Release Date(s)1982 (September 20, 2022)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: D
Here’s a seemingly simple three-word phrase, but it’s one that’s fraught with peril: “Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.” In some circles, those could be considered fighting words, so use them at your own risk. The controversy over who’s the real author of Citizen Kane has largely been settled at this point in film history (well, at least until David Fincher tried to stir it up again with Mank), but for the last four decades, there’s been an unresolved debate about whether or not Steven Spielberg ghost-directed Poltergeist. The problem with that question is that it completely misses the point of why the film is so effective.
Some people think that Hooper hid in the bathroom doing blow while Spielberg actually handled all of the real work on set. There have been various bits of evidence adduced over the years to support that conclusion, including statements by Tangina herself, Zelda Rubenstein—although it’s worth noting that the rest of the cast has generally rallied to Hooper’s defense. Yet the debate started long before there was any evidence to support it (real or imagined), so the prime mover has always been the fact that some people simply can’t believe that Hooper could have made a good movie, therefore Spielberg must have directed it himself. The argument started with that conclusion, and then worked its way backwards into finding proof. That does a disservice to Hooper, who directed plenty of fine films. In a way, it’s also a disservice to Spielberg, as it greatly oversimplifies the complexities of motion picture production.
“Steven Spielberg” was a brand name back in the Eighties to an extent that it’s never quite matched since that time. He attached his name to many projects during the Eighties where he served as executive producer, and wasn’t involved with the day-to-day production. On the other hand, not only did he come up with the story and contribute to the screenplay for Poltergeist, but he also worked as a full producer on the project—the film is credited (accurately) as “A Steven Spielberg Production.” There’s no question that he was an active producer, too, and his guiding hand was definitely involved behind the scenes, especially during post-production. But that’s no less true of producers like Daryl F. Zanuck, who shaped his own projects decisively without actually directing them. One of the problems with so-called auteur theory is that it overlooks the ways that roles sometimes intertwine or overlap, and producers can definitely become dominant figures on (and off) set. That doesn’t change the fact that “Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist” would have been a very different film minus Hooper’s involvement.
There are unquestionably many Spielbergian touches in Poltergeist; he did indeed co-write and produce it, after all. The suburban family milieu is pure Spielberg, as are the more melodramatic moments in the film. When Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams have their dramatic farewell before she plunges into the abyss, the camera cuts away to Beatrice Straight’s tearful reaction, and that’s one of Spielberg’s standard techniques to manipulate the audience by letting them know that it’s time to cry. Yet Hooper’s stamp is present on the final product as well, as there are numerous shots and bits of editing that didn’t quite fit into Spielberg’s house style at the time—for example, the repeated use of crash cut zooms onto faces, or the montage of Nelson screaming from different camera angles after the appearance of the ghost head. (Spielberg would go on to use similar setups two years later in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but he arguably learned the technique from Hooper and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.)
The reality is that the success of Poltergeist can’t be attributed to any one person. Film is a collaborative medium, and neither Spielberg or Hooper could have created it alone. It took a legion of talented artists including co-writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor; co-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall; cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti; editor Michael Kahn; visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund (as well as his own legions of supporting crew); and myriad others. Jerry Goldsmith also contributed one of his finest scores (even though calling it “one of his finest” doesn’t really narrow things down very much, as that could be said of nearly half of the scores that he wrote). It took a village to make Poltergeist work, and Spielberg tends to get too much deference simply because his name is the most recognizable one in the credits.
Of course, there’s a different element of Poltergeist that provides the single biggest reason why it works, and it’s one that tends to get overlooked. Without a solid family dynamic at the heart of the film, everything else would have been little more than sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Freeling household is a credible family unit, and without having that to anchor the film, the supernatural shenanigans wouldn’t work nearly as well as they do. The action may not be believable, but the family dynamic is, and that’s what keeps audiences grounded even when the film goes on its flights of fancy. Yet it’s not really the children who matter. Heather O’Rourke is fine as Carol Anne, and both Oliver Robins and Dominique Dunne make adequate siblings for her, but everything depends on Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as Steven and Diane Freeling. Carol Anne may have become the face of the franchise, but Steven and Diane were its heart and soul. Nelson and Williams have a natural, easygoing chemistry with each other that works on multiple levels. They don’t just make a plausible couple; they make plausible parents as well, and that’s the real key to Poltergeist. Even when the dialogue fails them, the sincerity of their performances manages to sell it anyway—Williams manages to take that cringeworthy line about Carol Anne passing through her soul, and play it with utterly believable conviction. There’s an argument to be made that the film could be called “Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams’ Poltergeist.”
