Films that deserve a more dignified home video release: Poltergeist
*This column is one in which we look at different films that we feel should get better treatment regarding release to the public, based on their content and behind-the-scenes material*
It used to be that when scary or spooky things happened, it was in abandoned houses, spooky castles, or giant mansions on a dark and stormy night. With the release of Poltergeist in 1982, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper showed us that spectral activity could also be found in a place right in our own neighborhood: our own house!
The film concerns the Freelings, who live in a suburban community called Cuesta Verde. Some time after they have moved in, their youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) begins to watch the static on their television set, claiming that she is conversing with “The TV People.” Strange occurrences begin to happen in the household, but one night, a tree outside the older brother’s window seems to come alive, and grabs him! As the parents rush to save him, the closet in Carol Anne’s room opens, and she is sucked into it! Finding her gone, the parents are unsure where she is, when they suddenly hear her voice emanating from their television set! They soon find that supernatural spirits (or poltergeists), have taken their daughter, and enlist the help of a spiritual medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to help get Carol Anne back.
The film proved to be a huge success, and eventually spawned two sequels and a television series. Currently, there is word that MGM Studios (in the wake of escaping from bankruptcy) has plans to start remaking lots of films in their library, with one of them being Poltergeist.
What makes the original film work so well, is that suburbia was always meant to be the place where you were safe from the big city. Gridlock, crime, and strangers were meant to be non-existent entities in these planned communities. The use of a spectral presence in the film helps heighten the tension and the scare value, not to mention that the one in danger is not an idiotic teenager, but an innocent child (I think every parent is fearful of something bad happening to their children).
It’s also noteworthy for the involvement that Steven Spielberg had in regards to the film. He wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, and acted as a producer on the film (the most amount of story interaction he had since Close Encounters of the Third Kind). One has to wonder that if Universal Studios hadn’t held him to directing only one film at the time (a little picture called E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), Spielberg would have directed this as well (there have been several occasions in the last 20 years, where he did direct several films back-to-back). Directing duties were given instead to Tobe Hooper (director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), though to this day, there’s alot of back-and-forth on just who directed the film: Hooper, or Spielberg.
You’d think that since it is considered one of the scariest films out there (I still think it holds up well all these years later), that more effort would be put into its release on DVD and Blu-Ray. Sadly, this has not been the case. The last release for the film occurred in the last 3-5 years, but very little material was added. Extra features included only the film’s trailer, and a documentary titled They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists. Prior to this, the only other time extras had been offered on a home video release, was when the film premiered on laserdisc, which included a making-of featurette that was released before the film premiered in 1982. It almost feels that the way the studio treats this film, the ground will open up, and suck down anyone who attempts to give the film a little more material.
Thinking about the film over the years, here are some things I’d love to see on a proper release:
1) Audio Commentary – Of course, you’ll never get Steven Spielberg on the commentary track (he’s one of the few hold-outs who declines such a thing), but what about a track dealing with some of the cast, or even the other writers, producers, and director Tobe Hooper? You can’t say that a group commentary wouldn’t elicit some interesting stories or memories regarding the experience, or cast members who have passed on (like Heather O’Rourke, or Zelda Rubinstein).
2) Interview retrospective with the cast and crew – This would probably be the closest you’d get to picking Spielberg’s brain, as he is usually willing to sit down and just chat privately about his experiences. Plus, it would be interesting to know if he believes in spiritual phenomena after all these years (during a War of the Worlds press conference in 2005, he was questioned whether he still believes in alien life). It might also be nice to hear what inspired Spielberg to write the story that eventually became the film. Word was during early production of E.T., Spielberg had heard of a family terrorized by aliens, and that was part of his early musings with that project. But it seems that he chose to split the terror and wonder into two films, making Poltergeist the terror of the unknown, and E.T. the wonder.
3) Creating Fear: The Special Effects of Poltergeist – At the time, Poltergeist was the second film in which Spielberg had gone to George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic for help realizing the impossible. In regards to post-production, ILM was doing everything from building miniatures and creating creatures, to doing process-photography shots in the film. It’d be nice to hear from various personnel/staff on what they had to go through, as well as the production design staff in developing the look of the otherworldly spirits.
4) The Making of Poltergeist – This was a making-of featurette that was created in 1982 as part of the film’s promotion. It offered some insight from both cast and crew, as well as little tidbits on some of the visual effects, such as the ‘living closet’ effect that almost takes Carol Anne and her brother.
5) Trailers – Because really, what special features list isn’t going to have them? Plus, it gives us the ability to see how marketing trends were in the early 1980’s.
6) They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists – This could be optional to me, but the documentary included on the DVD/Blu-Ray release could be insightful.
I assume some people would love some special features like Hooper vs Spielberg: who is the true director of Poltergeist, or The Curse of Poltergeist. However, that’s stuff that you’d see on E! Entertainment Television, and wouldn’t make for ‘suitable’ making-of material.
In regards to the story, one can’t also help but feel that it may have been inspired by Spielberg’s love for the Rod Serling show, The Twilight Zone. Some have noted similarities to an episode called Little Girl Lost. In it, a girl rolls under her bed, and into a strange, otherworldly dimension. Her parents can hear her voice in her room, but can’t figure out where she’s gone to. This is very similar to Carol Anne’s disappearance in Poltergeist, yet not quite as visceral and terrifying. (FYI, the episode Little Girl Lost was also parodied slightly in the Treehouse of Horror episode on The Simpsons, where Homer ends up in ‘The 3rd Dimension’)
I only saw the film maybe 2 times in my youth (on home video), but there were still plenty of things in it to freak me out. I also had a clown doll (word was my Mom purchased him for me when I was little, because I called him a ‘funny clown’). However, after seeing Poltergeist, I never looked at him the same way again (and yet, I never got rid of him…maybe out of fear he’d come back to get me if I tossed him away). I think the film also brought forth a strange curiosity with spirits. I was never into the likes of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but when there would be TV movies or the occasional Unsolved Mysteries that dabbled in “The Unexplained,” I was there. There was even a strange made-for-tv movie about a haunted suburban development that seemed eerily similar to Poltergeist.
Of course, being that this is the internet, there’s going to be a few people so deeply in love with a subject, that they’ll make a website dedicated to it. One that I came across when perusing the web about Poltergeist, was Poltergeist: The Fan Site . Fan David Furtney has accumulated a great deal of information regarding the film. His site showcases everything from scans of concept art, to information from the film’s press kit, and even information gleaned from copies of the film’s shooting schedule.
“Every fourth person you know has probably had an experience with a poltergeist or a ghost, or knows somebody who has. You just have to ask around” – Steven Spielberg, 1982 (from the Poltergeist movie press kit)