Poltergeist remake is soulless
Given how many remakes we've seen of prime 1970s and '80s horror classics over the last few years, it'd seem natural that the iconic 1982 Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg production Poltergeist would eventually receive such treatment.
While the new Poltergeist — directed by Gil Kenan of Monster House fame — is at least mostly loyal plot-wise to the classic original, it fails to find a contemporary conduit for the spectacle, imagination and smarts that made its predecessor such a thrilling experience.
Once more a family moves into a suburban home only to find it haunted by very aggressive spirits. Once more the itty bitty cutesy daughter (Kennedi Clements in place of the late Heather O'Roarke) is zonked into an alternate plane of reality by the spirits, who hope she'll lead them into the light and out of their purgatory. Once more an eccentric spiritualist (Jarred Harris in place of the also-late Zelda Rubenstein) arrives with all the answers.
The details are different. Harris's character is star of a Paranormal State-style reality show in contrast to Rubenstein's medium from the original movie. The family has no involvement with the real estate company that built the house. The differences are largely window dressing used to create a contemporary veneer, though, as the basic skeleton of the original film is almost completely unaltered.
The real problem here is, no one involved in the production of the film seemed interested in making a film that was anything but the necessary bare bones structure of Poltergeist in the first place.
The original 1982 Poltergeist is a watershed film in the gothic horror genre. Where haunting films for the decades before had been dark, deliberate, creepy affairs more concerned with crafting atmosphere and sinister insinuation, the Spielberg/Hooper film was a balls-to-the-walls roar of over the top spectacle filmmaking with cutting-edge effects on display throughout. To this day it's a visual feast for the imagination, full of color and light and visuals both terrifying and wonderful. In contrast, the new Poltergeist barely even tries.
The best difference between the two approaches is illustrated by contrasting a similar scene in the two films meant to make the same joke. Both films feature a scene where a paranormal researcher excitedly tells a story of capturing footage at a previous investigation of an item moving mysteriously on its own over a period of hours via time lapse videography.
In the original film the father (Craig T. Nelson) bemusedly nods, then opens the bedroom door to reveal a scene of utter paranormal chaos — toys and books fluttering through the room as if caught in a tornado, a lamp assembling itself and lighting up, a record floating in mid air being played with the metal point of a grade school compass serving as the needle.
In the new movie, the researcher sits on a chair which shoots out of under him and shatters against a wall.
And, for the most part, that sums up a huge reason the remake fails — it has one hell of a pedigree to live up to, and it doesn't even seem to try.
Not everything the new film tries is necessarily a failure, though, particularly in making the children more actively heroic in the proceedings. But, for the good things it might add, it short circuits something else. Early in the film we learn that, despite the fact the family is buying this house, the father is recently laid off and the mother doesn't have a job because she's trying to finish a book. Unemployed people. Buying a house. Let that percolate in your logic circuitry for a few seconds.
While it might be said that the film would be better critiqued on its own merits as opposed to with its predecessor, this brings up an entirely new issue. The original Poltergeist is one of the most influential horror films of all time. Its reverberations can still be felt in recent films such as The Conjuring and particularly the first entry in the Insidious franchise which, in its own way, feels like a better Poltergeist remake in spirit if not in point-by-point plot regurgitation. By delivering the plot but none of the style — style that has had 33 years to permeate the genre — the resulting remake winds up feeling like a lackluster wannabe in comparison to even the most recent quality horror offerings.
There are other things I could gripe about — the fact that the CGI spooks that turn up later in the film look no better than the one in a zombie fighting video game we see the son playing early in the film, for example — but there's no point to flogging a dead horse.
While loyal to the plot of the original, the new Poltergeist forgets the wit and spectacle, resulting in a generic, quickly forgotten retread.