Still the Only Poltergeist Edition With Extras Actually About the Movie (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Why, why, why? I don't know why. Why is the laserdisc still the only Poltergeist edition with extras actually about the movie? I mean, I kinda get why, despite it being one of the most famous and beloved horror films, and classic all-American blockbusters, Steven Speilberg and Tobe Hooper haven't wanted to jump on record and dish about "who really directed the movie." And why the terrible, untimely loss of Heather O'Rourke (who died during the filming of Poltergeist III) could make these films a touchy subject. But why, even when this film gets released and reissued again and again, including fancy anniversary editions and blu-ray digibooks, can't they even include the extras already created and released on the laserdisc? Sure, cast reunions and commentaries would be amazing; but if they can't be bothered to make those, what at least about the content that's already sitting right there.
I shouldn't have to tell very many of you that Poltergeist is one of the biggest and still one of the greatest haunted house films of all times. It's surprising how well it holds up, too. Everything still works about it, from the scares to the laughs to the performances to the score. One or two of the special effects may look a little dated now, but being such a big budget Speilberg production, most of it looks as lavish and impressive as ever. And Speilberg schmaltz doesn't even spoil the horror... Believe me, Speilberg's name can make me wince as much as any of you out there. I hate that scene in Jurassic Park where the little boy tries to climb the giant electrified fence designed to hold Tyrannosaurus Rexes out, and winds up smoking with black powder on his face and Alfa-Alfa hair sticking straight up. And this movie has a couple of little kid lead characters, but it stands up to adult scrutiny. In fact, I think the balance here is even stronger than on Gremlins. Really, if you haven't seen this movie in a few decades, go back and revisit it. You know, before the remake has the chance to spoil all your fond memories.

But still, unless you're completely blind to the value of special features (in which case just snag the blu-ray on the cheap), the laserdisc remains for some reason remains the most loaded special edition of this great movie. And it's not that loaded. The new releases just keep falling short. That said, however, picture quality isn't a non-issue. Unlike my last laserdisc review, this one is thankfully letterboxed to its correct aspect ratio (in this instance, a nice 2.35:1). But I've got a DVD copy on hand to compare it to - specifically Warner Bros' early flipper disc from the 90s, which was still a nice, anamorphic release even back then. Let's take a look, shall we?


Update 9/29/15: I've just picked up a copy of the blu-ray, too; so let's add that comparison into the mix!
MGM 1994 laserdisc on top; Warner Bros 1997 DVD mid; Warner Bros 2010 blu bottom.
Okay, the framing isn't quite 2.35:1 on any of the discs... it's more like 2.30:1 on the laser, 2.38:1 on the DVD and a full 2.40:1 on the blu, making the latter the widest of all. So there's a bit more picture information on the sides of the DVD, but the blu actually shifts back closer to the laser, losing a little on the right and bottom, but gaining some on the left. The LD originally struck me as a little overly bright compared to the DVD, but now the blu has shifted back towards the brighter side into an even happier median. And like I've said before, I can only capture laserdisc screenshots through an analog translation. You've got to give laserdiscs like a 10-15% benefit of the doubt in terms of image quality. So in terms of detail, it's actually reasonably close, although the HD obviously wins out. Overall, the DVD is preferable to the laser, but it's not a real "must upgrade" situation. And that same comparison could almost be made for the blu-ray to the DVD, though it's a bit of a longer step forward. Getting the film in HD really does crisp and clean things up a nice bit. Still, it's nice to see a laserdisc stack up alongside a more modern release, especially considering this was a pricey CAV set.

Oh, what's the difference between a CAV and CLV laserdisc? Well, CAV is a higher quality transfer where each frame is defined. You could use a frame skip on your remote and step through the entire film frame by frame, whereas on a cheaper CLV disc, they were more blended together like a VHS tape. The downside of CAV though - why it was more expensive and why every release wasn't CAV - is that it filled up more space on the physical disc. So, in the case of Poltergeist here, the film is spread out over five sides of three discs. Most CLV movies crammed the whole thing on two sides of a single disc. Sometimes a special edition would have a the bulk of the movie as CLV but the final side of the last disc in CAV, just because they had the room to spare. It's just a little edge the laserdisc format could have over video, but just watching the movie play normally on your TV, you wouldn't really notice the difference.
Oh, and I said that this DVD edition is a flipper, right? Yeah, that other side has a full-frame version. So here's a look at that. It's not open matte, it's totally cropped and really only not a version worth preserving. Curiosity value only.

So, to be fair to DVDs, this 1997 disc was hardly the final word on Poltergeist. The full story, at least in the US, is that MGM put out the laserdiscs and the original 1997 DVD (which was also anamorphic widescreen). That same year, Warner Bros reissued it in the one we've seen here. As an older disc, though, it was single layered, and eventually got repressed in 2007. That disc has been labeled as restored and remastered, but it's a pretty identical transfer. it's just got a little better compression being on a dual-layered disc. It is an upgrade, but just barely. Then, in 2008, it was released as a 25th Anniversary blu-ray, and that blu was reissued in more generic packaging for the 2010 blu we've just seen. But what holds true of all these post-laserdisc releases? None of them have any extras relating to the film except for the trailer. I specify "relating to the film," because the later releases did feature a hokey featurette about "real life" poltergeists. But I've watched it, and it's got nothing whatsoever to do with the movie Poltergeist, and it's pretty dopey.
The laserdisc, however, has the trailer and a stills gallery, which already puts it in first place. But crucially, it's also got a nice little featurette called The Making of Poltergeist. Now I don't want to oversell it; it's not an amazing, in-depth documentary. It's only about 8 minutes long, but it doesn't have some nice behind the scenes footage and interviews with Speilberg, producer Frank Marshall and star Craig T. Nelson. You do a god look at some of the really ambitious effects and huge pieces of construction behind them. And the doc's of more value simply by virtue of it being the only behind-the-scenes look at this film we've got, which is tragic. Every time Poltergeist gets reissued I check to see if this is on there so I can at least retire my old laserdisc, but nope; they keep not doing it. It's like that deleted scene from Ghostbusters Sony seems unable to include on any of their special editions - it's not that it's oh so amazing or essential, but come on already, get your acts together!
So yeah, Poltergeist. Great movie, major piece of American cinema, can't get a special edition. Part of me hoped that with the upcoming remake it would finally, finally happen. But it didn't. For a movie-only release, the blu-ray is fine but no frills (not even a proper menu). But you'll need the laserdisc if you want any sort of proper extra features at all, and even then it's very little.

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