In 1982, Poltergeist traumatized the world in one image: a little blond girl saying, “They’re heeee-errre.” And so, regardless of one’s feelings on the matter, the horror classic is the latest on the chopping block to get the remake treatment, and as is so often the case, the first question that springs to mind is, of course: Why? With this film, that’s an especially necessary question to ask.
Director Gil Kenan’s update isn’t incompetent, but what it is? Completely unnecessary, offering nothing in the way of new insight, character development or thematic novelty. It’s basically just a rehash of the Tobe Hooper-directed, Steven Spielberg-written original (there’s a whole urban legend regarding who directed what that we’re not going to get into here) with ostensibly better special effects. At best, this is a paint-by-numbers supernatural horror movie, all the genre tropes present and accounted for: a new house, spooky trees, random noises in the night, flickering lights, a weird little girl—just about every cliché one can name.
The movie-perfect Bowen family—dad Eric (Sam Rockwell), mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), little wiener Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and the youngest, Maddy (Kennedi Clements), who is weird and has imaginary friends (or are they really imaginary?)—is having a rough time. Eric was recently laid off and they have to move to a foreclosed house in a rundown subdivision under some power lines. Creepy things start happening right out of the gate—including, but not limited to: a demonic squirrel and a box of clowns hidden in the wall. Before long it’s revealed that the whole neighborhood was built on a cemetery, and Maddy is abducted by an angry crew of pissed off poltergeists.
Which also happens to be the exact plot of the original, and the new renovation never strays from the source. Rockwell is the film’s early highlight, and though he’s not actually doing anything other than his usual, hyperactive shtick, he’s still charming enough to breathe a bit of life into a rote, bland script. Most of Poltergeist’s second act follows the exact path expected, and any interesting or compelling pace established in the beginning is soon mired in scenes where the Bowens turn to a team of collegiate paranormal examiners—Because why would you call the cops when your daughter disappears?—and the entire situation and set up is explained every step of the way. In great detail. There’s not a lot, or any, subtlety to be found in this picture.
Admittedly, Poltergeist does pick up a head of steam in its third act, when Jared Harris shows up playing Carrigan Burke, a cantankerous reality TV ghost hunter. Here, some of the humor that previously rested on Rockwell’s shoulders re-materializes as he banters with the family, shares war stories and battle scars from his various supernatural encounters, and generally chews the scenery in a delightful way. Harris, more than anyone else in the cast, knows exactly what movie he’s in; he’s having a damn fine time.
This is also where shit starts to get a little weird—not to the extent that Poltergeist can stand apart from its forebear as its own unique thing, and not even close to the extent that picture is rescued, but when it starts to come off the rails, at least something is happening. Poltergeist is at its best when it veers into campiness—there are some great unintentional laughs, as well as some sinister, H.R. Giger-looking special effects—but it never fully transcends the bland genre trappings that pen it in at almost every turn. Even the kids get their chance to be the heroes, which is refreshing; if only the filmmakers had realized this sooner.
Poltergeist doesn’t, to be frank, piss on the corpse of the original, but it doesn’t do much with the original’s framework either. Even judged in a vacuum, Gil Kenan’s movie is never anything more than a middle-of-the-road ghost story: It isn’t awful, but it offers functionally nothing that that the original doesn’t already offer better. Including its theme. Which is pretty much: Never build your home on a cemetery.
Director: Gil Kenan
Writers: David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements
Release Date: May 22, 2015