Monday, June 1, 2015

"Poltergeist (2015)" Review: A Pointless And Pale Imitation Of The Original 1982 Horror Classic

Over the past few years I have become more accepting of remakes than before. Sometimes a new filmmaker can add a new element or twist to a story already told that makes it viable for the Hollywood remake machine. The most recent example of this is the Evil Dead remake, a film that for all intents and purposes should not have worked at all, let alone nearly as good as it did. While fans of the original will always hold that one near and dear to their heart, the remake makes for a great companion piece that is a perfectly acceptable alternative if the need arises to have one. Sadly the same cannot be said for the Poltergeist remake, a film so banal and drained of energy that one is left wondering if anyone's heart was really into the idea of remaking such a classic in the first place. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 33 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: May 22, 2015

Loves: The 1982 Poltergeist
Likes: Sam Rockwell, Insidious, The Conjuring
Neutral:  Remakes
Hates: Ruining a good think for a buck
How about the Poltergeist sequels?: Best to forget those also.

I have gone through multiple drafts of this review now, starting then stopping and then starting again only to stop again. The reason for this phenomenon, which only rears its ugly face once in a great while, is because the film in question Poltergeist, a remake of the original Steven Spielberg 1982 horror classic, isn't really a bad film nor is it incompetent. In actuality when compared to most films of this ilk being churned out these days (Insidious, The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity to name a few) this update of Poltergeist holds its own, but only in that company.

This new Poltergeist, directed by Gil Kenan whose animated feature Monster House was a decently fun haunted house picture, when put up against the original Poltergeist feels more unnecessary than it is bad. Just about the only thing you can really criticize it for are the motivations behind making it in the first place. While the original film isn't flawless (what film really is?), it is just about as perfect a film as one could ever hope to make. The original Poltergeist also has the distinct honor of being made by Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who was at the top of his game when it was made (it was released just one week before E.T. and just a year after Raiders of the Lost Ark).

So, how could anyone ever hope to top that sort of pedigree? Well it seems like someone was up for the challenge and even though the effort is better than expected, that challenge was not met. The acting was there with a solid cast lined up, the best of which are Sam Rockwell as the wisecracking dad who wants nothing more than to keep his family safe and Rosemarie Dewitt as the mother who is willing to do anything to save her daughter. Both of them and the rest of the cast elevate the material but only slightly as the film never fully achieves either a believable sense of horror nor any real tension, something the original had in spades.

I was of two minds while watching this updated Poltergeist, unfortunately neither one was a positive one. On the one hand I often found myself criticizing the film whenever it would veer away from what the original did to try something new simply because it almost never added anything new or unique to the equation. A good example of this would be when the paranormal scientists arrive and begin setting up all their equipment. In both films there is the geeky computer guy who despite being in the profession of ghost hunting doesn't really believe they exist. In the original film he has an unfortunate experience with a fried chicken leg and (in the original's most disturbing scene) eventually decides he doesn't like his own face. In this new version he has an unfortunate experience in a closet involving a power drill which wasn't nearly as effective.

Then on the other hand I would find myself criticizing the film whenever it would stay on course and simply recreate a scene. The best example of this would be the infamous clown and tree sequence from the original, a scene that made millions of kids forever fear clowns and taught them to never ever look under their bed. That scene is in both films and aside from a few little additions here and there is basically played exactly the same. But the newer Poltergeist just isn't able to capture that potent mixture of scares and humor that Spielberg was so masterful at and as a result the new interpretation of that scene fails to illicit the emotions the original was able to evoke so effortlessly.

These alterations are at the heart of what's wrong with this newer Poltergeist. The new scene in the closet isn't bad nor is it poorly executed. The scene, judged on its own merits, is perfectly fine for the film they made. But the scene from the original is far superior in its effectiveness towards unsettling the audience. Even when the young Bowen daughter (played by Kennedi Clements) introduces the ghosts to her family through the television (probably the most iconic image and scene from the original) there is little tension or fear conveyed to the audience which leads to the film's ultimate undoing, the pacing.

This newer Poltergeist clocks in at just over the 90 minute mark while the original comes in just under 2 hours. Now as a rule I generally don't attack a film for its length because how long a movie is shouldn't really dictate its quality. However, when dealing with a remake everything comes under scrutiny and in this case the length of the film is a crippling factor in more ways than one. We never get to spend time with the Bowen's before the haunting begins, the daughter's disappearance feels like she was gone for merely a day or two instead of weeks and the introduction of the paranormal expert (an unusually miscast Jared Harris) feels rushed into instead of led up to. As a result of this everything from the characters to even the house itself feels smaller and less effective than it should have been.

Other more technical and nit picky problems keep the film from attaining its full potential as well such as why the Bowen's seem to be the only family living in this neighborhood. At no point do we ever meet or see anyone else living in this rather large looking block full of houses. Not even during the film's bombastic conclusion (another area the original is unequaled here) when the neighborhood is in complete chaos do we see one single person come out of their home to see what all the ruckus is. When the finale of the original hit the entire community gathered in disbelief at what they were seeing which lent that film a sense of awe and mystery that is sadly missing from the remake which is most evident in how the big twist of the original (where the house is located) is just a throwaway piece of exposition here.

It may sound as if there isn't any merit at all to this version of Poltergeist and that would be misguiding of me to say so. Some of the scenes between Rockwell and Dewitt show some real chemistry and the film does a decent enough job scaring the hell out of the family even if we ourselves aren't quite as effected. Kenan also shows a good bit or restraint as well never really showing the audience what is haunting the Bowen's and aside from the horrible decision to actually take us inside the portal in the closet for the remake (something clearly influenced by the Insidious films), he never lets the special effects or creatures take away from the fact that the film is more about the family than the ghosts.

But that still isn't nearly enough to recommend the film. Watching this update of Poltergeist wasn't a horrible experience and one can see the potential in there for a much better film. The problem for it and the rest of us that got duped into seeing it is that there already is a much better version of the film out there that already fulfilled all the potential this remake is lacking and it is that is the 1982 version of Poltergeist which comes highly recommended over this second-thought remake.


Over the years there has been a loud and vocal debate as to who actually directed Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg (credited as producer) or Tobe Hooper (credited as director). The reason that debate continues today is because the film was so good that nobody could believe Hooper (whose only hit was the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was capable of making it. Well, if there is one thing you won't find this remake of Poltergeist recreating it is leaving anyone in doubt over who was responsible for it. Stick with the original and leave this one to the bargain bins.

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