It is very likely that the remake of Poltergeist may be impossible to enjoy on any level. If, like me, you’re a connoisseur of the original and look on it with fond memories, this retread will come off as a soulless carbon copy. If you’ve never seen Steven Spielberg’s film, then this will come off as bland and colorless and rather indistinguishable from any other CGI horror movie made these days. In its intent, it sparks all manner of questions of necessity. Why remake good movies? Why not instead – as the late Gene Siskel once remarked – remake bad movies and make them better? As with the flat remake of Carrie a few years ago, you get the sense that the filmmakers know the notes but not the music.
The original worked because of our investment in the characters. The Freelings felt like a real family, nestled in their suburban cocoon in the midst of the 1980s Reagan-era economic boom. We felt their security and the reality of their comfortable situation, and that made it much more palatable when they found their sanctuary invaded by forces they couldn’t explain. The movie took the time to get to know them, we got invested in the housekeeping details and the daily (and nightly) rituals.
In the remake, we meet the Bowen family; father Eric (Sam Rockwell), mother Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) and their three kids: Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), a sullen teen who is forever glued to her tablet; middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) who is terrified of just about everything; and cherubic six-year old Madison (Kennedi Clements) who makes a habit of talking to things that aren’t there. We don’t see these people as a family so much as a troupe of actors grouped together to play one. Their lives are spelled out in very sparse details. Eric just lost his job with John Deere, and Amy is a failed writer who wants make time to write her book. That’s it. That’s all we know about them. They’re a family struggling in the midst of Obama-era recession. So, how they’re able to afford a new house is a question no one can be bothered to answer. The fact that they are struggling in tough economic times makes their ghost problem feel like insult to injury.
It takes less than 20 minutes of screen time before the terrors begin (in the original it took an hour). With the parents out of the house having dinner with friends, Kendra finds corpses popping out of the basement floor while Griffin is whipped around the house by an angry weeping willow, and Madison is lured into a bedroom closet that, up to this point, no one has been able to open. She disappears into the netherworld and Eric and Amy, at a loss for what to do, get help from a rather bland quartet of paranormal investigators, headed by a reality show psychic named Carrigan (Jared Harris, son of Richard). He takes up the role occupied previously by the diminutive spiritualist Tangina Barrons. Where Tangina exuded comfort with a hint of huckstering, Carrigan is a jokey old croke who is forever telling stories about the scars that adorn his body. You know he can get Madison back, but you never feel that tender assurance that Tangina gave to Diane that she could get Carol Ann back. The motivations are gone, and even the mother’s heroism is replaced. Rosemary DeWitt does a serviceable job but the mother role in this film has been diminished – she’s not the one who brings the daughter back!
The remake feels like a rush through paces we’ve been over before brought to you by filmmakers who never bothered to understand why they worked in the first place. Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper worked to create a sense of magic and life and energy. That movie was also fun. This one, directed by Gil Keanan (Monster House), feels like a checklist. There’s no time for anything, no time for characters, no time to establish tension or mood.
The better images of the original are glossed over or thrown out completely. The eerie snowy screen of that old TV set in the original felt like a quiet window into another dimension. Here it has been replaced by a rather bland malfunctioning flatscreen. The clown attack that came in the original’s third act comes very early in this one so there’s no buildup of tension or terror. Even the house seems dry and dull. The only addition to the remake is that we get to see where the youngest daughter went, but it’s not a place of wonder so much as a fake CG zombie nightmare that looks like something George Romero would dream up. Even the ending seems like a misstep. Where the original ended with sadness and loss, this one ends with a punchline.
If there’s a single word that sums up the remake of Poltergeist it is “banal.” This is a dull film, devoid of life or energy. The actors go through the motions of a story that really doesn’t merit being repeated. There’s nothing to improve upon. Even the special effects feel artificial. There’s no wonder or spectacle or magic. Again, why remake his movie? Why not update it. Tell us what is happening to Carol Ann now as she enters her 40s?
You know what? Go back and watch the original again. It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen it. This weekend, instead of going to see this chunk of indifference, stay home and watch the original film and get caught up in its spell all over again.