In 2015, when Hollywood rolls out yet another remake, there’s no point in asking, “Why?” Hollywood gonna Hollywood, and the only way studios are going to quit remaking classics is if people quit going to see them. The original Poltergeist is inarguably a classic. Besides the obvious scares from the titular, malevolent being, the Tobe Hooper-directed/Steven Spielberg-produced and co-written ghost story from 1982 left audiences with lingering dread cued up from the signifiers of suburban stultification: the sameness of the subdivision, the bored mom’s secret weed stash, the television as a family focal point, the supercilious abandon with which real estate developers pile two-story tract homes onto cemeteries. Thirty-three years later, the extra-planar closet portal still yawns open and the toys come to life, but the socio-political subtext is mostly absent, resulting in a supernatural horror movie that will move your pulse in places but do little to nudge your soul.
In this go-round, the original’s dusty SoCal ’burb is replaced by a nameless one in Illinois. The characters’ names have also changed. Ostensibly, this is an attempt to modernize the movie –– kids aren’t named Robbie, Dana, and Carol-Anne anymore. Sam Rockwell stars as Eric Bowen, a recently laid-off father of three, married to Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), an aspiring writer. The children are fairly one-note. Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) is a vapid, spiteful teenager. Middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is scared of everything. Youngest Maddy (Kennedi Clements) is simply adorable. They all move into a nice house (the “least sucky” in their price range, according to Amy), and before long, the weird stuff starts happening. Echoing the plot of the original, the house was built on a cemetery. The interred bodies were supposed to be moved elsewhere, but the developer merely relocated the headstones. Griffin finds a chunk of spinal column in the flower garden. Maddy talks to the spirits through the TV, gets sucked into their realm through her closet, and the family resorts to a team of university paranormal researchers led by Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), who is forced to call upon experienced ghost hunter Carrington Burke (Jared Harris) when the haunts prove too menacing for her to deal with. Griffin flies his drone into the spirit world, and the movie suffers from feeling overly complicated.
The film delivers some tense moments, but it doesn’t carry the emotional heft of the original. To say that this Poltergeist is devoid of message and meaning isn’t entirely accurate, because the parents are struggling with the aimlessness and fleeting agency of modern adulthood. At one point, Eric tries to buy gardening supplies with expired credit cards. The next scene shows him returning home with a bunch of expensive gifts for his kids. The spending spree as a means of family provision is a contemporary analog to the original’s workaholic dad, and in both cases, the acquisition and use of money isn’t entirely helpful to parenting — in the remake, the smartphone he buys for Kendra actually leads her into the basement, where she is nearly swallowed by a pit of sludge. Amy remarks on several occasions that she sucks at being a mom, but it still feels like lip service or a token attempt at adding depth to the character. It’s a tough act to swallow, unfortunately.
Still, though the movie itself is unnecessary, it delivers some entertaining scares. In most cases, they’re reinterpreted iterations of the originals — the closet, the creepy clown doll, the horrifyingly ancient tree snaking through a window and carrying out a child — but they’re mostly effective, as long as you can set aside what gave you the willies 33 years ago. Yes, the CGI tree that crashes through the skylight in Griffin’s bedroom is scary, but when Eric and Amy return from a dinner party to find him dangling and screaming from its branches (the tree even lets him down with barely any incident), it doesn’t have the impact of Craig T. Nelson trying to pull his son, muddy and bloody, from a demonic oak tree that’s literally trying to swallow him whole. And while the tech toys (Kendra’s smartphone, Griffin’s remote-controlled drone) end up being central to the plot, they clutter the narrative and the scenery more than move the story. For audiences unfamiliar with the source material, it’s a reliably thrilling summer popcorn movie. Hopefully, the producers will let the spirit of ’82 finally rest in peace.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jane Adams, and Jared Harris, with Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements. Written by David Lindsey-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]