That would be silly, of course, but Poltergeist is the kind of film where any possessory credit is dubious at best. It’s old-school Hollywood factory filmmaking, but in the best possible sense. Both Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg deserve fair credit, as does everyone else involved. There’s enough quality craftsmanship on display here that it overcomes any weaknesses in the story and the dialogue—the whole of Poltergeist is far greater than the sum of its parts.
All that, and we haven’t even talked about the clown doll yet. Maybe it’s better that we don’t.
Matthew F. Leonetti shot Poltergeist on 35 mm film using his Ultracam 35 cameras with anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.39:1 for 35 mm prints, and 2.20:1 for 70 mm blowups. (Most sources online state that he used Cooke Xtal Express J-D-C Scope lenses, but in a podcast interview for American Cinematographer in 2008, he said that he used Cineovision lenses that he had purchased “from a man in Italy.”) This restoration utilized a 4K scan of the original camera negative, although the abundance of optical work means that there’s a lot of footage that had to be derived from a secondary element instead. Everything looks pristine and immaculately clean, without the slightest trace of damage or any other issues, and there aren’t any noteworthy compression artifacts, either. Opticals like the opening titles and the effects sequences naturally look just a bit softer and grainier, but they still blend in surprisingly well. The rest of the footage is as sharp and detailed as the anamorphic lenses would allow, with just a trace of softness around the edges of some shots, and the usual barrel distortion that’s really noticeable during lateral pans. The detail is definitely improved over previous versions—the grass and dirt of the Freeling’s lawn is more precisely delineated, especially in the shot where the caterpillar fires up to break ground for their new pool. Other textures like faces and clothing are also better resolved, though it’s an incremental improvement, not necessarily a dramatic one.
It’s with the new grade for high dynamic range that things get particularly dramatic. (Only HDR10 has been included on the disc.) Warner Bros. has added multiple epilepsy warnings to the disc, including a sticker right on the slipcover, and more inside the case. There haven’t been warnings like that on any prior releases of Poltergeist, but it’s pretty clear why they did so this time. The HDR makes any of the stroboscopic lighting patterns in the film really, really intense. Even those who don’t have any sensitivity issues may find themselves looking away from the screen at a few points—a good example would be when Carol Anne crawls toward the TV while she’s in bed with the family during the first storm. Even static lights like the glow from the closet door are blindingly bright. Yet nothing ever seems blown or exaggerated in an unnatural way (well, maybe in a supernatural way, but that’s the whole intent). Keep in mind that all of that is just from the point of view of someone watching via projection, and since projectors have significantly lower peak brightness levels than what a flat panel can produce, the lighting is going to be even more intense for most people. There’s eye candy, and then there’s eye candy, but this is practically eye abuse—yet in a good way. This HDR grade doesn’t simply provide prettier pictures; it noticeably enhances the experience of watching the film.
Two points need to be mentioned about both the master used for this 4K presentation, and the disc itself. The first is that this isn’t quite the original theatrical version of the film. The infamous jump cut at 34:13 is still present, of course, as some dialogue about Pizza Hut was removed long before Poltergeist ever hit home video in any version. (Whether or not the dialogue was actually present in theatrical prints is a debate for another time.) That’s old news, but the new changes involve digital fixes like the ones that were performed for the Indiana Jones series. Wires have been removed, the dog trainer has been erased from the opening of the film, and a few other mistakes like that have been corrected. There are still a few that haven’t, like the reflection in the toaster when the crew members swapped chairs offscreen for the table gag, but the most prominent ones are now gone. (For a complete list of the changes with time codes, see Movie-Censorship.com.)
