‘Poltergeist’ Review: A Decent Remake Haunted By the Spirit of the Original

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20th Century Fox

Everything that goes wrong in Poltergeist stems from an act of desecration; the building of a cookie-cutter housing development on top of an old cemetery. Some might find the sheer act of attempting a remake of Poltergeist similarly disrespectful; the 1982 original is something of a masterpiece of suburban terror. But if viewers can look past the sheer audacity of attempting another Poltergeist, they’ll find a solid modernization, the cinematic equivalent of a decent cover version of a great rock song. It’s totally superfluous, and not nearly as satisfying as the original, but well-performed and effective in its own way. It’s nice (or, in this case, deeply unsettling) to revisit an old classic in a new arrangement.

The basic story beats will feel very familiar to anyone who knows the first Poltergeist by Tobe Hooper (or, depending on whether or not you believe the Hollywood legends, by writer-producer-and-possibly-uncredited-actual-director Steven Spielberg). A family of five, the Bowens, move into a new home in an unremarkable housing development. Almost immediately, they begin to notice strange occurrences. At first, they’re benign; lights flickering, balls rolling around on their own. But the weirdness escalates, and in the chaos, the family’s youngest daughter (Kennedi Clements) gets dragged into some sort of spiritual dimension. To retrieve her, the Bowens consults a group of academics from a local college (led by Jane Adams) who specialize in the paranormal. When they need backup, they bring in another expert; a flamboyant TV ghost hunter played by Jared Harris.

To use another music metaphor, 2015’s Poltergeist plays all the greatest hits fans expect from this property. There’s a spooky, static-y television, and a little girl announcing “They’re heeeeeere.” A haunted tree and a clown doll or two pop up to terrorize the heroes. But director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Adaire do make some small but crucial tweaks. Harris replaces a medium character previously played by Zelda Rubenstein, and where the first Poltergeist generally focused more on the women of the family, this one focuses more on the men. That includes a beefed up role for the family’s pre-teen son, Griffin (Kyle Catlett); many early scenes are shot from his perspective and his maturation from nervous wreck to unlikely hero is the most dramatic and satisfying character arc in the film. It also shifts this Poltergeist away from Hooper and Spielberg’s and brings it closer to Monster House, Kenan’s own animated horror movie about a young boy who summons the courage to defeat a malevolent spirit.

The father character, Eric (Sam Rockwell), is different as well. Formerly a sellout realtor, he’s now unemployed and working through some anxieties of his own; namely that he won’t be able to live up to his promise to his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) to provide for the family while she stays home and pursues her love of writing. Early scenes of the Bowens’ home lives crackle with carefully observed details about domestic unease. One particular bannister in the house is constantly charged with static electricity, shocking anyone who touches it. Obviously the poltergeist is to blame, but it’s also a nice symbol for the tension that’s pulsing through this family. Everyone’s on edge.

Rockwell is one of those actors who seems incapable of delivering a bad performance. Even in middling B-movies (like, say, a cash-in horror remake), he brings his A-game. Not surprisingly, he’s terrific as Eric. Like a less eccentric and self-parodic Christopher Walken, he always finds funny, unusual phrasings in his dialogue, and brings a quirky yet naturalistic vibe to everything he does. It’s a funny, sad, authentic performance, and he has lovely chemistry with DeWitt in their frustratingly brief scenes together. With respect to Craig T. Nelson, this is one area where this Poltergeist might outpace the old one.

Just as the Bowens’ familial conflicts really begin to churn they get shanghaied by meddling ghosts, and from there the movie mostly settles into a more conventional, less character-driven groove. With most of the major set pieces taken directly from the old film, there aren’t many surprises, but Kenan sort of uses that to his advantage; teasing out the horror as long as he can, building lots of suspense while the viewer waits for the shocks they know are inevitably coming. Some scenes are ruthlessly effective; the paranormal expert who tries to drill a hole in the closet from hell and finds himself on the receiving end of his own power tool is a real squirmer (particularly in the film’s visceral 3D).

Kenan’s Poltergeist is unnecessary, but not boring. If given the option to watch either version of this story, you’d naturally choose the original 10 times out of 10. But if you randomly stumble across this movie on cable or streaming someday, you’ll be relatively entertained (and you’ll probably get a big kick out of Sam Rockwell). There’s no doubt Kenan understands how to wring every last jolt out of an audience. It’s too bad he’s got to waste that gift remaking a movie instead of delivering something original. That’s Hollywood these days; instead of making the next Poltergeist, they just make another Poltergeist.

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