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Frightening 'Poltergeist' deserved a proper reintroduction

Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Considering the care Warner Bros. gives box sets and special editions of classic movies in the catalog, one has to wonder why "Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition" (4 stars, Warner, $19.98) wasn't afforded a more lavish celebration.

The lack of any enticing new extras, except for a new and less than informative documentary, might cause many who own the film on disc to pass it by. That would be a shame because Poltergeist has been given a digital remastering and 5.1 Surround audio mix that puts the earlier DVD release to shame.

One reason for the boring packaging may be that "Poltergeist" was not officially a Warner film; in 1982 it was issued by MGM, and became a Warner property by default after former board member Ted Turner acquired the bulk of the MGM catalog for broadcast on his classic movies cable channel.

Another reason may be the circumstances surrounding the making of the movie. Producer Steven Spielberg took over the directing responsibilities from Tobe Hooper ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), though Hooper remains the credited director. There were legal and guild issues that prevented the parties involved from telling the whole story back then, and they might remain in effect today.

Still, there is little doubt "Poltergeist" is a Spielberg movie - and one of his best.

Like most of his early output, it taps into childhood fears and adult feelings of helplessness in a way few other filmmakers have ever been able to do. It has special effects that were brilliantly conceived and executed in a time before computers made the impossible all too possible. And best of all, it has a simple, smart and evocative screenplay, cowritten by Spielberg, that relocated the haunted house to an all-too-ordinary and recognizable American suburb - effectively bringing the ghosts home.

JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson were little known in 1982, making them ideal for the roles of Baby Boomed parents whose youngest daughter (Heather O'Rourke) is abducted by forces unknown after inanimate objects begin to rebel against the home's orderliness. (The teenage sister was played by Dominique Dunne, daughter of columnist Dominick; she was later murdered by a stalker.)

With Mom and Dad unable to control the situation, it is left to a medium with a baby voice (Zelda Rubinstein) to referee and pretty much steal the movie.

What makes "Poltergeist" a horror classic - and a PG-rated one at that - is simply that it is truly, honestly scary: Not revolting, not satirical, not grotesque or gory, although still too intense for young kids. It earns every jump and jolt, just as the other fantasy Spielberg released later that year, "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," earned every gasp of wonder it provoked and every tear it tugged.

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Also new this week:

If you are one of the few old timers who went to see Julie Taymor's new Beatles-song musical "Across the Universe," you may have noticed that a couple of the production numbers owe a debt to Milos Forman's "Hair" (4 stars). It's by far the best of three post-musical-era musicals packaged as "American Movie Musicals Collection Vol. 2" (MGM, $29.98). It's accompanied by 2004's misguided Cole Porter autobiography/song review "De-Lovely" (2 stars) and the usually but unduly reviled "A Chorus Line" (2 stars) adaptation from 1995.

An enticing bargain for those who built a DVD collection that lacks a couple of these films is to be had with "MGM Classic Musicals" (MGM, $59.98). It has single-disc editions of no less than six truly classic musicals, like "West Side Story" (4 stars) and "Guys and Dolls" (3 stars).

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TV on DVD:

Many fans embrace "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Three" (Universal, $39.98) as the best in the series' run, and it's hard to argue when the 39 episodes include classics like "Dip in the Pool " with Keenan Wynn; "The Perfect Crime " starring Vincent Price and the legendary "Lamb to the Slaughter" in which Barbara Bel Geddes serves the detectives investigating her husband's disappearance a very delicious dinner. Also boxed this week:

"The Vicar of Dibley - A Holy Wholly Happy Ending" (BBC, $19.98)

"CSI New York - The Third Season" (Paramount, $64.99)

"Roots; The Next Generation" (Warner Bros., $59.98)

"Ben 10 - The Complete Second Season" (Turner, $19.98)

"Michael Palin: Pole to Pole" (BBC, $49.98).

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Family pick of the week:

Though the week's theatrical releases include the animated "Surf's Up" (2 stars, Columbia-TriStar, $28.95), the Steve Carell comedy "Evan Almighty" and a feature-length "Hannah Montana" episode titled "Life's What You Make It" (2 stars, Disney, $19.99), a version of an oldie-but-goodie provides the best family sit-down: the 1978 TV mini series adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" (3 stars, Koch Vision, $29.98).

This version isn't as dense as the most recent, 1994 theater release, but it may be the most faithful to Alcott's endearing novel about four New England sisters and their mother coping with life without father during the Civil War.

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