REVIEW: Poltergeist (2015)

Liam finally catches up with a remake they should have buried under the patio. 

Sometimes, you just know when something isn’t going to work…

The 2015 remake of the 1982 Tobe Hooper-directed, Steven Spielberg-produced Poltergeist is the latest in a long line of bad decisions to come out of Hollywood. It rivals 2014’s RoboCop as one of the most impotent and unnecessary remakes I have ever seen! Once upon a time, they would wait until visual effects and social standards allowed for a complete reinvention of a classic for modern cinemagoers, as with David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). These were worthy remakes because they delivered more than the originals could ever hope to, but unfortunately, it now seems like the studios insist on sub-standard CGI shortcuts and push for that PG-13 rating to draw in a larger box office. This Gil Kenan-directed, Sam Raimi-produced modernisation of Poltergeist appears to have been made merely to cash-in on the name rather than attempt to deliver a genuine upgrade.

The plot is the same as the original with the only real difference being how the new family find themselves in this situation. Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) has recently lost his job and decides to downgrade by buying a smaller home in a less-desirable area. He, his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three children – teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), younger son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and even younger daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements) – settle in and squabble over who gets the scary attic room whilst the parents stress over unpaid bills. As time goes by, they hear strange noises, lights and electrical appliances turn on and off by themselves, and their mobile devices are on the blink. Later, Griffin finds Maddie talking to the television set and she mentions to her brother that “someone is coming.”

Later still, Eric and wife are having dinner with friends, leaving their three children at home. It is mentioned that their new neighbourhood is built on the site of an old graveyard. Back home, big sister Kendra is grabbed and pulled through the floorboards by the hands of dead people, and Griffin is attacked by toy clowns and chased around the house by CGI tree branches. Then, chief target Maddie is lured into her closet and taken. Eric and Amy come home to find their son being assaulted, with Kendra telling them that she can’t find Maddie, whose faint voice is heard emanating from the television. Reluctant to call the police, they reach out to a paranormal research establishment for help who setup equipment in the house to try and locate Maddie, but after a series of ghostly attacks on the staff, the decision is made by lead investigator Dr. Powell (Jane Adams) to draft in the services of her ex-partner and TV celebrity ghost hunter Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris). Burke’s hypothesis is that Maddie has psychic abilities which the Poltergeists need to lead them into the light.

The original film was a masterpiece that can sit comfortably alongside The Exorcist (1973) as one of the very best contemporary haunted house movies. With Spielberg being a very active influence onset, Poltergeist had his signature themes all over it, especially those of the “underdog” and “family.” The first half of the film builds tension without really showing us anything, whilst all the time familiarising us with protagonists Dianne Freeling (JoBeth Williams), Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). So, by the time all hell breaks loose in the second half, the audience actually cares for them and is rooting for the family to succeed. Kenan’s remake does away with that completely. The ridiculously short running time of less than ninety-minutes didn’t allow for any kind of suspenseful build-up, which makes you wonder how much was cut for the inevitable special edition DVD.

Rockwell is likeable enough as he tries his best with the rubbish he’s been given, and this shows in his frustrated performance as Eric Bowen. DeWitt makes no impact as his wife, and the cliché-ridden essay of an American high school girl is pushed to the limit by Sharbino as Kendra. Unlike the original, neither parent is the chief protagonist in this movie, which begs the question of why they hired Sam Rockwell at all. Instead, our main focal point is their ten-year-old son Griffin! A kid who takes it upon himself to “go in after her” and rescue little sister Maddie. Giving the kids larger roles was an awful decision seeing as how they were forced to hire juvenile actors even less convincing than the visual effects. When will they ever learn? We’re not making Lord of the Rings here! The original film’s practical set-pieces are far more impressive than the cringeworthy computer-generated imagery on show here. The decision to update and replace the mystic saviour role played so brilliantly in the original by Zelda Rubinstein was the only one that made sense due to today’s obsession with reality TV. Having a Derek Acorah-esque television celebrity in that role was a good idea, but the character wasn’t fleshed-out enough for Harris to deliver anything as memorable as Rubinstein. His Carrigan Burke is just a quirky, battle-damaged ghost hunter version of Quint from Jaws (1975). In one scene, he even recalls how he received several scars! And why does he not have his TV crew with him? I guess we’ll have to wait for that special edition DVD to find out.

This Poltergeist lacked the heart and soul that made the original so special. It failed to deliver on every level and, above all else, it just wasn’t that scary! Key bits from the ’82 film, such as the attack on Robbie (Oliver Robins) by the toy clown, are brought forward here and the latter is actually their main attempt to frighten us. Otherwise, it resorts to cheap jump scares throughout, and there is absolutely nothing frightening about a 36-inch, wall-mounted plasma screen TV! Give me a vintage 70lb Ferguson television set in a solid oak cabinet any day of the week!

Two things intrigue me: Spielberg either sold or gave away his Poltergeist franchise rights. The other is that MGM greenlit a retelling of the same story so soon after the success of Insidious (2011). James Wan’s film is clearly influenced by Poltergeist with the same basic narrative and spawned two profitable sequels. A direct sequel to Poltergeist II with an ageing JoBeth Williams and a recast Carol Anne would have been more exciting for fans. As would a retelling of the original to be directed by… Tobe Hooper! After the controversy surrounding his and Spielberg’s actual roles onset, it would have been interesting to see Hooper’s undiluted vision. Whatever the case, ignore the 2015 version at all costs!

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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