The second point is that some people have reported issues with the disc freezing for them at approximately 13:50. There’s no consistency regarding the players that seem to be having the issue—for example, some people have had the problem using an Oppo UDP-203, while others haven’t. (For the record, it played fine for me on an Oppo UDP-205, which is mechanically identical to the 203.) Strangely enough, it hasn’t always occurred consistently, as some users have reported that it played fine the first time, but then froze every time after that. It may not affect your specific player, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Primary audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Poltergeist was originally released in optical Dolby Stereo, though the 70 mm blowups did feature a six-channel magnetic mix. It’s not clear if the 5.1 track is derived from the latter, or if it’s simply a discrete encoding of the four matrixed channels from the Dolby Stereo mix. The 2.0 track does have encoded surround channels, so it’s definitely the original Dolby Stereo, and not just a fold-down of the 5.1. Either way, the differences between the two aren’t significant, though there’s better channel separation in the 5.1. It also has deeper bass, so that fact alone gives it the edge between the two. (That’s really prominent during the moments when the coffins burst through the ground near the end of the film, with the 5.1 providing significantly more rumble than the 2.0.) The good news is that both tracks have reportedly been remastered for this edition. Compared to the previous Blu-rays, the remastered 5.1 audio does sound a little more robust. The levels don’t match between the two, but even after attempting to adjust for any differences, this DTS version still has a slight edge over the older Dolby TrueHD. Jerry Goldsmith’s score seems to benefit the most, but there’s more of a sense of presence in the soundstage as a whole. (Since the older 2.0 was only in lossy Dolby Digital, there’s no comparison in that case.)
Additional audio options include French, German, Italian, Spanish (Spain), and Spanish (Latin America) 2.0 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Spanish (Spain), Dutch, Spanish (Latin America), Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
The Warner Bros. 4K Ultra HD release of Poltergeist is a two-disc set that includes a 1080p Blu-ray copy of the film, with a Digital code on a paper insert tucked inside, as well as a slipcover. (It’s a remastered Blu-ray, too, not just a repressing of the old one.) Both the insert and the slipcover feature the same artwork that has caused gnashing of teeth on some corners of the internet, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s based on the cover for the Official Poster Magazine from 1982. It’s been recolored, but it’s still authentic promotional artwork from the film. Opinions will vary, but since variations of the exact same basic poster design have been used for VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, and Blu-ray, at least it’s something different. Note that the epilepsy warning sticker on the slipcover is removable, although doing so will require some caution. All of the extras are on the Blu-ray only:
- They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists, Part 1 – Science of the Spirits (Upscaled SD – 15:31)
- They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists, Part 2 – Communing with the Dead (Upscaled SD – 15:33)
- The Making of Poltergeist (Upscaled SD – 7:18)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:26)
They Are Here was originally produced for the 2007 Warner Bros. DVD. It combines interviews with various experts on the paranormal with clips from Poltergeist. They try to connect their beliefs about the supernatural to events in the film, which doesn’t exactly support their case. As documentaries go, it’s about as persuasive as the average Shark Week program on Discovery. If those programs have managed to convince you that megalodon are still alive and well in the oceans today, then this may be the show for you. The Making of Poltergeist is a vintage promotional featurette from 1982. Like most such EPK material, there’s little substance to it, though it does show some behind-the-scenes footage that provides a tantalizing glimpse of the rotating room in action. The fact that it focuses entirely on Steven Spielberg might add fuel to the fire for those who support the ghost directing theory, but it’s worth pointing out that it was directed by Frank Marshall, who could hardly be considered an unbiased source.
Unfortunately, that’s it. For the 40th anniversary release of a film as significant as Poltergeist, it’s a shame that Warner Bros. hasn’t offered a single new extra. If anything deserves a comprehensive making-of documentary, it’s Poltergeist. On the other hand, this is an absolutely stellar 4K presentation that’s a significant upgrade over all previous versions. It’s near reference-quality, so that’s a 40th anniversary celebration of its own. Even if it didn’t include any extras whatsoever, this disc is still a must-own for fans of the film. It’s never looked this good.
- Stephen Bjork