Though others preceded it (The Haunting, The Amityville Horror), 1982’s Poltergeist is often held as the quintessential haunted house movie. The Steven Spielberg-produced, Tobe Hooper-directed (though, by many accounts, also Spielberg-directed) film about a traditional nuclear family moving into a house of horrors set the stage for every spook-house film that came after. Though, while there is still much to appreciate about Poltergeist, the film’s ability to get under the skin arguably hasn’t endured. There are isolated moments that remain chilling, but that Spielbergian, suburban-set sense of mouth-agape wonderment has the effect of working against the film’s creep factor, creating an aura of comforting safety that prevents the film from becoming true nightmare fuel. Poltergeist feels more of a piece with E.T. than it does with The Exorcist. Watched in the wake of a truly terrifying haunted-house thriller like The Conjuring only makes the film feel even more quaint.
This could perhaps launch an argument in favor of remaking Poltergeist, beefing up the scare quotient into something more dangerous, more unnerving. But the truth of the matter is there isn’t much one could do to update Poltergeist in a way that would set it apart from the myriad haunted-house thrillers we receive routinely. In a contemporary horror climate where the Insidious, Paranormal Activity and Sinister franchises are all still humming along, what could a rebooted Poltergeist really bring to the table to differentiate it? This would stand as a tough nut for any filmmaker to crack, but the producers of the just-released Poltergeist remake took the simplest approach to updating the property: They didn’t.
If you saw Poltergeist ’82, you’ve seen Poltergeist ’15. Very little has been done to set this film apart from its progenitor. Again, a family moves into a new home in a sleepy suburban community. They are not called the Freelings anymore and the youngest daughter is no longer named Carol Ann, but only the names have changed (to The Bowens and Maddy, respectively). The only new spin at work here is that the family is now financially downtrodden, with Dad (Sam Rockwell) recently laid off and Mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) a homemaker and aspiring novelist (how this brood is able to afford a large suburban home, even at a discount, with zero income is the film’s first instance of otherworldliness). After settling in, Maddy (Kennedi Clements) begins having spooky, seemingly one-sided conversations with her closet door and, eventually, the TV. Gradually, the house’s unearthly occupants make their presence known, first to the other children, Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), then to the entire family. After Maddy vanishes into a portal inside her closet, the family turns to the paranormal department at the local university for help.
That sure sounds a lot like Poltergeist, huh? This remake is positively starved for inspiration, ticking off boxes from the original film while making only the most cosmetic of alterations. The film’s idea of innovation is that the TV that Maddy communicates through is now a flat-screen instead of a boxy old-school number. The film mines every inch of iconography from the 1982 film under the impression that contemporary effects inherently make everything old seem new again. When Griffin is menaced by a clown doll and a handsy tree, the effects are now much more elaborate, but that doesn’t quell the sense that we’ve seen this all before. By the time the family decides to bring in the big guns, in the form of a powerful medium with exorcism skills (Jared Harris, an inferior substitute for the memorable Zelda Rubenstein), the feeling of déjà vu becomes suffocating.
So what does the new Poltergeist do well? Hmm, this is a toughie. Rockwell has some solid one-liners in the early goings before the film requires him to shift into “give me back my daughter!” solemnness. And sending a remote-controlled camera-drone into the spirit world (depicted here as a sort of reptilian Hieronymus Bosch painting) is kind of neat. Beyond that, the film is chiefly on autopilot, pillaging everything it can from both the original and more recent horror films without bothering to create a stamp all its own. The result is dismaying, a sterling example of the soullessness inherent to harvesting name brands without any creative impetus behind it. It’s not even that Poltergeist is necessarily a beautiful and perfect snowflake that would be heretical to touch, but doing so without bringing anything fresh to it is futility at its purest. If nothing else, you’d think the filmmakers would have learned that building a prefabricated structure on top of the bones of something else doesn’t work out well for anyone.
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