Poltergeist 40 years on

Poltergeist1Poltergeist, 1982, 114 mins, 4K UHD

My affection for Poltergeist is deeper than it really deserves- as noted before, it was the first film rental I ever saw, back in 1983 when my parents rented a VHS machine and sent me down to the video store with a membership card. It was tremendously exciting having a genuine film on this weird big plastic cassette and loading it up in the player, watching a film, uncut, with no ad breaks, of our choice when we wanted to watch it. It was a glimpse of the future that at the time could not be guessed at, a future of films on demand and that one can actually own to rewatch time and time again.

I’ve rewatched the film several times over the years since, and I think I’ve bought it on every new format (4K UHD of course just the very latest one). I think its possibly an attempt to relive that original excitement from 1983, because every time I rewatch it, the film disappoints somehow. Its a good film, and also a big reminder of just how varied and largely successful genre releases were in 1982 in particular, something we’ll not see the like of again. But as a horror film, is it really genuinely scary on repeat viewings? Can those child actors really act? Does it rely too much on ILM visual effects that increasingly look dated, big loud sound effects (it gets ridiculously noisy towards the end) and the propulsive qualities of Jerry Goldsmith’s music? Is it too much a Spielberg movie?

You can tell its based on a story by Spielberg. Its got that reliance of showy effects and spectacle, sort of a mix between CE3K and Raiders of the Lost Ark posing as horror movie, largely ignoring the subtlety of genuine quiet, creepy horror that gets under ones skin. And perhaps indicating Spielberg’s youth at the time most of all, it suggests parents who don’t report their missing child to the police, something as ridiculous as a father deserting his children to go fly off in a UFO, dubious plot holes I imagine he’s since regretted with maturity.

The authorship of the film as a whole -particularly who directed it- has been a subject of some contention amongst fans for years. It clearly carries Spielberg’s stamp, including some of his worst habits of the time, like slow camera pull-ins on actors reaction shots that always irritated the hell out of me and still does on repeat viewings (thankfully something Spielberg grew out of, eventually) that suggest he directed some moments at least, or certainly had a big involvement in the editing. I rather think of Poltergeist as I do Return of the Jedi; the latter may credit Richard Marquand as director but its got George Lucas’ hand all over it, unfortunately (a response to Lucas feeling he lost control of The Empire Strikes Back). I suspect Tobe Hooper worked as a director-for-hire and acceded to Spielberg in all creative discussions (other rumours persist that Spielberg actually took over when Hooper lost control/fell ‘ill’, but that being said, I suspect that had Spielberg really directed it as some suspect, the performances of those child actors would have been much better).

There are moments in Poltergeist that are genuinely great; I’ve always loved Goldsmith’s effective score, particularly when we see the ghostly spirits coming down the stairs. It was the moment that truly blew me away back in 1983 and always raises the hairs on the back of my neck. JoBeth Williams is wonderful, the heart and soul of the film that carries all the proceedings once her daughter is abducted by the ghosts haunting the house. The more times I have watched the film, I increasingly wish the script had just had a bit more polish that might have ensured less of a reliance on those effects. Its a film that leans more toward entertainment than genuine scares, I feel; an indication of what Amblin would be all about during the 1980s etc and how mainstream Hollywood was going with its summer blockbusters. Its less an adult horror movie than it is a creepy movie for kids- yeah, a Spielberg horror movie rather than  a Hooper horror movie, clearly (albeit the censors seem to have nixed that intent; Poltergeist is still a 15 over here in the UK).

poltergeist4kOn 4K UHD Poltergeist naturally looks better than it ever has. The HDR allows greater clarity, particularly in daylight, exterior scenes. I don’t think it does the ILM photochemical effects too many favours, really- some of the animation looks a little too painterly… I wonder, had Doug Trumbull had a hand in the effects, if his ‘painting with light’ approach might have been a preferable one. I did notice some banding in a few of the dark skies (pretty nasty in the scene where Steve and Diane knock on their neighbours door and the dark cloudy night sky has ugly banding behind them, but maybe that’s a source issue). On the whole it looks pretty great though.

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4 thoughts on “Poltergeist 40 years on

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    I have no reservations about Poltergeist at all.
    I have similar nostalgic memories: it was one of the 1982 movies I couldn’t see at the cinema, so I watched it on VHS the following year – at a school friend’s house as we didn’t have a VCR. And I listened to the soundtrack constantly (and still do).

    I always keep Kim Newman’s judgement of Poltergeist in mind, from his 1988 book ‘Nightmare Movies’ which was a big stepping stone for me: he categorised it – I paraphrase here – as another of the ‘greatest show on earth’ fairground rides that Lucas and Spielberg excelled at at the time. It’s not really horror – just a spooky take on the formula. With that in mind, I’m never disappointed: it’s funny, the characters are lovely, it looks and sounds amazing (beautiful photography); and it’s unpretentious and direct in its aim to entertain. A winner.

    Unfortunately, my wife is making us wait until Halloween to watch it on 4K.

    1. You raise a good point re: Kim Newman’s comments. Originally with this in mind, I considered Tobe Hooper an odd choice of director considering his hardcore horror rep re: Texas Chainsaw Massacre but then I thought about Salems Lot, and how that worked so well scaring a tv audience witless with the limitations of tv; Spielberg was clearly after something more Salems Lot than Chainsaw. Censors weren’t so convinced though, the BBFC going with a ’15’ here which undercut, perhaps, where and how they wanted the film to play over here. I think maybe Gremlins nailed the original intent for Poltergeist in that respect.

  2. I haven’t watched this movie in probably 25 years, I’d like to watch it again as an adult and see if it holds up. It seemed as tho the cast was cursed- with two of the child actresses dying young.

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