By Tom Platt. Summer looms just over the horizon, and once again it carries in its arms a garbage bag full of Hollywood remakes and reboots. As always, the public collectively sighs, “Why?”
Everything you remember from the original Poltergeist, that wonderful PG horror movie from the 80’s, is present and accounted for. A cherubic little girl (Kennedi Clements) is abducted by sinister ghosts. Said ghosts occupy a family’s new home built upon a former cemetery. Moving on. We’ve traded in relatively unknown character actors (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) for the brilliant Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths, Moon) and Rosemarie Dewitt (Cinderella Man). Director Gil Kenan has reframed the tried and true scenes, originally crafted by Stephen Spielberg himself, within the context of our modernized world.
The presence of Sam Rockwell provides hope for this remake. Maybe it could stand up on its own two feet and live up to the lofty, some would say cursed, reputation that precedes this franchise. And to be fair, for the first act at least, that hope rings true. That the family dynamic built by Rockwell and Dewitt is successful at all is actually stunning. The parents and children carry a life beyond the film, comfortably reacting to each other in that tumultuously loving way.
However, as the movie plods along in lockstep to the original film’s structure, we begin to recognize its inability to commit. It desperately wants to commit to topical social issues — the film’s screenplay, by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire, makes several attempts to do so — but Poltergeist‘s reach exceeds its grasp: it’s a recession parable complete with creepy ghosts, told that way because it can. (Rockwell’s laid-off father spends beyond his means when he feels inadequate while Dewitt’s disapproving wife tsks behind him, but this development is altogether forgotten.)
It’s this type of soft-balling that starts to drag the movie’s head underwater. The script’s contemporary alterations become more and more obvious (and thus painful) as we dip into the final act. Perhaps the most embarrassing change applies to Dewitt’s matriarch. Whereas in the original film JoBeth Williams selflessly enters the sinister world beyond in order to retrieve her daughter, Dewitt is made to wait downstairs with all the other women. Not even the presence of Dr. Brook Powell (Jane Adams), an expert in paranormal occurrences, is enough to keep the film veering from heroics to blatant sexism; this new character arc watches strong characters become weak for no other reason than, “well, they’re women!”
Now before dealing with this next part, a precursor is required. The human imagination is a marvelous thing, right?. A simple creak in an otherwise quiet house can cause even the bravest of souls to freeze in fear. So, keeping this in mind, please appreciate the gravity of this next sentence.
In this Poltergeist remake, a camera-mounted drone flies into the world beyond as we watch a barrage of CGI corpses from an iPad. From real human skeletons in 1982, to what can only be called an homage to 2005’s video game re-do, Doom, 2015’s Poltergeist replaces our imagination with poorly realized CGI while the audience hangs their head in embarrassment.
Having covered all the bases (people-eating tree, clown, static on the tv, dad ripping off his face) this remake makes a mad dash for the finish line, and in doing so forgets that it’s supposed to be scary. Horror elements are crowded by confusing notes of comedy that leave the tone of the film utterly confused. Besides a few cheap jump scares, any sort of fear dissipates when Zelda Rubensteins’ iconic character is replaced by Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), a reality tv star first and medium second, who mockingly tosses out the once classic line, “This house is clean.”
Poltergeist takes a whole lot of talent and squanders it in a bleary-eyed attempt to recreate something successful. At this point, I think we get it. Movies are a business of high risk and low return, we get it, but a cynical approach to remakes should never be this evident (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie Dewitt could scarcely contain their vitriol during the film’s press junket), and it certainly should never be this insulting.