POLTERGEIST (2015) review
written by: David Lindsay-Abair, based on a story by Steven Spielberg
produced by: Sam Raimi, Nathan Kahane, Roy Lee, & Robert G. Tapert
directed by: Gil Kenan
rating: PG-13 (for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language)
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: May 22, 2015
“No, I’m not afraid.”
So this is a tough one. In October 2012, I selected 1982’s “Poltergeist” as the fourth scariest movie ever made. That a remake exists at all isn’t necessarily surprising in and of itself. It’s perhaps more surprising that it’s taken 33 years to get one to the screen. The timing is additionally curious due to the fact that remakes of classic horror films have been pretty lame lately, either overdoing the gore like 2013’s Evil Dead remake, or softening the edges to the point where it’s unrecognizable, like another 2013 catastrophe, Carrie. Like “Evil Dead”, this “Poltergeist” remake comes to us from producer Sam Raimi, whose attachment to the project fueled a modicum of excitement for what was to come.
The most immediate and pressing problem with “Poltergeist” is that it’s a full 22 minutes shorter than the original, and of course those cuts come almost exclusively from the first act. In a day and age where third act problems plague modern blockbusters, it’s interesting to see a film stumble right out of the gate, leaving it instantaneously behind the eight ball. It is a nearly identical problem to this past winter’s “The Lazarus Effect“, which skipped all of the world building and set-up to its own detriment. The film almost demands you to have seen the original in order to know what’s going on, which is as fatal a flaw as any remake can have.
What made 1982’s “Poltergeist” so terrifying is that it set up how idyllic the Freeling family’s neighborhood and home was, making the horror that followed all the more unsettling. Suburban horror isn’t as terrifying now as it was in the 80s, yet this remake doesn’t seem to understand that, and seems almost laser focused on scaring a white, suburban demographic.
This film jumps almost immediately into the horror, which hasn’t really been established. Director Gil Kenan’s suburbia is already a chilling place to be, which ends up sabotaging any chance the film has at equaling its predecessor. This time out, we’re introduced to the Bowen family, who somehow manages to purchase a home despite dialogue that indicates that father Eric (Sam Rockwell) has just lost his job and their credit cards are all maxed out, but I digress. Eric and his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), move into this new home with their three children, including little Madison (Kennedi Clements), who immediately establishes a connection with some sort of spirit in the house. Madison disappears, hijinks ensue, and it isn’t long before the family is calling on the help of a parapsychologist (Jane Adams) and her ghost chaser ex-husband (Jared Harris) to get the girl back and expel whatever demons are living in their home.
Perhaps the shrewdest decision made by Kenan and Raimi was the casting of Rockwell, DeWitt, Harris, and Adams. These are four solidly underrated character actors who give every line of dialogue and boneheaded bit of business a weight it scantly deserves. It’s a shame, in fact, to see a firecracker like Rockwell be hamstrung by such a clichéd “I just want my daughter back” character, but nevertheless he gives it his all. DeWitt is similarly devoted to her stock horror movie mom character, which speaks volumes about what a dedicated actress she is, no matter the material. Harris and Adams are but a shadow of a replacement for the incredibly creepy Zelda Rubenstein, but they do the most they can with what they were given.
Also gone is the original film’s brilliantly subversive use of television as a metaphor for something that controls our lives, and in its place we’re left with cheap proselytizing about technology in general. As a matter of fact, all of the original’s wonderful metaphorical flourishes like the rope as an umbilical cord are completely absent here, trading in their subliminal meaning for a much more literal approach to everything. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire seems to think that modern audiences aren’t capable of discerning nuance, so he chooses to spell everything out for them, making the whole thing feel like the cheap imitator it is, which in turn is almost wholly a rebuke of what made the original such an effective piece of horror.
The film achieves all of its scares by dropping all noise from the soundtrack, followed by a hushed line of dialogue, and then a jolting sound or image. These are the cheapest kind of scares imaginable, and are only effective the first time out. Any audience member with an ounce of sense will fail to fall victim to such continual meretriciousness, and it’s so far from what made the original terrifying in the first place. There are perils to remaking any groundbreaking film – and yes, Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” was groundbreaking – and adhering only to the most superficial reasons it worked in the first place.
A little girl sitting in front of a static-filled television or a clown puppet aren’t scary in and of themselves, they’re scary because they’re placed in the context of a film that plays on our primal fear of the mundane. People don’t like “The Godfather” because Jack Woltz wakes up with a horse’s head in his bed or because Sonny is gunned down in a hail of gunfire at a toll booth. These are iconic moments that, when stripped from the context in which they’re presented, lose one hundred percent of their impact. A film is not the sum of its parts and more remakes would do well to realize this fundamental fact.
“Poltergeist” isn’t a terrible film, which almost dooms it to a fate worse than simply being an awful movie. When you strip away all of the subtlety and nuance of a truly subversive work of art, what you’re left with is a film that fails to live up to even the modest expectations that one has when walking into a PG-13 horror remake. There are nuggets of great ideas in this film, they’re just chucked aside in favor of the easier to achieve, yet far less rewarding, kind of horror that’s scary to anyone, whether or not they’re paying attention to the plot. There are moments that hint at a much better film buried somewhere in this mess, but whether it was studio interference or simple directorial negligence, there are just too few of those moments to make this a worthwhile endeavor.