Is It Wise To Operate Heavy Machinery After Watching This?

Director: GIL KENAN/2015

Poltergeist was a fantastic horror film in 1982 that paired Steven Speilberg, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay, with director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre).  What they created was a tense, story driven film about a typical suburban family who find out that their picturesque suburban house has some skeletons in its closet….or buried in its backyard.  In the story, a malevolent spirit reaches out to Carol Anne, a young girl, who it wants to lead them out of their collective hell.  In the process it is looking to lash out at the family that resides in this home for bringing in paranormal experts who are looking to help the family rescue Carol Anne from their demonic clutches, and free the house from the curse of this spirt.

What worked so well 33 years ago, still is remembered today.  From trees that attack young boys trying to sleep, to murderous clown dolls, to the creepy declaration of a young girl talking to a static-y television that “they’re here”, Poltergeist of 1982 still holds up.  Sure, the special effects are now dated.  It’s been 33 years after all.  But the story, the suspense, and scares all still work.  So why does the world need a reboot of this modern horror classic?

Fast forward to 2015, and we have a remake, as Hollywood loves to resurrect dead franchises ever 20 years or so to try to wring one last dime out of a new generation of movie goers who weren’t alive to see it the first time.  Enter the 2015 version of Poltergeist.

Gil Kenan, known for Monster House, now fills the director chair, and despite having 33 years to reimagine this story for a new generation, we find the film going right back to the original, even giving Steven Spielberg writing credit for the story, though not the screenplay, as that belongs now to David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots, Oz the Great and Powerful, Rise of the Guardians).

What is most disappointing about this newer version is that they took all of the things that made the original so good and simply crammed them all in, in a space of about 35 minutes of screen time with no narrative build up. The remaining running time can claim to be “new” but, it is simply reacting to the updated plot points from the original.  This 2015 version is in such a hurry to “get there”, that it goes by so fast without any chance to effectively pick its moments or build the required tension for the scares to work.

While the spirits of the first version were more guarded in their contact with the family, enticing them with parlor tricks like chair stacking, and slow slides across the floor that only intrigued the family before turning sinister, the new spirits are simply malevolent from the beginning.

With all of the competition of horror films these days, turning out an installment a year like the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises, Poltergeist is playing catch up with the stylistic execution of those particular properties, and ends up simply copying it, rather than forging its own way.  Rather than taking its time to build to something, or to have a social commentary on corporate greed and the lives that get stuck with its effects, like the original film, this one just tries to go from shock to shock with no cohesive narrative at all…just a loosely connected patchwork of the 1982 version.

To say that its been updated, here are some basic changes, without any plot spoilers, that they went for to hide how bad they are simply mining the superior original:

  • Craig T. Nelson in the first film was a successful businessman, here Sam Rockwell is unemployed.
  • The alcoholic side of Craig T. Nelson’s character that wasn’t seen until the Poltergeist 2 film, shows up here, though its gag is given no context other than “weird stuff happening is 100% explained by ghosts, nothing else”.
  • Comic books are stacked instead of chairs.
  • There are many clown dolls this time, instead of the single one.
  • The careers are different for the family.

That being said, Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back, Iron Man 2, Laggies) is one of the only things that is watchable about this picture. Even then, this is not a strong performance by Mr. Rockwell compared to his past performances.  The special effects are indeed updated here, though there is nothing to inspire wonder in the midst of the horror like the light orbs descending down the staircase in the first film, while the observers discover there is something deadly behind the beauty of it all.

Jared Harris (The Quiet Ones, Mad Men) shows up as the supernatural expert Carrigan Burke, replacing the eccentric Zelda Rubinstein who famously declared the house to be “clean”.  Burke uses the line on his sensational “ghost hunters” type show, but is as forgettable here as his character was in The Quiet Ones dealing with the supernatural. And by casting a man in what was an iconic female performance, this new version can now claim to continue the trend of reducing the opportunities for women in film.

In the end, this is a pointless, unneeded, and frankly an unwanted update on what is truly a horror film classic.  Providing virtually no scares, and just a sped up version of the original Poltergeist, one must be warned of how bored you will be from sitting through it.  It may actually enduce lethargy instead of fear.  You’ll be thankful for the short run time, but I would still not try to operate heavy machinery right after watching this. And despite having all of the clown dolls in the film, my warning about operating heavy machinery is no joke.