Poltergeist, from Laserdisc to 4k Ultra HD

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.

Update 4/17/15 - 9/21/22: Hey! The laserdisc no longer is the only Poltergeist edition with extras actually about the movie, thanks to Warner Bros' brand new UHD release.  Plus, it's an all new 4k restoration, which is the even bigger deal.
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.
Unless you're completely blind to the value of special features, MGM's 1994 laserdisc retained its essential status throughout the SD and HD age by virtue of it being the most loaded special edition of this great movie. And it's not that loaded. The newer releases just kept falling short. MGM put out the the original 1997 DVD, which Warner Bros reissued in 2000. Both discs were flippers, with anamorphic widescreen on one side and fullscreen on the other, but also barebones apart from the trailer.  Warner Bros took another crack at it in 2007, ditching the old fullscreen transfer and replacing it with extras!  ...Just, not about the actual film (we'll come back to that).  Soon after, in 2008, it was released as a 25th Anniversary blu-ray, and that blu was subsequently reissued in more generic packaging for the 2010 blu we've got here.  But this week, we just got a another major upgrade, with a fresh 4k restoration on BD and UHD, and all the legacy extras, including the laserdisc's.
1) MGM 1994 LD; 2) Warner Bros 2000 DVD; 3) Warner Bros 2010 BD;
4) Warner Bros 2022 BD; 5) Warner Bros 2022 UHD.

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/ 2.40:1 on first blu and 2.39:1 on the 2022 discs (yes, the 2022 BD is a new disc with the 4k restoration). So the DVD and old blu add more info to the sides compared to the slightly crimped laserdisc, and surprisingly the 2022s shave a bit off the left again.  That's not just the difference between the 2.39 and 2.40, the new image is a pinch wider, which I'll just trust Warner Bros is the most correct.  Because their new restoration is the best in all other regards.

The LD originally struck me as a little overly bright compared to the DVD.  Like I've said before, I can only capture laserdisc screenshots through an analog translation. You've got to give my laserdisc shots like a 5-10% benefit of the doubt in terms of image quality, especially gamma levels. 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 first 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 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, so here's a look at that full-frame transfer. It's not open matte, it's totally cropped and really not a version worth preserving. Curiosity value only.

But the new UHD really is impressive.  The old editions weren't problematic, so there aren't any huge fixes, but seeing this fine film grain perfectly rendered to the last speck is the sort of thing we needed this new format before.  And the new colors really are impressive.  In these screenshots, you'll notice a more naturalistic (and warmer) look, that really makes early scenes come alive.  And then when the supernatural ILM stuff breaks out, it's a really beautiful light show.  In fact, this release is covered with warnings for photosensitive viewers, including that big yellow sticker you can see on the slipcover above, and a dedicated insert inside.

All of these release feature Dolby surround audio, even the laserdisc.  The DVD gives us a 5.1 mix, plus French and Spanish dubs with English, French and Spanish subtitles.  The early blu-rays expanded that to a whole range of options, including lossy stereo and 5.1 mixes, a lossless TrueHD 5.1, and a whole host of foreign dubs and the full range of 17 subtitles, yes including English.  And the 2022 just tightens that up a little, giving us the 2.0 and 5.1 in lossless DTS-HD now, plus many foreign dubs and the same pile of subtitles.  So it is the best option now, finally giving us the lossless stereo track in addition to the 5.1.
And then of course there's the extras.  The laserdisc had the trailer and a stills gallery, which already puts it in first place compared to all the DVDs and BDs before 2022. 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 does have some nice behind the scenes footage and interviews with Speilberg, producer Frank Marshall and star Craig T. Nelson. We do get a 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 ever gotten, which is tragic.

Starting with the 2007 DVD, though, there was that unrelated extra I mentioned.  It's a corn ball, roughly half hour featurette about "real life" poltergeists.  I've watched it, and it's got nothing whatsoever to do with the movie Poltergeist, and it's pretty dopey.  And no, the 2022 release hasn't come up with any new features, but it has finally brought back The Making of Poltergeist, so we can finally stop dragging our old lasers around.  They've also included the trailer and that cornball featurette on real ghosts, making it the definitive extras package.  That's still not all that much, but it's progress.  It also comes in a shiny slipcover.
So yes, Poltergeist. Great movie, major piece of American cinema, and it's finally got a worthy edition.  Not really a special edition, but as Shudder would say, it is "cursed," so I think we've really gotten all we could ask for here: a high quality one that I have for once have no complaints about.  Warner Bros has done it justice.

1 comment:

  1. I have stumbled on to something very terrifying.. on a ps3 I was watching poltergeist and the part where the parasitologist go to the kids room and the book giggles .. well my ps3 controller fell and where the book comes out it played in dslow motion and the beast is revealed. The giggle is the beast laughing .. play in slow motion ..

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