How do you one-up Steven Spielberg?
Rumors have circulated for years that he was the creative force behind Poltergeist, as opposed to director-for-hire Tobe Hooper; perhaps not surprising given the ‘Berg’s reputation as arguably the foremost American director of all time.
The original film is pretty much unbeatable as far as creepy, family-oriented phantasmagoria goes. Are there so few ideas left in the world that we need to remake it, though?
Our new family, rebranded the Bowens, consists of unemployed dad Eric (Sam Rockwell), aspiring writer mum Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), wimpy son Griff (Kyle Catlett), moody teenager Kendra (Saxon Sabino), and the youngest daughter, Madison (Kennedi Clement).
Soon enough Madison — a brunette to the blonde Heather O’Rourke — is talking to the TV set and things play out more or less predictably from there. There’s little to differentiate the film from any of the other modern haunted house flicks, e.g. Insidious or The Conjuring.
It doesn’t help that the Bowens themselves are a faintly unlikable bunch; lacking the kooky charm of their predecessors. Rockwell, usually MVP in any film he’s in, mostly looks jaded or stressed while DeWitt — great as the eponymous Rachel in Rachel Getting Married — simply looks pained. You can’t blame her when they’re saddled with reacting to expository revelations, revelations that were so memorably dramatized in the 1982 edition.
It doesn’t help that their characters spend the film’s first half utterly ignoring their kid’s concerns. Money troubles aside, it’s hard to empathize with a couple who are so oblivious to what’s going on around them.
Every component of Poltergeist seems utterly by the numbers. No more zany antics with the neighbors; no more greedy real estate tycoons or playing around with paranormal forces. Even the house lacks character.
Instead of Zelda Rubinstein we get Jared Harris as scarred, pork pie hat wearing Carrigan Burke, a celebrity occultist with an Irish brogue. More than just a cut-price Father Merrin, his sardonic banter with unassuming paranormal researcher and ex Dr. Powell (Jane Adams) is a charming diversion, but all too brief.
Director Gil Kenan is perfectly competent at his job; at his best when voyeuristically peeking in through skylights, the film loses energy every time it closes in. When Madison utters the iconic line “They’re here” — so chilling in the original — it sounds like she’s referring to some unwelcome dinner guests.
There’s no sense of agency, save for Carrigan and perhaps Griff. A lot of the same shocks are there yet the feeling of going through the motions is inescapable. The drone trip through Dante’s hell is a nice touch, though.
Poltergeist (2015) lies so far within the shadow of the original that it’s far easier to refer to the 1982 version, despite having just seen the update. CGI images of ravenous dead hordes simply can’t compensate for some good old-fashioned skeletons, real or otherwise. The only good thing about this remake is the lack of any accompanying real-life tragedy.