The new Poltergeist has its moments, but could have used a few more...
The 1982 Poltergeist was, almost entirely an analog film. Perhaps there was a digital clockface here or there, maybe the script passed through some kind of word processor, but it was definitely a product of old-school, 35mm filmmaking with nary a CG beastie in sight.
The new Poltergeist is, of course, anything but. This is a digital film, both in practicality and in theme. And it takes place in a digital world, from the the very first moments, when an intense close-up of LCD pixels floats in the 3D the space behind the screen, right through to the big centrepiece battle, with its employment of IR cameras, GPS tracking and a flying drone.
Poltergeist has, both inside its narrative and on the set, been modernised. Perhaps this is most important in what it means for the dynamics of the central family. They might still live in the suburbs, but this now represents a plateau in their social climbing if not a little dip. They’re certainly not as prosperous as their 1980s counterparts: the new Dad (Sam Rockwell) is jobless, the new Mum (Rosemarie DeWitt) is… well, not exactly jobless but, being a writer, honestly limited in her earning potential.
Despite the focus on a family of characters and their relationships, the Poltergeist attacks seem every bit as external in this film as they did in the original. While there are some deliberate hints that family dynamics might have something to do with the supernatural happenings, these are too few and too weak to make much of an impact. Ultimately, we arrive at the same mixture of us versus. them siege and rescue missions as in the original film, again all locked-down within a small house and the impossible, otherworldly spaces that manifest inside its walls.
And just like last time, the family needs the intervention of some external characters to help them bust their ghosts. They call on a couple of paranormal experts, who this time have a personal history that, I can only assume, was more developed on the page than it is in the final edit.
Indeed, that would appear to be true of pretty much everything here. David Lindsay Abaire’s script is full of good material, and the cast often make a great deal out of it, particularly the witty, unpredictable Rockwell, empathic and driven DeWitt and Kyle Catlett as edgy, anxious middle child Griffin, the hero of the piece, but it often seems truncated. I was left suspecting that a depth of material had been excised to keep up the pace.
On the plus side of this decision, there is that pace. Things do keep happening, and they’re pretty well-realised too, for the most part, slickly shot and dressed up with accomplished FX work. The double-climax is a bit underwhelming, but only in the same way as the original film’s third act.
Seeing as the film seems more focused on its set-pieces than might have been ideal, it’s a relief that they tend to be good. I couldn’t help but laugh when a whole box of clown dolls was found in the attic, but that’s largely because my alternative response would have been to run out of the auditorium, screaming, and the scene soon had me three-quarter closing my eyes in the belief that this would be enough to stop them getting me. It seems to have worked. For now.
There’s one particularly imaginative, and I think very probably memorable, twist on an old idea. There’s a key shot that looks like it’s going to be a 3D variant on one of the original film’s most famous ideas… and then it suddenly isn’t, it’s something else, and a lot of the audience were jolted up from their seats.
Director Gil Kenan has also found some new reasons to build pieces of his set at odd angles and on gimbals, and it’s encouraging to see he hasn’t always matched the techniques of the first film with the same narrative events, allowing in a little homage, or even just a sense of visual consistency, without being slavish (read: boring).
I was disappointed by the role given to Susan Heyward, one of just two people of colour in the whole film (the other is seen in a Skype call for a few seconds). Heyward’s character is definitely the third wheel – later, fourth – in the team of paranormal investigators and has been given almost nothing to do. Try to catch the character’s name, if you can, and then look out for the two-shot where she gets some dialogue with Jared Harris. He’s standing proud while she’s sitting in the corner of the frame, with some props in the middle distance obscuring her face. I’m sure this was a side-effect of some other editing motivation and not an attempt to marginalise the character or actress, but the net effect is an unfortunate one.
Ultimately, Poltergeist feels like a little bit of a lost opportunity. The talent involved suggested we might get something as rich as Rabbit Hole with ghosts, or even just Monster House beefed up for a slightly older audience. It’s never quite either of those things, and we’re left having to settle for – poor us – a good night out at the pictures, watching a fairly solid, imperfect but largely entertaining film that packs just a handful of stand-out sequences and, even though many are far from resolved, a good amount of ideas.
I certainly didn’t like it any less than I do Tobe Hooper’s original.
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