Silence your cries of ruined childhoods and crimes against cinemanity; the new "Poltergeist" remake is a fine movie. The acting is fine, the directing is fine and the scare scenes are … uh, well, we’ll get to those. But overall, "Poltergeist" is a well-crafted, totally acceptable, totally fine horror flick. And if it was called something like "House Ghost" or "Spooky Town" or "A Creepy Thing Happened on the Way to the Suburbs," this divertingly eerie little summer haunt would be – you guess it – fine.
But it’s not. It’s called and modeled after "Poltergeist," and as it turns out, the beloved 1982 original is still a damn fantastic horror movie, featuring legendary scares – over 30 years later, it’s still fabulously freaky that HOLY CRAP; THAT DUDE IS RIPPING OFF HIS OWN FACE! – and director Tobe Hooper doing the best possible Steven Spielberg impersonation (so much so that it’s heavily rumored Spielberg actually did most of the job and Hooper was simply director in name).
Like calling your kid Jesus, it’s going to take a whole lot of doing to live up to that name’s past and expectations, much less surpass them or make your own mark (I strongly agree with Forbes’ Scott Mendelson: If you’re going to remake a movie, rip it off instead). And as you might unfortunately predict, new "Poltergeist" doesn’t have the muster to pull it off. It’s a – yes – fine, admirable attempt, but in the end, it’s also one that never gets around to providing much of a reason for its existence.
The story is still much the same: A happy family (led by Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) and their suburban abode are menaced by a noisy surplus of ghouls – all deservedly pissy about their cemetery getting moved but their corpses left behind. And after some relatively polite tomfoolery – rolling baseballs, pesky static, mumbling through the TV – it’s time to send in the evil clowns, trees and … intricately stacked comic books? More pressingly, though, the poltergeist snatches up the family’s youngest (Kennedi Clements) and sucks her through the closet into another dimension. Desperate for help, the family calls in a crew of paranormal researchers, who work together to yank their kidnapped little one back into the land of the living.
As expected, there are a few updates to bring "Poltergeist" into the zeitgeist. The first film’s TV wariness expands out a touch to today’s always on, always connected world (the fuzzy TV opening shot is now an iPad). The once easy-going, pot-smoking parents are still charming and fun, if weighed down a bit by economic worries – especially after Rockwell is laid off – and the final guru brought in as the cavalry (played by Jared Harris of "Mad Men") is now also a paranormal reality TV star, "The house is clean" serving as his hashtagged catchphrase. A toy drone plays a key role in the finale. Oh, and the biggest change: The ominously flickering TV is now an ominously crackling flat screen. Game changer.
Otherwise, Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay mostly stays in line with its predecessor. Considering "Poltergeist" became the go-to template for 90 percent of the haunted house movies since its release, however, it’s no surprise its remake refuses to stray too far from the formula either. What is a surprise – and a big bummer of one, too – is how little the new "Poltergeist" maintains the special touches and soul that truly make it not just a great horror movie, but a great movie overall.
The original film had Spielberg’s special sentimental warmth and emotional richness, finding something really sweet and tender about this family and their bond forged by supernatural fire. Here, the Bowens are just another pleasant modern horror family put through the wringer. There’s some effort to hit those emotional notes, and it’s kind of sweet … and pretty token. The new version pretty much jumps straight into the spooks menacing the family as well, whereas the original spends a surprising amount of time in awe "Jurassic Park" style, taking in the wonder and horror of the interdimensional tricks – and still impressive special effects – abound.
Harris’ rough-and-tumble TV spook is amusing, but he can’t really hold a candle to the delightful oddness of the elfin but wise Zelda Rubenstein in essentially the same role. The original had a bizarre skeletal monster lion thing, an evil tentacled tunnel to hell and coffins exploding from the ground. This has some CG ghouls. The funny, freaky introduction of the haunted room from 1982, featuring laughing books, a spinning bed and a flying compass? Now it’s just a crashing chair gag.
No, it’s not completely fair to constantly compare the two movies (though, by being a remake, it’s really its own fault for naturally drawing the comparison). "Poltergeist" deserves to be judged on its own … but there’s really nothing here of its own. It removes all of the feeling, weirdness and richness of its source material and replaces those things with little more than expediency (it clocks in at 93 minutes, while the original goes almost two hours). It’s a specter of the original "Poltergeist," an outline but without almost any of the meat.
While we’re on the topic of things removed: scares. There are none, or at best close to none. When it comes to rehashing the old recognizable scenes – always a poor idea since, even with tweaks, you’re attempting to scare or surprise the audience with something they’ve seen before – Lindsay-Abaire and director Gil Kenan ("Monster House") seem like they’re rushing to just get through them. The clown and the tree sequences, for instance, are combined into the first big attack scene, while the melting face scare is confined to a distorted sink reflection. And about the clown scene. In classic Hollywood thinking, it’s now a whole box of clowns, with the lead clown apparently taking "I’m clearly a malevolent demon plotting your death" makeup and design lessons from Annabelle. Even still, it turns out the only thing really haunting this "Poltergeist" is diminishing returns from its predecessor.
The movie does slightly better with its original scary moments. They’re still not particularly scary, as most of the creep-outs are a who’s who of cliché horror jumps: characters violently dragged out of sight, empty-faced beings pretending to be familiar-faced beings suddenly turning around, etc. But there’s also a decently freaky sequence involving a drill that works, and as silly as the comic book pyramid of doom is, it’s a worthy jolt.
In fact, there’s enough general eeriness and a touch of producer Sam Raimi's macabre ghoulishness that the lack of scares isn’t a total buzzkill. Much of that is thanks to Kenan. He’s certainly no Spielberg or Hooper, but he’s got a good dynamic eye. His vividly deep blue and ember orange compositions add are compelling, and his moving camera, constantly tilting and hovering around corners and characters, adds some nice creepy vibe to moments like following a ghost slowly glow up objects around the house or chasing a shadow on the walls in bursts of light. Plus – and this is a complement I don’t get to throw around much – the 3-D is actually quite good, using the frame and adding unsettling depth.
Kenan also has a strong crew of actors around him. Rockwell is still one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated performers, and he brings his typically funny, charmingly sweet smart aleck routine to Craig T. Nelson’s old role. Meanwhile, DeWitt (Midge from "Mad Men") plays off him nicely, adds her usual playful easy chemistry and sincere heartfelt soulfulness to JoBeth Williams’ role. And a nice surprise is Kyle Catlett, pushed almost into the main protagonist part as the family’s middle child, convincingly growing from fraidy cat to courageous.
These are three likeable performances – amongst a full cast of them, really – in a movie that (despite its inherent uselessness) is actually quite likeable. Judged on its own, "Poltergeist" passes 93 minutes divertingly and comfortably – though perhaps "comfortably" isn’t exactly a raving word for a horror movie – and in the grand echelon of horror remakes, this one is far from an insult like "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th." For those who haven’t seen the original, it’ll probably work pretty well, even if you may wonder what all the hubbub was about.
For those who have seen Hooper’s film though (and really, do it; it's great) there’s really no comparison. The new rendition will always be Tony Gwynn Jr. to Tony Gwynn. It’s – one last time – fine, but when future Halloweens roll around and you recommend watching "Poltergeist," no one will ever think you’re talking about this one.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.