Is remaking Poltergeist a good idea?

News Rob McLaughlin 2 May 2012 - 13:26

Poltergeist, the near-perfect suburban horror movie, is getting the Hollywood remake treatment. But should it be left alone? Rob takes a look…

Sam Raimi, a geek hero who bought us The Evil Dead (and of course Hercules and Xena) is still a fan favourite. But as time progresses, the pioneering filmmaker is taking more of a back seat and evolving into a respected producer, overseeing and using his knowledge to assist up and coming filmmakers, directors and writers.

His decision to nurture a new breed of horror directors is commendable, and working with people like Diablo Cody on a new take on The Evil Dead is a (potentially) interesting move, but really, why do we need remakes of already superb films? We should all thank Mr Raimi for his efforts, but like most fanboys, I was up in arms when I first heard about the decision to remake The Evil Dead. The usual sound bites of ‘reimagining’ and ‘modern spin’ fill me with dread.

However, I was happy to let this pass – Evil Dead is Evil Dead, the deadites can and have appeared elsewhere, and the evil book can be upped and moved to a different location or scenario (past, present or a groovy future). But for all the positives I can think of for an Evil Dead remake, the notion that Raimi is looking to rework Poltergeist is something I have an issue with. 

I have professed my love for this film numerous times, and while personal opinion does come into it (the Lucas and Star Wars issues of ruined childhood memories and so on) I would like, as a film fan, to pass on a few words to anyone looking to remake Poltergeist: please, just don’t.

The film is perfect, and really, the idea that someone would tinker with Spielberg’s seminal horror (I am under no illusion that Tobe Hooper actually directed the film) would get the cheap, nasty straight-to-video (sorry, Blu-ray) treatment is just terrible. It’s like remaking Jaws, E.T. or Close Encounters.

I don’t necessarily mind remakes of semi-classic horrors from yesteryear that people didn’t really much care for originally (see House Of Wax and House On Haunted Hill), or perhaps weren’t directed by one of the most loved and revered directors of the past 50 years. There’s no denying that some remakes have been mildly successful, either (The Hills Have Eyes, The Thing and Dawn Of The Dead); but are they better than the originals? Well, no, not really. The films that are good but not ground-breaking, fun but not earth shattering, and enjoyable rather than iconic.

I don’t mind these remakes, but for every ‘good’ one, we have to suffer a Rob Zombie-shot Halloween, Wicker Man, Nightmare On Elm Street or Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake – completely unnecessary, pointless and vague. Iconic horrors are now used as cash cows, rebranded by a marketing department in a studio and pushed on an uninterested, continually texting audience of bored teens for a standard hour and a half of superficial entertainment – movies that make money but have neither love nor passion from the filmmaker of the audience. No, my opinion of contemporary horror isn’t that high, and while Insidious had elements of 80s horror greatness, that too fell short.

As such, when people are discussing remaking Poltergeist, I have a fear that the end result, even in safe hands, will end up more like Poltergeist 3 with added teens. I can foresee the original’s stunning visual effects going down the CG route and the tight-knit, loving family unit becoming a frat house or hostel for angst ridden teens. The horror of child abduction and a family dealing with the absolute terror of something they cannot do anything about would be gone.

It’s not just the premise of the film that a remake could easily miss the mark on. Could a remake in 2012 really capture the same vibe the early 1980s gave to filmmaking? I do not really think that the streets of the remake will have children playing happily in the street on BMXs, running and being happy in the sun, loving the outdoors while sporting Empire Strikes Back t-shirts and downing Pepsi and Oreos as the original did.

This blissful opening set the mood, tone and balance of the film; it’s just a housing estate with normal people in it, and to me, a lot of modern horror films have lost this sense of normality. It’s the same with The Exorcist; again, an ordinary family in ordinary surroundings with extraordinary things occurring to them – there are no clichés, one liners or knowing nods to the audience.

Maybe in a post-Scream environment (thanks, Kevin Williamson), where all horror films have to be self-knowing and  aware of what they are doing, the magic of a horror film like Halloween or Friday The 13th is lost. And while it’s not just my love for this era of filmmaking (and my childhood) that I don’t want despoiling, it’s also the heart of Poltergeist that I don’t want interfering with. The Freeling family household set in suburbia.

While I still want to live in 1980s Cuesta Verde, the estate in California where both Poltergeist and E.T. were set, with its days of endless 80s summers holidays, I would think that any remake will not in any way be able to capture the note perfect slice of suburbanised Americana, where the parents, who were once hippies, have settled down (albeit still with a tendency to dabble in recreational drug use), and their offspring were the first generation (like myself) to get the full force of consumerism aimed at children.

I cannot think of a film recently that I wanted to be in (except maybe The Avengers), but with Poltergeist, this is where I wanted to be – to be able to go trick or treating in a little cul-de-sac dressed as Darth, and then go to sleep in a massive double bed surrounded by posters of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Star Wars toys and American Football helmets. This is what America was for me, and it’s within this perfect, serene life that the storm comes, and the TV and happy house environment turns on its head.

And that’s something a remake will not inspire in a new audience. It won’t capture what we Brits saw as the appeal of the States at the time. It won’t make people want to visit America, to see how other kids, or families are living. We have become used to the American way of life; it’s become part of our own, with things like the Internet and globalisation, and any remake will have to deal with this.

