When a reboot/remake/reimagining (choose your own variant of cliché) exits the Hollywood studios these days, it is a hard internal struggle to remain open-minded and judge the film on its own merits, when we are all wired to judge things based on our own knowledge and previous experiences. That stands for the most basic of films, let alone for a franchise that has such a storied legacy.
Truly one of the greatest horror films in cinema history, it would be easy to talk about the infamous “curse” the Poltergeist series has, second only perhaps to the Superman films? Or the supposed uncanny prophecy of the 1988 Superbowl poster? We could start with how it became the launchpad of the supernatural horror genre, or how 1982 mirrored 2015 in the orgy of film evidence in the bedrooms of the Freeling children, decorated with Alien and Star Wars posters, Captain America and Avengers comics, all with films currently in production or on release. We could even take the paranormal route and discuss the ghost of child star Heather O’Rourke which supposedly haunts the Paramount Studios lot.
Poltergeist has had many successors, from the literal sequels to parodies in modern pop-culture such as Family Guy and South Park to spiritual (excuse the pun) ones in forms of Insidious and to a lesser extent (i.e. preferably disowned and written out of the will) Paranormal Activity, but the immediate question is how does the latest offering from Paramount and MGM studios, a remake of Tobe Hooper’s beloved 1982 classic, hold up both in comparison to the original and as a film in its own right?
Following the current trope of horror movies, director Gil Kenan, previously known for children’s horror film Monster House has hired a well-established and above-par actor in Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Moon) in the hope that his presence will mask the series of played out genre clichés audiences have been exposed to in the last decade or so.
To have such a strong brand in the hands of a relatively inexperienced director is a gamble, and based on the evidence one that didn’t pay off in anyone’s favour. Rockwell is a very talented actor and has always been on the cusp of breaking through into that upper tier, but this won’t justify it anytime soon; while he is the only member of the cast who attempts to inject individuality and personality into his role as patriarch Eric Bowen, he is simply given too little to do in a role which plays second fiddle to entirely absent atmosphere.
With a screenplay credited to David Lindsay-Abaire without headline acknowledgment to original writers Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, the story plays out very much the same as before, though with twenty minutes shaved off the running time it is more compressed, losing or changing a lot of the quirky details and attempting a more sombre, straightforward scare-fest. In so doing it loses all the sense of fantasy, charm and warmth which made the original so cherished and crucially remains steadfastly scare free.
Meeting them as they are moving into their new house, the film opens with a painful effort to introduce a family dynamic that should endear the Bowens to the audience but just comes across as rushed and clinical, an overdone “we act obnoxious but we love each other really” attempt which offers caricature rather than character.
The cutesy Americana of the original is replaced with what can is presumed to be Kenan’s vision of modern consumerist American life, with the recently laid-off Eric bringing his wife Amy (Cinderella Man and Mad Men’s Rosemary Dewitt) to a supposed run-down neighbourhood hit by foreclosures, their downsizing still offering all mod-cons and more rooms than could possibly be afforded on such a low budget in anything resembling reality.
This consumerism continues when having had several credit cards declined on a shopping trip for essentials, Eric comes back laden with expensive gifts for the whole family with no explanation given for how these were paid for. When the spooky occurrences begin (about five minutes into the film before any semblance of atmosphere or menace is established), gone is the almost Close Encounters style of the original, swapping the fantastical for straight up jump-scares, and signposted ones at that.
With the practical effects which were state of the art at the time and similar to those used in contemporary films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters now replaced wholly by digital effects, even those which are well done – the light and fire around the portal – are undermined by those which are not, the erupting mud and bodies of the basement, the tree which comes through the window, the writhing skeletons of “the other side.”
The original was driven by a quartet of female performances: JoBeth Williams as mother Diane Freeling, Heather O’Rourke as her lost daughter Carol Anne, Beatrice Straight as paranormal investigator Doctor Lesh and Zelda Rubinstein as the psychic Tangina Barrons, each of them honest, genuine, fresh, unique and irreplaceable. Of their successors, DeWitt, Kennedi Clements as the abducted Madison Bowen, Jane Adams as Doctor Brooke Powell and Jared Harris as reality television ghostbuster Carrigan Burke, only Clements approaches her predecessor.
A slightly madder version of his character in the equally pitiful Hammer offeringThe Quiet Ones, Harris is given a particularly thankless stereotype to play, emblematic of the new downgraded demographic the studio are keen to embrace with his own Twitter hashtag (#thishouseisclean); if the revelation that Burke and Adams were once married seems a low point shoehorned into the film, their end credit sequence practically begging for a sequel manages to be more embarrassing.
With the cast seemingly uninterested and no passion or style in the performances, lighting, sound, camera or effects, this half-hearted remake feels like a ghost itself, standing alongside the remakes of The Haunting, The Fog,The Amityville Horror and Carrieas examples of how horror films should not be done, all of them irretrievably incompetent and bungled. The only real horror is that if you want to feel truly scared then consider that this trend of bland, inane generic “horror” film is what the studios favour and so will continue for the foreseeable future.
Poltergeist is now on general release in 2D and 3D, while the infinitely superior original is available on DVD and Blu—ray to enjoy in the comfort of your suburban home built atop a graveyard