" initially presented a similarity to actual poltergeist cases, but things went far beyond what any parapsychologist would experience in even the "worst" cases.

The researchers themselves were generally presented in ways that are not so far from reality, but unlike in the film, where the team had access to all sorts of fancy equipment beyond even what reality TV series pay for (it was a Steven Spielberg production, after all), the equipment parapsychologists and ghost hunters have doesn't come close.

"Poltergeist" is a sci fi/horror film--personally I'd classify it as science fiction--and as such is lots of fun. But close to the real thing? If that was the reality of what we investigate and encounter, I certainly would not have stayed in this field for as long as I have. I'm brave, but I'm not stupid!

The Film According to John:
Thanks, Loyd. Like you, I'm of a similar skeptical mind about "Poltergeist." It's a fun film, an entertaining film, an occasionally frightening film, but it shouldn't be a film by which to judge real-life parapsychologists (or poltergeists and hauntings, if you believe in such things). "Poltergeist" is Hollywood, after all, with typically Hollywood ghosts and typically Hollywood exaggeration. Heaven help us if such demons as the ones depicted in this movie actually frequented our homes.

Now, here's the thing: Co-writer and producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre") wanted to do something a little different in the way of a ghost story. Rather than setting it in a conventional haunted house, they decided to place their tale in a tranquil Southern California housing tract, with a tranquil, almost fairy-tale musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. Their idea was to show how spirits of the dead can exist anywhere, even where you least expect them. Of course, Spielberg was riding high at the time, having already made "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and he probably would have directed "Poltergeist," too, if he hadn't been working on "E.T." the same year. As it was, Spielberg probably did more than just write, produce, and edit the film. He probably gave Hooper a good deal of advice in managing it as well, hearsay indicating that he directed a few scenes himself. In any case, "Poltergeist" shows all the signs of a Spielberg picture, from the happy family to the "lost" kid to the elaborately exaggerated special effects.

So, what's a "poltergeist"? Loyd called it a "noisy ghost." My Random House Dictionary defines it as "a ghost or spirit supposed to manifest its presence by noises, knockings, etc." But that's something of a misnomer in the case of this movie because what we have in "Poltergeist" is a full-fledged haunting, something the movie's characters even mention.

The family involved are the Freelings: Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson), who sells houses in the fictional Cuesta Verde housing track; Diane (JoBeth Williams), his wife; Dana (Dominque Dunne), their teenage daughter; Robbie (Oliver Robins), their eight-year-old son; and Carol Anne (Heather O'Roarke), their five-year-old daughter, the only one in the family who can hear the spirits living with them. A trivia footnote is that two of the three actors playing the children died relatively shortly after making the movie, Dunne strangled by an ex-boyfriend the year of the movie's release and O'Roarke a few years later of an intestinal inflammation.

In the story, the first indications we get that things aren't all they appear is when we see a monster tree outside Carol Anne and Robbie's window and a clown doll in their bedroom that would scare the bejabbers out of anyone, child or adult. When the poltergeist (or spirit) shows up, the Freelings think it's kinda fun. The spirit rearranges furniture and moves objects across the kitchen floor. Things soon turn bad, however, when the tree tries to eat the boy, and the spirit inside the house kidnaps the little girl, taking her into some other dimension.

And what do the Freelings do when these horrifying incidents occur? Do they go to the police like sensible, responsible parents? Nope. They call in parapsychologists from the local university (no offense, Loyd), a team headed by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), who soon discover they're in over their heads. Consequently, Dr. Lesh calls in a psychic, Tangina (diminutive Zelda Rubinstein), to exorcise the demons in the house.

Although most of us are quite familiar with the film, another good friend of mine had never seen it until a month or two before this writing. He rented it on DVD and was sorely disappointed. He thought it was the dumbest film he'd seen in years. Maybe you had to have grown up with it; I dunno. "Poltergeist" does get rather preposterous, with hyperbole the order of the day. Spielberg's ghosts don't just do a few spooky things; they literally turn the Freeling house into a demonic hell. Well, if you've seen the movie, you know what I mean.

