I’m not morally against remakes. I’m really not. But you’ll notice that the BEST remakes are the ones that take just the original summary or concept of the source material and then do something mostly original with them. The Donald Sutherland Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1980’s version of The Blob or even Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead were all remakes that took only the basic idea from the original. And they were all better for it.
Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist isn’t that sort of remake, unfortunately. At times it tries to do something new and different with the classic scenes and scenarios, but it maintains the same rhythm throughout the course of the film, thoroughly eliminating all tension and spontaneity.
After some economic setbacks, Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt) move their family to the suburbs so they can start over. Their teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) hates it, their young son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is scared of everything, and their toddler daughter Maddie (Kennedi Clements) is talking to imaginary friends. Then the closet eats Maddie and they have to hire paranormal investigators and a psychic (Jared Harris) to try and get her back.
What I said earlier about “rhythm” is the biggest setback for Kenan’s Poltergeist. It actually tries to put a fresh spin on just about all the famous moments from the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg classic, but what’s the point when it’s just filling in the exact same template as the original? While the details may change here and there, the story beats remain unchanged and you can predict every moment almost to the minute.
The ghosts start stacking things. Then the little girl says “They’re here” while looking at TV static. Then the tree attacks. Then the closet eats her. Then they hire the parapsychologists and psychic. Then they do the rope thing to get her back. Then when they think it’s all over, the ghosts come back and the house destroys itself.
I’m sorry if those are spoilers, but all I did was summarize the milestone moments of the original Poltergeist, all of which punctuate this remake, beat for beat. Well, except for the very end; how the psychic character solves the ghost problem once and for all. But even THAT was ripped straight out of the ending to Poltergeist III.
And when your movie has to resort to ripping off Poltergeist III, it has some serious problems.
It’s almost a shame, too, because the new spin Kenan puts on the classic sequences are actually real fuckin’ neat-o. Like, the image of the dark hands banging against the other side of the TV screen, or the slightly less ostentatious way the closet eats Carol An– …”Maddie”. Hell, the way Kenan did the clown doll and the man-eating tree was very different from the way Hooper/Spielberg did it, but surprisingly creepy in execution in spite of the familiarity. I actually think it’s the best part of the movie (they released a big chunk of it online, so the marketing staff seemed to agree that it’s the only part of the film worth seeing).
Other aspects of the movie aren’t so creative. I mean, right down to the teenage daughter complaining as they pull up to their new house “wah wah wah, we’re in the middle of nowhere wah wah wah there’s no place good to shop wah wah wah I liked the city better”. Think of every fuckin’ haunted house movie with a teenage girl character in it and you’ve suffered that scene. Gettin’ old, Kenan.
There’s also this tired cliche where the character slowly stalks toward something creepy, hesitantly reaching out for it as the tension builds and builds and builds and then BAM! Loud noise! Oh, but don’t worry, it was just another character surprising them for no reason. Gettin’ old, Kenan!
Oddly, Carol– “Maddie” isn’t the focal character of the movie, despite being the crux of the plot. Griffin is the central character who undergoes the biggest arc, starting out as a quivering wimp and eventually finding the courage to save his sister. This was a change I actually liked; the character you expected to be the star wasn’t and a character who was ensemble wallpaper in the original takes the lead. It was one of those changes that showed Kenan had designs on going in a different direction, if only he could have taken it further that way.
As for the special effects, well, I can’t fault a Poltergeist movie for having so many of them. What set the original Poltergeist apart from its haunted house brethren was how it bucked the “bump in the night” shtick and turned the ghosts into big scary fucking monsters. I mean, a tree tries to literally eat a child before getting sucked into a magic tornado! A giant skull pops out of a closet and breathes fire on Craig T. Nelson! Then the closet turns into the Sarlaac Pit from Return of the Jedi! And what the fuck was that skeletal dog-thing in the hallway!?
The original Poltergeist was a special effects bonanza and set the stage for lots of ghost movies that portrayed the spirits as weird, crazy monsters. If it weren’t for Poltergeist we probably wouldn’t have gotten Ghostbusters, House or Beetlejuice.
So yeah, this remake is loaded with special effects. The problem is that most of them are CG and a lot of them suck. At times, they start out looking pretty good but last too long and ultimately erode. For instance, we actually get to see Purgatory/Limbo, first through the blurry camera of a drone-copter. It looks horrifying and creepy as fuck, thanks in large part to the low-res visual quality of the drone’s camera. But then the characters go in there and we see everything in all its shiny, unconvincing CG glory for minute after minute. Your reaction inevitably goes from shivering to “those poor actors; standing in front of that green screen all day must have been really boring”.
Is Poltergeist a desecration of a classic or any of that other hyperbole people use when referring to remakes they don’t like? Eh… The original Poltergeist already got two cruddy sequels and a TV show that had nothing to do with anything. It’s already been desecrated. This remake is more of a superfluous effort and one that’s destined to be forgotten in a few years as it fails to carve a niche for itself. Kenan puts some great spins on the details of the original, but sticks too close to the original’s script. If you’re going to remake something, make it your own. Otherwise, you’re just pulling a Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and nobody wants that.