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They’re here…again: “Poltergeist (2015)”

October 4, 2015

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Back in my 2012 review of the original Poltergeist, I noted that that it was somewhat strange that a movie as popular as that one hadn’t yet been remade, repurposed, or otherwise strip-mined. And then I spun a whole bunch of theories why that’s the case that I mostly pulled out of my butt after a couple of Blue Moons. Well…um…(cough)…yeah, I was wrong about that—as you may have surmised from my use of the modifier “original” in the first sentence. Indeed, Poltergeist is the latest attempt by Hollywood to never create anything original ever again.

So, the new Poltergeist hews pretty close to the original in terms of plot, and why not? Poltergeist’s plot is pretty much idiot-proof: the Bowen family moves into haunted house; wackiness ensues. And by wackiness, I mean that the daughter is kidnapped by ghosts and held prisoner in the TV, while scary crap goes down inside the house, which the family can’t leave because they’re really attached to that daughter.

This time around, the parents are played by Sam Rockwell and Rosemary DeWitt—and that’s one of many canny moves director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Embers) makes. Rockwell and DeWitt are simply excellent in their roles, imbuing their fairly-straightforward characters with more nuance and complexity than they really need. The rest of the kids are okay, too, though Kennedi Clemons (holy shit, really? “Kennedi?”) lacks Heather O’Rourke’s nascent screen presence and acting chops. Still, as of the time of this writing all of the actors playing the Bowens are still alive, so they’re already in better shape than their 1982 counterparts.

"Oh shit...I just realized that Dad is Sam Rockwell."

“Oh shit…I just realized that Dad is Sam Rockwell.”

Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire mostly hit the same story beats as the original, while making only superficial changes for this version. Yes, there’s a freaking scary clown, because why would you get rid of that? Clowns are fucking horrifying. There’s another malevolent tree, because it makes for a great visual when it reaches in to grab the son, Griffin (Kyle Catlett). Also, huge weeping willow trees are terrifying too (seriously, look at them—what’s their deal, anyway?)

Fucking clowns...

Fucking clowns…

There’s also a team of intrepid ghost-hunters who serve as walking exposition machines as well as invaluable allies to the Bowen family in their attempts to get Madison back. Of course, taking place in 2015 it’s inevitable that these ghost-hunters would be reality-TV figures (thanks for that Syfy). The bad news is that the filmmakers couldn’t possibly find a figure as delightfully bizarre as Zelda Rubinstein’s pint-sized exorcist. The good news is they cast Jared Harris and Jane Adams—two actors who, like A1 sauce, make everything better—as a team of ex-spouses.

Is this your daughter? Eh, close enough.

Is this your daughter? Eh, close enough.

Kenan updates the technology without making too big deal of it (aside from the use of an RC drone), and even maintains the original’s analog snowstorm static. Where he deviates most from the original—and this is a misstep—is by putting the Bowens on the opposite end of the mobility spectrum as the original’s Freelings. Where that family was moving into a newly-built subdivision (“Cuesta Verde,” either a subtle joke or an on-the-nose one, depending upon your understanding of Spanish), the Bowens have downgraded to a foreclosed family home in a wage-stagnation-created pseudo-ghost town. As the film begins, father Eric has lost his job with John Deere, and the family’s finances are just beginning to feel the strain.

Well, every new house is going to have a few issues.

Well, every new house is going to have a few issues.

It’s a nice stab at prescience, but it also robs the story of some of its potency. In the original, the Freelings were in a small way complicit in what befalls their family. The father worked for the company throwing up those subdivisions, and as we learn later, his company’s haste in developing the land led them to clear out a graveyard’s stones without disinterring the occupants. By making the Bowen’s economic refugees, they’re just some real damn unlucky people, who had the additional bad fortune to move into a haunted house.

That change doesn’t sink the movie (though it does make it less interesting). What sinks this otherwise perfectly-serviceable horror film is the fact that it brings little new to the table. There are updated special effects, sure, but the original’s haven’t aged too badly (aside from some dodgy rotoscoping). So what, really, is the point?

I just assumed this happens anytime you buy a package from Comcast.

I just assumed this happens anytime you buy a package from Comcast.

The Poltergeist remake isn’t a bad movie—just an unnecessary one. It finds itself in the same lose/lose position as any remake of a successful film: ignore what made the original so effective and you run the risk of total failure (unless you bring something equally or more effective to it), acknowledge it and you remind of the audience of your film’s pointlessness. The new Poltergeist has some spooky scenes, but ultimately we’ve seen this movie before in 1982, back when it had the advantage of being fresh and new.

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