If we’re being honest, then you know that the Hollywood lore that’s sprung up over the making of 1982’s Poltergeist is far more interesting than the actual movie Poltergeist. From the question of Steven Spielberg Vs Tobe Hooper: “Who really directed it?” to the supposed “curse” that reputedly killed several cast members, including its young star Heather O’Rourke, the making of Poltergeist is a story far more compelling than the simple haunted house tale starring Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. It would have been a fascinating post-modernist twist if they remade Poltergeist as a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the E! True Hollywood Story of the original’s production, but instead they slapped together a version that’s a weak tea variation of the original.
Like the 1982 original, Poltergeist 2015 focuses on a photogenic family of five, the Bowens. Unlike the Freelings of the original film, the Bowens are not living the bright, sunny suburban dream. Dad Eric (Sam Rockwell) has been laid-off and mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a struggling novelist and homemaker. They move into a subdivision that’s been eviscerated by people abandoning homes with underwater mortgages, thus allowing the Bowens to pick up their new three bedroom detached for a song. For a minute there it seemed like director Gil Kenan, might have something interesting to say, treating his Poltergeist as a darker inverse of the original; the American Dream was dead, long live the American Nightmare, but with ghosts and stuff. My assumptions were misplaced.
Poltergeist quickly devolves into a carbon copy of Hooper’s version from ’82 beat for beat, from when the youngest of the three Bowen children, Maddy (Kennedi Clements), makes contact with a group of malicious spirits through the TV to when she’s taken by those spirits through a porthole in the closet and the recruitment of a psychic to try and rescue her. What’s new is the sophistication of the effects work, which allows Kenan to explore the dark netherworld on the other side of the closet, the evil spirit version of the house filled with CG ghouls and blue lightning. Nothing that hasn’t been seen in a dozen horror movies from the last 20 years, and nothing that adds any value to the Poltergeist story that wasn’t already in the first movie.
So the question is, why bother in the first place? There are times it seems that the filmmakers and the actors involved, all incredibly talented, are trying to reach for something above and beyond the ordinary. Rockwell often recites his dialogue in way that’s drenched in sarcasm, as if his character knows that he’s in a Poltergeist movie and can barely believe his luck. It’s an interesting way to play things, but when Rockwell is called upon to become earnest, the turn is shockingly hard to believe. How can the guy who backhandedly welcomes the psychic researchers from the university with the throwaway “You guys want some sandwiches?” find such sudden urgency later on.
Jared Harris subs for Zelda Rubinstein as the psychic that’s eventually called in to make contact with the spirits, but naturally the earnest old worldly Tangina Barrons is replaced with Harris’ Carrigan Burke, a reality show hack with a hackneyed catchphrase but is legit enough to be battle-scarred. Harris is clearly thinking to himself that if he’s got to be here, then he’s going to have a good time with the part, and unlike Rockwell, Harris can be a charming rogue because it’s not his family’s safety at stake. The script adds an interesting back story in that Carrigan and paranormal researcher Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) were married once. The Honeymooners bickering was funny, but it came at the absolutely worst point in the story. If the movie had been about Harris and Adams doing a Long Island Medium riff on Poltergeist then that would have been a more interesting project.
The problem with Poltergeist is that its astoundingly uninspired, and coming from director Kenan, who showed a tremendous amount of imagination and skill as a storyteller in his first two films, Monster House and City of Ember, it makes this endeavor especially disappointing. Both those movies had something real; genuine emotion, genuine ingenuity, a strong sense of theme and purpose, but Poltergeist only exists to exploit the name recognition of Poltergeist, which is a cult classic at best. Perhaps Kenan smelled an easy payday and thus didn’t put his best effort into it. Everyone deserves a nice pay check, I guess, but Kenan’s Poltergeist feels like its trying to ignore the few original ideas it has in order to riff on the scenes the audience already knows. It doesn’t want to try and challenge us with something different, and we’re already in the theater anyway.
To whom this is supposed to appeal to, I don’t know. I suppose there are some weirdo young people out there for whom seeing something from the 80s is akin to the way people of my generation had an oddball aversion to films in black and white. Remakes as a concept are not the problem, the problem is when some remakes seem to go out of their way to retrace the original’s track marks in the snow. There could have been something interesting in a Poltergeist remake, from the burst bubble fo the real estate market to missing white girl syndrome there were so many possibilities. Instead, the filmmakers spent millions to realize why mess with success. On the other hand, we definitively know that the Poltergeist curse is alive and well.