It’s heartening to know that movies today still have the ability to meet or exceed one’s expectations. I expected Poltergeist to be a terrible movie, and it did not disappoint. The only thing impressive about this remake is its staggering mediocrity.
I’m not the type of critic who will dismiss the concept of a remake out of hand. Movies and remakes have gone hand in hand since almost the very beginning of Hollywood. Hell, people have been taking familiar narratives and reworking them for modern audiences since the inception of storytelling. So whatever, right? Criticism of remakes simply because they’re remakes is, frankly, obtuse. Let each movie stand or fall on its own merits, that’s what I say.
But even if Poltergeist wasn’t going to naturally get compared to the film that inspired it—one of the towering greats of the genre—there aren’t enough legs to carry this film for five minutes, let alone the entire hour and a half of the film’s duration.
Within the pantheon of haunted house horror, the original Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg production stands as the movie that perfected (though not originated) the formula. Lily white suburban family moves into a new home. Things seem to go pretty good until one of them—probably their youngest offspring—begins to notice something strange about their new abode. The strangeness intensifies, leading to the revelation that malevolent forces sharing their newly purchased slice of American pie. Following this, a hellacious standoff ensues, probably with the help of some sort of crackpot spiritual advisor who swoops in to save the day.
The family, in this case, are the Bowens and, gosh, if they’re not just the lilliest white suburbanites who ever moved into a haunted house. Despite the fact that Eric (Sam Rockwell) has recently been laid off from his job at John Deere and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) doesn’t work, they’re still able to afford a new house in an affluent subdivision. Maybe they’ve got money, I don’t know, but it feels weird to me that a family would buy a new house when money is so obviously tight—for God’s sake, their credit cards get declined! (Of course, that doesn’t stop Eric from immediately going out to purchase some jewelry for his wife, a new phone for their eldest daughter, a remote controlled flying drone for their middle son, and a pizza for their youngest daughter, but who am I to judge?)
I mention these things only because they’re indicative of the kind of nonsensical logic that permeates this movie. Things happen because they’re needed for the plot, not because they add any sort of depth or characterization. The eldest daughter needs a phone so they can update the classic TV static; the son needs a drone so they can fly it into purgatory later in the movie. Who cares that we were just told they were broke, right? This type of “plot above all” writing is hackneyed, lazy, and oh so boring.
From here, all your favorite moments are redelivered, albeit in a highly condensed and streamlined form. Burial grounds, clown dolls, murderous trees, staticky televisions (or phones, as the case may be) and even the iconic “they’re here” all make an appearance in this new version, and they’re all stripped of any sort of soul. The entire thing plays out more or less exactly as you remember it, only instead of being a groundbreaking work of terror and creativity, it becomes a cringe worthy descent into banality.
It’s sad, to me, to think that Sam Raimi has his name attached to this project, even if only as producer. Watching Poltergeist, I couldn’t help wondering if the movie wouldn’t have been better served under his direction. After all, this is the man who proved that a relatively tame PG-13 horror movie could still deliver the goods with his phenomenal Drag Me to Hell, to say nothing of the Evil Dead franchise. Though his touch could be felt in places—the image of the tree branch snaking its way through the house in the form of a giant, monstrous hand felt particularly Raimi-esque—it was lacking that certain Raimi joie de vivre that could have elevated the movie to the next level.
Rockwell though, God bless him, appears to be having the time of his damn life. (Then again, when doesn’t he?) In fact, the cast as a whole does a pretty remarkable job working with the material that they’ve been given. Even the young Kennedi Clements (playing Madison, this version’s Carol Anne) is charming in her own precocious way. Still, the entire time I spent watching Poltergeist, I couldn’t help but think that it would be great to see this cast and this director in a haunted house movie that wasn’t a remake.
And that’s the problem, I suppose. As much as I’d like to not judge a remake against its forebear, it’s hard when there’s literally nothing new brought to the table. All of the best remakes throughout history have done just that—taken you on a new journey using familiar characters and situations. Poltergeist, however, does none of this. Instead, it gives you the movie you know, stripped of all that you love. The only redeeming quality of this movie is its run time which, at a sparse 90 minutes, feels like the tiniest bit of mercy in an otherwise uncaring world.
Poltergeist is in theaters now.