It was thirty-three years ago when the original Poltergeist hit the screens. For some, that’s a lifetime-plus. For others, it’s last Thursday. And that’s the problem with the remake – or is it series reboot? – of Poltergeist; whether anyone in the industry likes it or not, in the way that producer Steven Spielberg haunted practically every frame of director Tobe Hooper’s 1982 original, it’s that same original that haunts every moment of director Gil Kenan’s new 2015 version, begging the question: Was a remake really necessary?
Despite a few character type changes, the arc is the same. A young couple and their three children move in to a new home in what appears to be a nice and relatively new suburban neighborhood. From the first night, things happen; noises from the closet, suspicious clown-dolls moving around the room, and a little girl who appears to be having a one-way conversation with something or someone through the static of the TV. “Who are you talking to?” asks the young son, Griffin (Kyle Catlett) after spying his little sister, Maddie (Kennedi Clements) squatting in front of the living room monitor late at night when she should be in bed. “No one” she coyly answers. But, of course, we know different; we saw the original.
This time around, dad (Sam Rockwell) and mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) have hit an economic stumbling block and they’ve had to downsize. She’s an out of work writer and he’s simply out of work. With whatever savings they still have, the family buys a new home. “Foreclosures have hit the area hard,” the perky young realtor tells them. “There’s some wiggle room on the price.”
What may seem like a bargain to the family proves to be the worst deal they’ve ever made. It’s a haunted house inhabited by spirits who are there for the same reason they were there in ’82. Unlike the first time around where the business of building new homes on a cemetery without moving the bodies, just the headstones, was the big reveal, here, that discussion occurs early. It’s hardly a plot spoiler. Considering that most of the audience will already be aware of this, director Kenan has wisely introduced the reasoning behind it all during the setup instead of making us wait until the end to find out something we already knew.
The film feels short. At just over ninety minutes there’s no padding. As soon as we meet the kids, something happens to the two youngest, and the sun hasn’t even set. The brother and sister discover that if they place their hand on a certain bedroom closet door handle, static will make their hair comically stand on end, except, like everything else we know about the film, we also know it’s not static. That closet is a portal to an infernal-like spiritual world populated by all those restless spirits buried below the houses, and they reach out and snatch Maddie. In one creative twist on the original, the young boy sends a drone with a camera into the other world to find his sister, and it’s here, on the video monitors, that we catch a glimpse of where young Maddie has gone as body after cadaverous body writhe in spiritual agony, reaching out, trying to clutch. It’s like a peek into hell.
The oddest and perhaps most annoying moment is when one of the cameramen from the Paranormal Research team has his own close encounter with the vengeful spirits of the netherworld, involving a high-powered drill to the face. It’s probably the most traumatic moment of his life and a genuine edge-of-your-seat moment for the audience, yet when the sequence is over and the cameraman survives and staggers away, breathless, he never mentions it to anyone. Let me repeat: he never mentions it to anyone!
Because of developments, the CGI effects are certainly superior to the original, plus the inclusion of new household technology like drones, I-pads, flat screen TVs and cell phones all add something new to the familiar. When the oldest daughter, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), hears something unusual through her ear-buds, she uses her cell as a kind of Geiger counter, searching not for radiation but for something a little more sinisterly spiritual. Plus, during the time when the Paranormal Research gang monitors the house, every member of the family is tagged with a GPS tracker so that everyone’s presence is accounted for at all times.
If this was a stand-alone film with no knowledge of a previous edition, then at a time when horror features are enjoying a fresh lease of life due to films like The Conjuring, Insidious and Annabelle, this new Poltergeist would have been a solid addition – there are scares, good effects, some humor, plus, credit where it’s due, that one twist where we actually get to see a nightmare vision of purgatory within the home is surprisingly effective – but the film can’t exorcise the presence of the original. How could it? Tobe Hooper’s version was, and still remains, hugely popular. Plus, it doesn’t help that the closing credits are accompanied not by a spooky theme, the kind that Jerry Goldsmith wrote back in ’82 for Hooper’s thriller that stayed with you as you left the theatre, but by an atmosphere destroying rock soundtrack from Spoon covering a Cramps’ 1980 punk recording. Aiming at a teenage market is one thing, but pandering to it at the cost of everything creepy the film has built is another.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 93 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)