20th Century Fox
Remakes are frequently dismissed sight unseen because they show a lack of creativity and far too many have proven themselves to be outright stinkers, but there have been enough exceptions to the rule over the years to warrant giving each reboot a chance to stand on its own. While many are pure cash grabs the successes are often ones that wisely targeted lesser films from the past in the hopes of improving them for today’s audiences.
Tobe Hooper’s 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist is in no way a lesser film, and even today – and even with some dated visual effects – the movie delivers a fine balance of fun, scares and heart. The point being that the only area ripe for improvement is the special effects, and in a world where anything and everything is made “better” by CG that appears to be enough of a reason to make a movie. But is it enough of a reason to see a movie?
No. No is the short answer. Keep reading for the longer one.
“Why would someone have a box of clowns?”
The Bowen family is in the middle of a transition as they arrive at their new home – Eric (Sam Rockwell) is recently unemployed, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is suffering from writer’s block and their three kids each bring their own baggage to this quiet little pocket of suburbia. Financial concerns meant they had to settle for a home in a less desirable neighborhood, but it’s not like it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground or anything.
Teenage Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) is upset there are no malls nearby, young Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is terrified of every little creak and moan and youngest Maddy (Kennedi Clements) begins talking to something in her closet. That “something” soon takes her – soon as in on the second night – and when her voice begins emanating from the flat-screen television the family quickly calls in support from some paranormal experts (Jane Adams, Jared Harris).
Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House) Poltergeist is so busy rushing to exceed the original’s iconic beats that it neglects to create any of its own. Worse, it actually fails to even match the effectiveness of those classic moments. The original film’s signature scare for example, the clown, is aped here to negative effect. The time from its introduction to its big move is so fast that we’re given little chance to grow scared of its potential – and that’s despite the reboot’s bold thought process that essentially boiled down to “what’s creepier than one clown doll? Several clown dolls!” Except they’re not creepier, and the scene ends up a masterclass in wasted potential.
The film’s hurry to move forward leaves us with an absence of atmosphere and character depth, and even the house itself – arguably the most important “character” in a haunted house film – is dull and unmemorable. When Maddy is pulled into the netherworld there’s no time given to doubts, disbelief or emotional distress either. Everyone simply accepts it and moves forward as if this child’s disappearance is commonplace, and a distinct lack of urgency settles over them all.
I hesitate to point a finger at the cast as the adults are all proven talents – although that said, Harris is no Zelda Rubinstein – but there’s simply no emotional weight to any of the events. One issue on that front involves a misguided attempt to have viewers care about a relationship among the paranormal team – not only does that take time away from the family but it’s also poorly handled and bungled in its final moments anyway. The screenplay (by David Lindsay-Abaire) also neuters its version of the biggest emotional beat from the original film’s third act.
The script’s bigger failure is in forming its own identity. Hooper’s film explored the idea of suburban crawl, the slow spread of cookie-cutter neighborhoods pushing ever outward, but here the geographical explanation for the haunting feels like the simple checking of a box. The television also played a role as subtext in the original film as a child was literally lost to its endless blast of meaningless white noise, but here, again, Maddy is in the TV simply because it’s franchise canon.
The CG is solid throughout, and the argument could be made that it improves visual elements like the closet portal and the child-snatching tree, but a dependence on it also acts as a hindrance. The mystery of the netherworld, the place where young Maddy is taken, loses that facet as we’re taken inside and shown what previously existed only in our imagination. It doesn’t help that we’re shown this ghostly nightmare via a drone camera operated by young Griffin – a major selling point of this particular model appears to have been a video signal capable of transmitting from the great beyond – displayed on a screen making it look like a video game.
Many of us hoped/expected that Rockwell would be the film’s secret weapon, that no matter how bad it got he would never be less than entertaining, and thankfully that’s pretty much the case. He’s never dull here – and to be honest neither is the film – and instead delivers most of the film’s humorous bits, but he does seem to take a while before fully committing to the narrative. For a while here he’s busy being “Sam Rockwell” when he should be “grieving and confused dad.” It’s part of the same emotional detachment touched on above, but it gets special mention because, come on, it’s Sam Rockwell.
Poltergeist 2015 is harmless, but it ultimately and unfortunately falls under the heading of unnecessary, unworthy and uninteresting remakes. Between the CG and its frequent daytime scenes there’s no doubt it looks good, and at ninety minutes it never grows tedious, but horror films – even family-friendly ones – should aim a bit higher than that.
The Upside: Fantastic cast; sense of humor
The Downside: Too busy chasing original’s iconic tail to build its own tale; no sense of urgency; rushes forward in its laziness; lacks emotional punch; never scary
On the Side: Rockwell, DeWitt and Adams all co-star in another 2015 release, Digging for Fire.