I think this puts me in the minority, but I was honestly rather interested in the notion of remaking Poltergeist. Sure, I can understand the appeal of the original for those who grew up with the film, but there was so much room for improvement. The movie was clearly going for a blend of comedy and horror that didn’t quite gel, and it was tough to take the horror seriously when none of the characters were at any risk of harm, all but guaranteed a typical Spielberg happy ending. Of course, a lot of this stems from the problem of making a PG-13 movie before the PG-13 rating had even been invented. This meant that the filmmakers were stuck trying to deliver R-rated thrills to a PG audience and it just didn’t work.
Cut to the 21st century, when films with the PG-13 rating are the easiest to sell to studios and audiences. Couple that with the nostalgia factor, not to mention so many successful horror/comedy blends in the past few decades to learn from, and there was no reason why Poltergeist couldn’t be remade with a proper budget. Hell, there was no reason a remake couldn’t have been made that was superior to the original.
It also helps that the film stars such hugely underappreciated talents as Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt. And while it’s a shame that Zelda Rubenstein is too dead to reprise her iconic role, at least we’ve got a seasoned vet like Jared Harris to anchor things. Plus, the film is directed by Gil Kenan. After Monster House, it’s hard to imagine a better helmsman for this project.
Yet the film has been roundly panned by critics and filmgoers, with a 33 percent Tomatometer and an opening weekend of only $25.5 million (though to be fair, opening against Tomorrowland while Mad Max: Fury Road is still riding high couldn’t have been easy).
So what happened? Well, to start with, Paranormal Activity happened.
While Poltergeist (2015) is blessedly not a found footage movie, it is nonetheless a haunted house movie. And those have been all the rage over the past few years. I can’t begin to count how many movies in the past few years have tried to wring scares out of spontaneously closing doors, other objects (especially toys) that move by themselves, or twitchy electronics. Granted, every “haunted house” movie of the past few decades was probably influenced by the original Poltergeist to some degree. So it brings us full circle as this remake of Poltergeist shamelessly uses the same cheap scares we’ve already seen umpteen times in the movies that Poltergeist begot.
Still, at least this is a big Hollywood production with a budget to make for decent effects, right? As if. Remember, after Paranormal Activity (as well as Saw and Blair Witch, for that matter), studios got the message that they don’t need huge budgets to get big scares and ticket sales. That backfired in a big way when it came to this film, because it’s clear that the budget for this one wasn’t anywhere near what it needed to be. As a direct result, quite a few scares are pretty much completely undone by sketchy CGI. This is a damn shame, considering that the effects work is such a huge part of what made the original film so popular.
Speaking of which, it should come as no surprise that a lot of iconic scares from the original are repackaged here. And sadly, the results are hit-and-miss. Leaving aside the aforementioned CGI problems, the film has a nasty habit of telegraphing its scares well in advance just to let us know that this beloved part of the original film is still here (the tree is an especially bad case in point). Still, at least the filmmakers had the decency to present those moments with some added twists. Even if those tweaks didn’t always work. Seriously, the film actually shows us the Poltergeist’s resident spirit world, and that really didn’t work.
What’s even worse is that while objects do occasionally move automatically and rearrange themselves spontaneously, there’s none of the self-aware humor that the original film had upon these moments. Yes, I know what I said about how the original film didn’t quite hit that balance between humor and horror, but the solution to that problem was not to go horror full-tilt. It removes a certain sense of wonder at all the weird paranormal stuff going on. Moreover, this means that our primary source of comic relief consists of a few barbed exchanges between paranormal expert Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and renowned TV ghost hunter Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris). They have a history, you see. Because that’s such a barrel of laughs and not the least bit annoying.
However, the upshot of going full horror is that this monster is sufficiently sold as a genuine threat. Even after something like the fifth time someone was scared shitless and let go unharmed, there’s a very real sense that this beastie means business and it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt. Though to be fair, it certainly helps that this film was produced by the guys who made Evil Dead instead of the guy who made E.T.
Getting around to the characters themselves… well, the cast is very good. Gil Kenan has previously demonstrated a fantastic eye for discovering young talent, and this film is more of the same. Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, and Saxon Sharbino are all relative newcomers who do a fantastic job of holding the screen. And of course, Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris are all pros. All of which makes it such a damn shame that these actors didn’t have more to work with.
Rockwell plays the patriarch, recently laid off and in vain search of a paycheck on par with the cushy corporate job he lost. DeWitt plays the mother of the family, a stay-at-home mom with a book she won’t ever seem to finish. Sharbino is a high-schooler who never quite goes full-on bitchy teen girl stereotype, but there are plenty of moments when her foot is an inch off the ground on the other side of that line. As for Catlett, he’s basically stuck in perpetual “panic mode” as the kid afraid of his own shadow (even though he’s introduced playing a scary video game, for some reason), which means that no one listens to him when things start going awry. Last but not least is Clements, who of course plays the creepy young girl who somehow makes instant friends with the kidnapping spectres.
At best (Catlett and Clements), the individual family members are stuck in one gear through the whole movie, though they at least succeed in running on that one gear quite well. At worst (everyone else), the individual family members are so boring that it doesn’t even look like the actors are trying to make the characters more interesting.
The best thing I can say about the family is that while they may be boring individually, they at least function well as a group. They tease each other a bit, sure, but there’s never a sense that they make a habit out of riding each others’ nerves just because. Most of their conflict is borne from the crappy situation they’ve found themselves in (broke, living in a new place, etc.), and there’s a very strong undercurrent of familial love in all of their interactions. That, at least, is something to help make the characters more interesting, and it does so much to get us invested as to whether or not their youngest girl can be rescued.
As for Harris, he does a fantastic job of chewing the scenery just enough. He brings a sense of gravitas that was absolutely crucial to the role, yet he and the filmmakers weren’t afraid to add a few scars and affectations to sell him as a seasoned ghost hunter. He’s no Zelda Rubenstein, of course, but he’ll do.
I maintain that in theory, remaking Poltergeist was not a bad idea. But in practice, it’s just another “haunted house” movie to throw on the stack of so many others we’ve seen these past few years. Between the hamfisted callbacks to the original film’s iconic moments and all the cheap techniques lifted from Paranormal Activity and its imitators, this is a movie that sadly goes over old ground without offering anything new to the genre. It also doesn’t help that the CGI looked dodgy in places, the characters weren’t all that interesting, and quite a few scares were delivered in such a way that I was thankful to have skipped out on the 3D option.
I’m sure this film was made with the best intentions and I applaud the filmmakers for their effort, but this is one project that just didn’t quite come together. If you were a fan of the original, I feel confident in saying that you can safely pretend the remake never happened. Everyone else may want to consider a rental — maybe watching this at home in the dark will give the proceedings an added boost.