1982’s Poltergeist is one of those movies that scared the hell out of you when you’re a kid. Maybe you’ve watched it a bunch of times since then, maybe you only have lingering memories of being traumatized by that little blond girl saying, “They’re heeerrree.” Regardless of your feelings, it’s the latest on chopping block to get the remake treatment, and as is so often the case in these situations, the first question that springs to mind is, why? And in this case, that’s an especially necessary question to ask.
Director Gil Kenan’s update isn’t terrible, but it brings absolutely nothing new to the table in any way, and in every sense you have to wonder why this needed to happen. The easy answer is that it didn’t. It’s basically just a rehash of the Tobe Hooper-directed, Steven Spielberg-written (there’s a whole lore/urban legend to the production regarding who directed what that we’re not going to get into here). At best, this is a paint-by-numbers supernatural horror movie, with all the genre tropes present and accounted for. You’ve got an old house, spooky trees, random noises in the night, flickering lights, a weird little girl, and just about every other cliché that you can name.
The movie-perfect Bowen family—wacky dad Eric (Sam Rockwell), hot mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), bitchy teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), little wiener Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and the youngest, Maddy (Kennedi Clements), who is weird and has imaginary friends (or are they really imaginary?)—is having a rough time. Eric was recently laid off and they have to move to a foreclosed house in a rundown subdivision under some power lines. Creepy things start happening right out of the gate—including, but not limited to, a demonic squirrel and a box of clowns hidden in the wall. Before long it comes out that the whole neighborhood was built on a cemetery, and Maddy is abducted by an angry crew of pissed off poltergeists.
That’s the plot of the original, and the new renovation never strays from the source. It hits all of the story beats, but provides none of the scares. Rockwell is the highlight of the early going, and though he’s not actually doing anything other than his usual, hyperactive shtick, he’s still fun and charming and does his best to breathe a bit of life into a rote, bland script. It’s not enough to carry the whole shebang, and while he does give it a valiant effort, there’s only so much he can do.
Most of the middle of Poltergeist follows the exact path you expect, and any pace that was established gets mired down in scenes where the Bowens turn to a team of collegiate paranormal examiners—because why would you call the cops when your daughter disappears—and the entire situation and set up is explained every step of the way in great detail. There’s not a lot, or any, subtlety to be found in this picture.
Admittedly, Poltergeist does pick up a head of steam in the third act when Jared Harris shows up playing Carrigan Burke, a cantankerous reality TV ghost hunter. Here, some of the humor that previously rested on Rockwell’s shoulders before it evaporated, comes back as he banters with the family, shares war stories and battle scars from his various supernatural encounters, and generally chews the scenery in a delightful way. Harris, more than anyone else in the cast, knows exactly what movie he’s in, and he’s having a damn fine time.
This is also where shit starts to get a little weird. Not enough to make Poltergeist stand apart as its own unique thing, or rescue the film, but it’s at least moderately watchable as it starts to come off the rails in an entertaining way. It feels like at some point, everyone involved realized they were making a dog of a film, decided the hell with it, and threw their hands in the air. That’s when Poltergeist is at its best, when it veers into campiness—there are some great unintentional laughs, as well as some sinister, H.R. Giger-looking special effects—but it never fully transcends the bland genre trappings that pen in at almost every turn. The kids get their chance to be the heroes, which is nice for a change, but that’s not enough to save the day for the film. If only they’d realized sooner.
Poltergeist isn’t one of those remakes that pisses on the corpse of the original, but it doesn’t do much with the framework either. Even judged in a vacuum, Gil Kenan’s movie is never anything more than a middle-of-the-road ghost story, and even that is being generous. Poltergeist isn’t awful, but it isn’t memorable in any way either, and simply drives home the primary lesson of the original: never build your house on a damn cemetery. [Grade: C-]