Attempting to remake an ’80s touchstone like Poltergeist was always going to be a tricky proposition. First of all, the Steven Spielberg storied and Tobe Hooper directed (or perhaps also Spielberg directed?) original is something akin to hallowed ground in this genre. And then on the other bedeviling hand is the fact that just about every suburban supernatural yarn has already done this in one way or another.
So going in to the Poltergeist redo, director Gil Kenan was instantly summoning some potentially malevolent forces from moviegoers. And despite conjuring some good casting juju of his own, his ghost story never really climbs out of its six-foot deep handicap.
In case you missed it, Poltergeist is the story of a family, their new home, and the worst realtor on Earth. And that narrative chalk outline doesn’t change when Eric and Amy Bowen (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) move into their new home with self-absorbed teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), anxious young son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and Madison (Kennedi Clements), whose sole distinction is being the young girl who gets to whisper, “They’re here.”
The they she refers to remains a group of seriously pissed off spirits that had a neighborhood dropped on their cemetery after opportunistic developers only moved the headstones. So, what at first appears to be mischievous communication on the den’s television static or the kids’ cell phones quickly turns into deadly clown dolls, child-snatching trees, and a number of other horrors that seemed a lot more terrifying 30 years ago.
This Poltergeist’s major new angle is that we’re no longer down the street from Steven Spielberg’s proto-Amblin ‘80s Americana—essentially Disneyland’s Main Street except with some dark, dark shadows in the margins. Instead Poltergeist ’15 is coming off the much less idealized Great Recession. Rockwell’s Eric is out of work after being laid off by the surprisingly namedropped John Deere. And just like the family who are introduced with sullen faces as they drive to a new home, the magical and cursed nooks and crannies of youth are drowned out by a muted beige of diminished expectations for everyone involved…including the audience.
That is not to say Poltergeist is an ugly looking picture; it’s just not from the childlike perceived wonderment once synonymous with Spielberg’s touch. In its place, this film is much more told from the vantage of Eric and Amy, which is a rare saving grace. While the child actors are serviceable, Rockwell and DeWitt suggest an interesting concept about a family life that is figuratively sliding into the grave long before they actually begin doing so. As opposed to finding their dream home, this married couple is settling on a rundown consolation abode, which minus some heavy wear and tear, not-so-ironically could be from the same neighborhood as the 1982 death trap.
So when the camera’s on Rockwell and DeWitt going from cutting corners to cutting ectoplasm off their kids’ hair, the picture gets close to growing accustomed to its old haunts. Unfortunately, missing from this house just as much as a coat of optimistic paint is a sense of awe, horror, or any other emotion reserved for the supernatural.
In the original Poltergeist, the family is bedazzled by their house of wonders before they go fleeing from the door, and the parents are in on the magic just as early as their kids. But in 2015, there’s no time for fun when the horror movie formula requires getting right down to business. Ergo, the kids are haunted much sooner than the parents, and clown dolls begin moving on their own while a now CGI-enhanced tree comes breaking through the window. If you’ve seen the original before you know what to expect, only this time it loses the tactile feel of practical and animated effects.
In 30 years, the advent of CGI means that we can finally see the other side of the daughter’s possessed closet, but finally seeing how the dead attempt to live makes one realize how much better it was to have never known otherwise. Indeed, the computer animated corpses that occupy Poltergeist’s netherworld climax are so rubbery that they appear indistinguishable from the zombie video game young Griffin plays on his iPad throughout the film.
For horror enthusiasts, there remain a few good scares to be had in Poltergeist. The very best of which involves a snooty paranormal graduate student getting more than he bargained for when he drills a hole into a closet’s plastered wall. Sure, the sequence would feel more comfortable in Saw than in this supposed family film freak out, but at least for a moment, Kenan is making it his own.
Sadly though this monster house never feels like anything more than a rental. There is some fleeting lip-service paid to the idea of social media letting the poltergeist entity spread like a virus, but ultimately, this is a familiar home that has long been overdue for a renovation. Mowing the front yard with some 2015 gadgets and contrivances does not make up for the fact that Jared Harris’ ghost hunters reality star is still no Zelda Rubinstein.
For those looking for an update of the Poltergeist premise, the original Saw director James Wan has actually done it with great success twice in Insidious and The Conjuring—two films that neither forget to create new scares or to warm them with the American nuclear family’s core. By comparison, this drafty house is nowhere close to clean.
If the message of the original Poltergeist is that some things should be left buried, it’s a shame that we didn’t listen.
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