Producer Sam Raimi and director Gil Kenan revisit the 1982 horror classic, then directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or, depending on who you talk to, Steven Spielberg... It follows a newly relocated American family, terrorised by evil spirits who abduct their youngest daughter. 

 

2.5
Rip-off remake is haunted by its original

It's one of those half forgotten facts that in 1982 on first release, Poltergeist got some pretty nasty reviews that praised its technique and blasted it for lacking soul.

What cineastes seem to remember best three decades later, is the black eye the movie's making gave Steven Spielberg’s public image. The direction was credited to Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) maestro Tobe Hooper. Spielberg was writer and producer. But such contractual niceties fooled no one. Eye witness accounts came back from set that the world’s most famous director was directing Hooper and calling the shots on a movie that turned the creature comforts of suburbia into monstrous entities out to eat all in their path. There was a PR skirmish in the trades over Spielberg’s bad form that tended to get in the way of what was good about the movie itself.

But watch Poltergeist today and you’ll see there’s no need to rehabilitate it. Its scary as hell, great fun, a little wicked and the ideas still resonate. As in: we’re not safe from TV in any way, but in Poltergeist the damn thing will swallow you whole and take your youngest and most innocent too!

Of course, I’m supposed to be reviewing the remake and I’m talking about the original. Think of that as a warning.

Remakes aren’t always a bad idea. Even a creative re-think isn’t out of order. But Poltergeist 2015 doesn’t seem to have anything on its mind and what it does say isn’t very interesting. The old film was warm and sincere, with a sense of awe and curiosity for what is not known or knowable. It had deep convictions to do with what we respect and why. The new film is cold, mechanical and doesn’t seem to believe in anything other than finding relief in cynicism. Worse, it's lacking in the essentials any genre fan takes as a given…as in, it ain’t that scary. For a horror film, this is quite a drawback.

The director is Monster House helmer Gil Kenan. Here he seems a filmmaker of modest gifts. I think he’s pitching this Poltergeist as the equivalent of a jukebox musical geared especially for teen consumption and with enough post-modern irony to eliminate any risk of it being taken seriously. The effect is but a ghostly reflection of other films where each scene is a skeletal riff on set pieces, shots, and sound stings from things like Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, and Annabelle. All owe a debt to the Hooper/Spielberg Poltergeist, giving the new film a weird aura: it’s like a virtual walking tour of your movie dream life minus the sweet buzz of excitement. All you are left with is the crushing thought that your film highlights from the original Poltergeist aren’t as good as you remember. I hated Kenan and co. for monstering my nostalgia that way. The nicest thing I can say is that he knows how to stage that jump/relief/laugh moment. But I don’t think he knows what scares an audience in that deep way Hooper and co. did.  For that you need to understand fear as something more than movie technique.

"What is completely missing is the poignant humanity of Spielberg’s nightmare"

The script by David Lindsay-Abaire ghosts the original plot; it’s still a haunted house story. But the tone and sensibility is lighter.

Still, that might be a function of the casting. Sam Rockwell plays Eric the dad and Rosemarie de Witt is Amy, the mum. They play the first part of the pic for laughs. When things get noisy their mutual peril transforms these parents into emotionally zombiefied nincompoops who walk through the action as if on a high dose of prescription depressants.

The spectre of the Great Recession haunts these characters (and as a plot idea it's a debt that never pays off!) As the movie begins the family are moving into a new home set in a vast sea of faded McMansions; giant power line pylons stand over the estate like crucifixes and the houses in silhouette look like tombstones.

Eric has been laid off and Amy is an author looking for inspiration; thus suburbia is no longer a Regeanite paradise of goodies but a graveyard of soured dreams. They have three kids: Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), a teen who desires nothing more than a phone she can call her own, Maddy (Kennedi Clements) the youngest who quickly falls victim to the ghosts who live in the TV and Griffin (Kyle Catlett) the grumpy middle child whose nervous disposition and natural ability to see crisis in everything gives the movie its only emotional anchor.

Indeed, the story design seems a sop to tweens; the parents here are useless. Mum is loving but passive and Dad is effectively emasculated. It’s the kids who act decisively and end up heroic. The paranormal experts called in to clean house of nasties don’t have much gravitas either: Jane Adams is blandly sweet as a paranormal academic and Jared Harris is a TV psychic who sneers, wheezes and squints through his part like his trying not to laugh.

It would be a courageous mainstream filmmaker that aims to mock and deride the sacred cultural totem that is digital technology. In 1982 tech gave no solace. Everyone has a gadget here and they’re most useful (except for the TVs, of course). There’s even a drone that takes us through what was once a closet into a portal and the alternate dimension (or whatever it is) where we catch a glimpse of an afterlife where poor souls are squirming like worms. That sounds icky but all I kept thinking about was how the CGI combined with the 3D softened the effect; it was like bad MTV.

The acting is okay, the dialogue is mercifully slight and functional, but ultimately it's the kind of experience that turns one into a trainspotter; I kept ticking off bits replicated from the original…the doll, the tree, the rope and the face tearing…But what was completely missing was the poignant humanity of Spielberg’s nightmare: where we’re made to have sympathy for the dead who in deep pain, refused to quietly give up their graves so the living could enjoy their riches.

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