You always remember your first. Some are scary, some are bloody, most are just plain bad, but everyone remembers their first…horror movie. For my pivotal moment of exposure, I dropped in on my sister’s slumber party with her middle school friends to watch Poltergeist, as it was one of the few PG-rated horror films I had ever heard of (I wasn’t aware of the great PG/PG-13 split of the mid 1980s yet since I was only 8), so I figured how bad could it be? And for the most part, I took it like a champ, and what has transpired since has changed the course of my life forever. This was the moment I decided that even if it took forever to work my way up to the vicious R-rated big boys, I was going to be a connoisseur of horror films. I felt way too accomplished as a child to give up with that one movie. Now, 18 years on from that pivotal moment, and 40 years on from the film’s theatrical release, Warner Bros. is celebrating the iconic title with a 40th anniversary Blu-ray release, with its first release ever in 4K.
The Freeling family is the quintessential early-‘80s family. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is an accomplished real estate developer in Cuesta Verde, California, a planned community. His wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a stay-at-home mom taking care of their picturesque home and their three children, 16-year-old Dana (Dominique Dunne), 8-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and 5-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). One night, as the family sleeps, a powerful supernatural force enters their home through the empty static of their television after the end of the broadcast day, with Carol Anne witnessing the event. While rebuffed as childhood imagination, the Freeling family soon learns that this force Carol Anne has seen is real, and soon, the family must face it head on when Carol Anne is abducted into the ghostly plane in which it exists.
Poltergeist, like the life force of Carol Anne after her abduction, exists in two separate spheres of being. On one hand, you have a true horror romp with a titan of the genre, Tobe Hooper, behind the camera; on the other hand, you have something that feels like a genuine ‘80s blockbuster with sweeping scores, deep wonder, and that of a world both indistinguishable from our own but also of high fantasy. This has since become the basis of everything we’ve associated with the work of Amblin Entertainment, headed by Steven Spielberg, who wrote and produced Poltergeist. There’s also the famous rumors that Spielberg exerted enough creative control over Hooper that he technically directed more of Poltergeist than Hooper did. I don’t believe this theory, and even though I wasn’t there to witness it, I simply see too much of Hooper’s influence in the film’s horror to ever believe that it was anyone but him in the director’s chair. The vibes of Spielberg are there, but the meat of a Tobe Hooper film prevails.
Still, Poltergeist is a relatively tame horror film even by modern standards, and really does work as a wonderful starting point for anyone interested in the genre, as it did for me. It certainly is more of a “spooky” film than an outright “scary” one, but only up until the film’s final 15 minutes, which are genuinely scary, even as a grown adult. This is not least attributed to the fact that Poltergeist still looks fabulous for a horror film made in 2022. I’ve genuinely seen horror films this year with shoddier visual effects than this had in 1982 (Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Umma, Firestarter, Fall, etc.). This film holds up remarkably well both visually, and emotionally, as the concept of protecting those you love against even the fiercest of unknown forces is never not relatable. You can find yourself in any of these characters (I see myself in Tangina [Zelda Rubinstein]).
And thankfully, Warner Bros.’s newly issued 4K Blu-ray release is a stunner for the ages, at least visually. While Poltergeist isn’t a looker in the sense of scale or deep, Avatar-like colors, this is a wonderful display at how less-saturated films can still benefit from the depth that 4K HDR brings to films. The grain has not been touched much by any digital noise reduction, and the film’s excellent lighting is on full display with the HDR that brings an incredible contrast to the film’s mostly muted design. So much so that there are multiple epilepsy warnings on and inside the box about the effects that the film’s lighting effects and strobing could have, so take caution, but also take that as a sign of just how much life has been brought to the image here.
A *slightly* missed opportunity comes in the release’s choice to not include a Dolby Atmos audio track, opting for a standard DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but I can at least attest to this track, however standard on paper it may seem, being anything but. Poltergeist has always been a showcase for audio/visual home theater systems, and this is no different. There is bombastic scale, richly spooky atmosphere, and wonderful use of the surround speakers here. Still, there’s still a part of me that really wonders just how much more bombastic, rich, and surrounding the film could’ve felt with an all-out Atmos mix. As much is done to the film’s visuals to provide a first class experience, this is more business class…like a really nice Qatar Airways QSuite business class, but still business class.
It pretty much goes without saying in 2022 that without the support of Criterion or Shout! Factory behind your Blu-ray release, first party releases aren’t going to go out of their way to shower you in any substantial supplemental material. And that’s the unfortunate case with Poltergeist, too. While there is a “Making-of” featurette new to home media, it clocks in at only around 7 minutes and doesn’t dive into any real mythology surrounding the film. Everything else is simply ported over from its already paltry 2008 Blu-ray release.
The special features are as follows:
- They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists documentary
- The Making of Poltergeist
- Theatrical Trailer
- Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature.
Frankly put, Poltergeist, despite a slow start, evolves quickly into one of the most iconic horror films of the 1980s, and does so without the soon-to-be pervasive slasher-ness that comes with the advent of Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Pinhead, et al. (not that any of that is a bad thing. Poltergeist simply holds its own doing something different.) It’s a stunning achievement in visual effects and set design that grips you both viscerally and emotionally for a roller coaster ride of thrills. Warner Bros.’s new 4K Blu-ray release, despite lacking a Dolby Atmos track, any meaningful special features, and sporting not one, but two bad front covers (if we’re including the Best Buy exclusive Steelbook), rests on its absolutely stunning conversion of the film to the best it’s ever looked at home. Despite some shortcomings, this is an absolute must-own for horror fans looking to find something spooky to show off their fancy new 4K systems with.
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital September 20th, 2022.
For more information, head to Warner Bros. Pictures’s Poltergeist webpage.