Another issue is that Poltergeist is scary – again, not in a knowing way full of cheap shocks. Poltergeist was the first film ever to really scare me, to give me nightmares and sleepless nights. Can you remember a horror film of recent times – either based on an original idea or remake – that was actually scary? Not jump and shock scary, but atmospheric, intelligent and with a slow build to horror? 

Most modern horror films aim to shock. There is no slow build up, no potential benevolence to the nightmares that await you in your sleep, but for Poltergeist there is – the ‘TV people’ at first are fun, light-hearted, moving chairs around or dragging Carol Anne across the floor. It’s a gentle hint at the horror to come – the film doesn’t just chuck you into the deep end of knife-wielding maniacs or chainsaw wielding ‘in-breds’. It takes you by the hand into the shallows of scares, letting them lap at you, before gently shoving you out of your depth and into true horror.

The story: could or would they change it?

Poltergeist’s story is pretty well known; an average suburban family have an encounter with a spirit which initially appears through the television and then proceeds to abduct their five-year-old daughter Carol Anne. As the film progresses, the family turn to more desperate measures to reclaim their daughter from the malevolent entity called The Beast, turning to powerful medium Tangina Barrons for help. Rescuing their daughter, the spirits try again to capture Carol Anne, and in revenge for the family being reunited, rip the Freeling’s loving family home to pieces, crushing it into a ball of light and energy.

Written by Steven Spielberg, this is a very dark film, and really the distorted mirror image of his other 1982 release, E.T. – a sort of paranormal cousin, if you will, to his more light-hearted (but still at times scary) cinematic juggernaut. Although the film was allegedly directed by Tobe Hooper, there are Spielberg-like fingerprints all over it, from the setting to the slow build to scares – the key Spielberg elements are all here.

The issue being, can an audience of 2012 handle a slow build movie – is an audience anxiously awaiting the next kill happy to sit though nearly half the film before things get really scary and serious? Would a studio want to cut it down to 90 minutes a three act piece that just notches up the terror every half hour? It’s happened before; nothing is more important than box-office takings, and if artistic integrity or story get in the way of profit, the edit always goes in favour of the guys funding things.

In Poltergeist, there are no witty one liners, no standing up to the bully, and no ‘one last stand’ for the climax. In Poltergeist, the ghosts are portrayed as stronger and a whole lot cleverer than Carol Anne and, for that matter, the rest of her family. The odds are stacked way in favour of the ghosts, so there is no way to really defeat them – they tease and chat to Carol Anne through the television. They cajole her with secrets and whispers.

This is not the usual affair of blundering monsters or one-liner delivering killers; there isn’t usually a coaxing of a victim in such a subtle way – as Tangina says, they tell her things only a child will know, lying to her  before proceeding to snatch her from her loving family – something that I am sure is far more resonant than a cliché driven bloody ‘kill’ in less intelligent horror films.

Could a remake set in today’s world of 24-hour media capture the same fear? The family are isolated for most of the film – but with, say, Twitter or Facebook, the fear and isolation goes. How easy would it be for Carol Anne’s young brother Robbie to tweet, “We’ve lost Carol Anne. She’s in the TV somewhere…lol”? Indeed, would she be abducted through a laptop monitor, or would the spirits communicate via iPad or mobile device? The possibilities are mad.

This primal fear is why Poltergeist is so effective – the force of wills batting over who has custody of Carol Anne is really the focus of the film. The family’s resolve is the main driving factor, and as things get progressively stranger, they call upon people who, realistically, are a last resort – a group of parapsychologists. The family have tried every logical avenue of enquiry, but Carol Anne is still missing, and her room is a hive of paranormal activity.

A remake would probably have the family straight onto the web for a session of self-diagnosis, or browsing the most recent ‘home exorcisms 101’ video on YouTube.

Poltergeist’s legacy: could a remake stand up?

Poltergeist, like its benevolent cousin E.T., has a standing legacy. It’s almost 30 years old, and yet has as much resonance on horror films and media as it did back when it was released. The film has influenced music, television, from the obvious parodies in South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons, to references in films like Scary Movie to more obscure ones in The X-Files, Supernatural and Wonderfalls.

It ignited people’s interest in the paranormal, and I would think that popular shows such as Most Haunted would be far less commonplace without this movie. It is really the template by which all suburban horror movies are based upon, from Insidious to Paranormal Activity to the superb BBC production Ghostwatch – all these take elements from the film. A remake has big shoes to fill.

Of course, there are also the ‘curse of Poltergeist’ urban legends, where the film has been associated with real-life occurrences, such as the passing of Heather O’Rouke and the murder of Dominique Dunne that added layers of myth to the original. This was before internet rumours, false web pages, memes, viral advertising and the usual standard tricks of the trade for promotion, and any remake would have to contend with this.

Poltergeist is remembered for the way it made you feel the first time you watched it, and the way it became a part of your upbringing, in the way that films like Jurassic Park, Jaws or Star Wars are. As mentioned earlier, it was the first film that truly terrified me, and for that, I’m grateful. Poltergeist has stayed with me a lot longer than it should, and a remake, even if done correctly, could not stand up to the phenomenal cultural impact the original still had.

So please Hollywood: stay away.

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