The original Poltergeist is one of America’s horror classics and I’m not afraid to say it. The announcement of its remake/reboot/reimagining/whatever fucking studios are calling them now brought mixed emotions. On the one hand, YAY someone out there appreciates Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece (yes, better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and wants to bring it to modern audiences who might never bother with the original, on the other hand, BOO they’re just going to make an Indisious clone and slap the Poltergeist title on there. Let us forget for the moment that Insidious is just a ripoff of Poltergeist in the first place. Actually, scratch that – let us NEVER forget that Insidious is a blatant ripoff of Poltergeist no matter how many dumb sequels they make. I’m a big fan of Sam Rockwell, the trailer creeped the hell out of me, and Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures was producing, so I decided to keep my hopes up for Poltergeist ’15. Was I right to do that? Let’s find out.
Did I mention I’m also a fan of the director Gil Kenan? His Monster House was great and I even liked City of Ember to a certain extent. The fact that he hasn’t directed something in 6-7 years was worrisome, but I felt that Poltergeist would be a good fit since Monster House, another haunted house story, went over so well. With me. Did other people like it? IMDB says…6.7. Well, fuck the rest of you, I thought it was inventive and just scary enough and hilarious. Hope Status: Still high.
My fears of seeing a classic turned into an Insidious clone did not come to pass exactly, but it is rather paint-by-numbers. Especially if you’ve seen the Hooper version. The modern stylings of the genre have ensured that this remake will almost certainly be forgotten. It’s a slickly filmed, jump scare-laden movie starring pretty people going through some hard times. Honestly, not much different here from The Conjuring except that Conjuring was scarier. There is nothing left that sticks out about this film. Like that film, this is about a family dealing with the various inconveniences of living in a haunted house. Unlike that film, this one seems to pull its punches. That one was R, this one is PG-13, so it’s not like it doesn’t make sense. This is the “family” horror film of the year. It’s heroes and victims are the children. The kids are the ones who understand what’s happening while the adults alternately freak out and refuse to listen. I understand that maybe a movie geared towards kids maybe doesn’t want to show a guy tearing his own face off like in the original (rated PG!), but I don’t know why a film must coddle its audience. Of course, I can’t put myself in an 8-year old’s shoes and tell you how scary it is, but I wonder if the movie would even hold an 8-year old’s attention.
There is little new material in the plot to interest fans of the original. When I called this paint-by-numbers, I meant it. All the very same beats are struck, all very mechanically. Things have been swapped out, sure, but the feeling is gone. Instead of the stacking chairs (also ripped off by the cabinets in The Sixth Sense), we get CG stacking comic books. Instead of the magic spot that slides stuff across the kitchen floor, the kids discover their hair sticks up when touching a doorknob. The big child-eating tree is replaced with a CG monster-armed tree that can reach into the inner recesses of the house. Even the dialogue is ripped out of the old movie and placed in new characters’ mouths. Is this homage or lack of creativity? Honestly, the thing that they get right is that clown doll. Jesus, that thing and all the other smaller clowns are terrifying. In the one case where I couldn’t tell if it was CG or a physical prop, the many clown dolls populating a kid’s room are seen moving juuuust out of the light before freezing ala Toy Story. They don’t make movies that are just plain creepy anymore, but this scene worked well for me. However, since it is a remake of a superior original, what they get wrong in this version? Back in the 80s they didn’t have much in the way of CGI. They just used puppets. So while this movie makes the most out of an army of clown dolls getting closer and closer to our protagonist while he’s not looking, the original made the most out of a clown doll…just sitting there. So which is better? You can probably guess my choice, but it really is up to you and your tastes.
Let me ask another question. Why is it that paranormal researchers in movies have all these cool gadgets to find and study ghosts, and they all work, and people still treat them like crackpots? I’m not picking on Poltergeist here, but all movies from the last 20 years where these characters are portrayed as frustrated loons. In Ghostbusters, the characters became quite famous for inventing the technology to detect and trap ghosts, as you might expect. Nobel prizes would be handed out to these people. And again, in the original Poltergeist, the scientists that show up to help haven’t been through this before. They are as astounded as anyone else at what they’re seeing. And one could imagine that they go and try to tell others what has happened, but no one believes them. This modern invention of the ghost and/or monster hunter who has seen it all (twice) is a lazy screenwriting trick to provide an ending to the story. This remake also fails to rise above in this respect and introduces a reality TV star who really totally CAN communicate with the spirits. By yelling at them. Why he’s just got a reality show instead of James Randi knocking down his door, I don’t know. To be fair, the psychic played by Zelda Rubinstein in the first one also just yelled a lot at the evil spirits. But at least she showed up and appeared to learn about the situation instead of showing up fully loaded and ready to kick some poltergeist ass.
Okay, look, by now you know I vastly prefer the 1982 version of Poltergeist. And you should too. If you don’t, you’re not as good a person as you could be. I have strong opinions not just about movies, but about HOW they make movies today. I don’t generally like the polished, color-graded, gritty, sexy, violent state of movies today. I like horror movies from the Hooper/Carpenter/Craven era. Poltergeist was a victim to a cookie-cutter genre film industry. Instead of reveling in the things that made Poltergeist different and fun, they cut it down to fit in with the rest of the other horror movies today and managed to suck most of the life out of it. Aside from a few good changes, such as getting to see the “other side” through the lens of an RC drone, this is mostly a bland homage to a way better movie. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. The jump scares, while cheap, were still effective. It was, despite my feelings about Poltergeist ’82, a nice little paranormal adventure movie. A little light on the drama, but good. Perhaps I’m being too forgiving. If this is your introduction to Poltergeist, I envy you because the best is yet to come.
I give this shallow, but acceptable remake 5 headstones out of 10. The other 5 have been relocated to another cemetery. I think.