Poltergeist (2015) / Horror
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Kennedi Clements, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Nicholas Braun, Susan Heyward
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire
Review published May 24, 2015
1982's Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written by (and likely co-directed by) producer Steven Spielberg, remains one of my favorite horror films of all time, drafting up the blueprint for most haunting-in-the-house productions that continue still to this day in such films as The Conjuring and Insidious. It's a simple story, and does take its time to build up to the scares, but with good characterizations and a brilliant sense of atmosphere, it delivers all of the suspense and shock you could ever want from a horror film, which is especially commendable for one that retains a PG-rated status.
This one stars Sam Rockwell (Better Living Through Chemistry, Laggies) as recently unemployed Eric Bowen, who has been reluctantly forced to search for cheaper housing to move his wife Amy (DeWitt, The Watch) and his three children into until they can get back on their feet again. They end up in a planned community that has been ravaged with foreclosures, but what they don't know if the strange origin of the house and neighborhood, which had been built on the site of a former cemetery. Eerie, but no big deal, or so the parents think, until their sensitive children start to see and hear things only they can perceive, and their youngest, Maddy (Clements, Jingle All the Way 2), goes missing in a way that can only mean paranormal intervention may be necessary.
The problem with a remake is that, with so many films made in the last thirty years that have borrowed every single story element and camera technique employed from Poltergeist, it's going to have a tough time standing out among its imitators in anything but its name branding without a good deal of visionary creativity. 2015's Poltergeist is directed by Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) and scripted by David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful, Robots), who are a bit handcuffed by forcing in some of the elements most people remember from the original film. The youngest communicates directly to the spirit world via the television, and even mouths the most popular line of the franchise, "They're here", only without the ominous, sing-song vibe of Heather O'Rourke. We get the ominous tree to attack through windows, and we also get not only the creepy clown doll, we get a whole box of them. We get the sink scene, and the paranormal personalities, and the test equipment, and all of that jazz, but none of them are exactly the same. There's also the closet/portal to the other dimension, which serves as the movie's big climax between the material and the spiritual world in a (literal, here, with the use of a rope) tug of war for the lives of those caught in between. It's a copycat movie that thinks just changing one facet about each element is enough to avoid just being an out-and-out rehash.
I would say that the best part of this film is the cast of actors, who are mostly good. It's hard to go wrong with Rockwell and DeWitt as a couple, and their interplay with each other, as well as with their children, is about the only believable part of a film full of some very improbable aspects. However, there are times when even good actors can't sell a premise, and that are several key moments when you'll end up shaking your head at the wrong-headed logic of the movie. One big instance, at least for me, comes with the rationale of Eric to explain to his wife why they shouldn't go to the authorities in order to try to save Maddy from the spirit world. Granted, we all know in the audience that the police are futile in such instances, but in the reality of our own world, we would immediately contact them nonetheless on the first sign she is missing, because, well, we could be wrong. Why would we not second guess ourselves? That Amy so passively goes along with it feels just as disingenuous as Eric's assertions.
Other problems occur when, late in the film, we get paranormal investigators into the piece, and the movie turns into a mix of standard horror and semi-camp comedic flourishes. The original Poltergeist took great pains to set up the reality of the family and their insulated world, and they maintained that tone of the horror of potentially being ripped asunder. This movie makes the family seem not wholly connected, with all of them wrapped up in their own individual problems, so we're not as invested in the horror of separation, and the less-than-terrified attitudes of the parents and siblings to what's going on doesn't key us in to their issue beyond just following perfunctory plot developments. Plus, the investigators appear to regard it all as something dangerous but not really that surprising, so the tension doesn't rise to the level it should for the big blow-outs of the climax.
And there are too many obvious forced plot developments. For instance, broke-as-a-joke Eric decide he is going to be grossly irresponsible following realizing that he is over-drafted on nearly all of his credit cards, coming home with gifts for each member of his family that are impractical, but, of course, are needed for following plot developments, including a smart phone and a hovercraft with a camera mounted on it. It would have been so refreshing to see such gifts be just that, and never come into play, but that's not the kind of movie this is. A smart script would have introduced these things as already being in the possession of the family, but this isn't a smartly written film, so we're left with following implausibility with predictability, which, for an attempt to resurrect a venerable horror franchise, is shamefully lazy and the sort of thing unworthy of the title.
But the real reason why this modern-day update is a failure is that everything it is and does has not only been done in the 1982 original, but done vastly better. Other than the aforementioned shoehorning in of modern technology, which is only there, seemingly, to remind us this is a film set in 2015, there is no difference in the movies except for a vast reduction in quality and interesting developments all around. As such, there's absolutely no reason for this movie to exist, and no reason why anyone should see this. I guess, like the movie suggests indirectly, it's pretty rude to try to build a new development on something that was dead and buried for a reason.
©2015 Vince Leo