Spielberg and Hooper seem determined to create a blockbuster more than merely scare an audience. There are a couple of creepy scenes, to be sure, like when the clown doll crawls under Robbie's bed. But most of the time, the movie contents itself with fancy special effects--a multitude of objects flying through the air, monstrous heads appearing in doorways, gigantic light displays, and a finale in which the filmmakers pull out all the stops and go for a huge pyrotechnic finish.

I have to admit the movie has never frightened me. Not when the Wife-O-Meter and I saw it in a theater on opening night, not later on tape and DVD, and not now. Nonetheless, I have always enjoyed its humor ("Mosquito ever suck on you, son?"), its characters ("Y'all mind hanging back? You're jamming my frequency"), its flamboyant attitude, and its disregard for tradition. Think of it more as a fun-ride than a horror movie, and you'll get more out of it.

The movie's colors are intensely deep and rich, with strong black levels to set them off. Some viewers will find this image extremely attractive, while others, like myself, will find it more extreme than real life. When I look out my window, these are not the colors I see. What I see looks more subdued. Anyway, that concern aside, the video quality is quite good, the Warners engineers using a VC-1 video codec and a single-layer BD25 to reproduce the movie's 2.40:1 ratio picture. Would the engineers have been able to use a higher bit rate on a BD50? I don't know. VC-1 is a pretty efficient tool, so a single layer may have been all that was necessary for the best possible video. Still, whenever I see a single-layer disc, I have to wonder about PR at the very least. People feel more reassured when they think they're getting the best.

In any case, Warner Bros. tell us on the packaging that this is a "new digital transfer from regenerated picture elements." The "regenerated" term is new to me, but I kind of think it means they restored all or part of the movie. The colors are deep, as I've said; a natural film grain provides a realistic texture; and definition is usually sharp, although there are also some stretches of softness. On my television, Venetian blinds showed a degree of shimmer, which was oddly distracting in otherwise so pristine a print.

The disc offers English audio in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0. Note, however, that if you are going to listen in TrueHD, you'll have to select it from the menu, as the default is regular DD 5.1. The TrueHD has a slightly lower overall volume level than the other tracks, perhaps due to its slightly wider dynamic range, so you may also have to turn your gain up a bit more than usual. Once selected and adjusted, the TrueHD supplies wide dynamics, an ample frequency range, and strong impact. The midrange is mostly smooth, with occasional lapses into nasality. Additionally, you'll find a broad front-channel stereo spread and, from time to time, an impressive rear-channel response. While the movie may not exhibit current state-of-the-art audio, it's the best we've heard from this particular movie, maybe ever.

The disc's primary extra is a two-part documentary made in 2007, "They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Revealed," totaling about thirty-one minutes. Part one, "Science of the Spirits," contains comments by various psychic investigators and ghost hunters on how science tries to find answers to paranormal phenomena. Part two, "Communing with the Dead," is more of the same, with an emphasis on the question of whether there is life beyond this existence. It doesn't seem to occur to any of them that almost every religion in the world for the past 5,000 years has believed in an afterlife.

The next important bonus is having the disc packaged in one of WB's Digibooks, a hardbound, glossy-covered, book-like affair with some forty-four pages of color pictures and text information on the film. OK, personally, I'd rather see the studio spend their Digibook money on dual-layer BD50s and possibly higher bit rates than on pictures and text that I may never look at again, but that's just me. The extras conclude with thirty scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"Poltergeist" is more of an extravaganza than it is a horror flick. It's certainly not a traditional ghost story, which is more to the point. Spielberg and Hooper wanted to do something similar to what "Rosemary's Baby" had done some years earlier; that is, show that demons can exist anywhere, not just in old, spooky mansions but in downtown apartment buildings or peaceful suburban housing tracks. In this regard, "Poltergeist" works, and the filmmakers bring their usual flair to the proceedings. It's just that the more I watch it, the sillier a lot of it looks. Oh, well, it's still a good amusement-park ride toward the end, which is the main thing, I suppose.

"This house is clean." Uh-huh.


Film Value