I love the original Poltergeist. It’s a fantastic piece of storytelling, from the way the family at the center of the events initially perceives their predicament as fun and exciting to the way the events unfold into their terrifying climax. The suspense evolves organically, with the stakes raised throughout in a way few movies in the genre bother to even try. Whether it’s creepy children or creepy houses, modern makers of horror films tend to cast an uneasy pall over the entire affair from frame one. While that can have the benefit of putting an audience in a state of discomfort where they are easy prey for jump scares, it makes it hard to empathize with the characters on the screen-to see them as anything more than fodder for the gruesome ticks to come. In the original Poltergeist, we see a family with real problems and real emotions. We see a family that approaches the seemingly harmless disturbances in their home with a sense of humor, blissfully unaware of the horrors those disturbances portend. Most importantly, many of us see a family not too different than our own-or at least what we believed a regular family to be-and it feels real when things take a nasty turn. From the ads for this “reimagining” or “rebooting” of Poltergeist, it’s apparent that the movie pays homage to the very specific parts of the original that made us squirm, but will it bother to mimic the heart that made the earlier film a classic?
In this telling of Poltergeist Sam Rockwell plays Eric Bowen, a man forced by a corporate layoff to move his wife and three children into the affordable housing of a suburban hellscape located somewhere in Anywhere, America. Not long after arriving at their new digs (in fact, pretty much upon pulling up) it becomes apparent that something’s not right in the neighborhood. As the spooky goings on in their home escalate it rapidly becomes clear that the family is not safe, especially not the youngest, cutest and creepiest of the children, Maddie (Kennedi Clements). She is The Light that draws the angry Poltergeist out through all manner of electronic conveniences and the ghosts will not stop until they get their rotting hands on their adorable little spirit guide.
I am not typically inclined to complain about a movie being too short, but Poltergeist seems a handful of minutes short in developing its characters and a smidge light in wrapping up the proceedings. The unsettling tone is set quickly and the film makes with including all the important nods to the original in hasty fashion. Before you know it the whole undertaking is wrapped up lickety split and you’re left wondering what all the fuss was about.
I’ve said it what feels like a thousand times before, but I am not the kind of person who holds original versions of films sacred. I get jazzed over the idea of remakes and I don’t find my fondness for the source to be in jeopardy just because someone tried to take another crack at it, even if it’s just to turn a buck. I supposed I’m something of a cinema optimist no matter how many times Hollywood tries to break my spirit. I especially like to see what modern effects can do with older material. The idea gets me psyched, but here the payoff kind of falls short. Sure, there are some shiny new looks (I caught Poltergeist in 3D which did not do much for the special effects, but actually managed to add some spooky angles to the more mundane shots), but overall there just doesn’t seem to be much of a point. And really that’s kind of the way the whole movie makes you feel. What’s the point?
The saving grace here, if there is one, would have to be the cast. In particular, Rockwell nails the cynical but loving father beaten down by the real world and then the supernatural world around him. Rosemary Dewitt, as wife Amy, and even the child actors that round out the family manage their roles well. All in all, their performances give this film at least some of the heart the script itself is short on. Jared Harris, as reality ghost hunter Carrigan Burke, chews up scenery well enough, even if he doesn’t stand much of a chance of living up to his 80s counterpart, Zelda Rubinstein.
I wanted to really love this Poltergeist as much as I love the first Poltergeist, but really I ended up just kind of not hating it. It made an effort to deliver on the memories of the 1982 version, but as a film of its own it just doesn’t stand up that well. A few too many flinching moments and not enough original beats leave you wondering why anyone even bothered. The ending doesn’t just feel tacked on, it actually had the feel of everyone just kind of being over it all and walking away. While this Poltergeist is an easy watch and even sometimes pretty fun, when all is said and done I think I’d rather just go back and watch the original-a far more complete film.