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May 22, 2015

I get it; I know that 1982’s Poltergeist was one of the greatest horror films of all time, and one of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking films from the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s only natural for modern horror filmmakers to want to pay homage, and plenty of them do. Major plot constructs in contemporary horror, from the Insidious series “The Further” to the Oculus mirror’s mindbending tricks, all expand on various parts of Poltergeist‘s story.

But the point here is that they expand on them, and find new ways of using the same basic pieces. The new remake of Poltergeist, on the other hand, is merely a jumble of the “good parts” of the original that manages to be both lazy and rushed, and which wastes a perfectly good cast in the process. And in cutting out a full twenty minutes of story, the filmmakers display a shocking lack of understanding about what made these good parts good: the strength of the underlying story.

By the way, I’m going to freely discuss these plot points here, because there’s pretty much nothing new about them since the original Poltergeist, three full decades ago. And if somehow you haven’t seen that one yet you have something far more important to do than to keep reading a review of this cheap knock-off.

The first hurdle to bringing Poltergeist into the present day is the iconic scene where Carol Anne interacts with the “TV people”. No television station even goes off the air overnight anymore, and even if one did a missing signal doesn’t show up as static. But, the filmmakers said, screw it; put in static anyway and explain it off as just another way these entities mess with electrical gizmos. There is almost no thought given to how to actually adapt the story to a new time. “If it was good enough for Spielberg in 1982,” they seem to say, “it’s good enough for us now.”

But what’s not good enough for director Gil Kenan and writer David Lindsay-Abaire is the actual work of storytelling that actually made Spielberg’s movies great while they dazzled us with their revolutionary visual delights. So we don’t have time for a slow, careful build-up. Instead, as soon as the Bowens — Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), with teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), nervous son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and adorable young Madison (Kennedi Clements) — move into the house the scares start in earnest.

Everybody remembers the clowns, so of course there are clowns. But now there’s a cache of clown dolls Griffin discovers in a crawl space adjoining his attic room. Speaking of which, if you’ve got a kid who’s still scared of the dark, why do you put him in the most isolated bedroom in the house, rather than the teenager who would probably prefer the idea of a sanctuary where she can escape her oh-so-lame parents? Obviously because we have to set up the creepy tree — which looks all but dead even as the realtor praises its age in the opening scene — coming in to grab the kid through the skylight, which is going to be So Much Cooler You Guys than just breaking through a regular window.

And if the development isn’t new, and the house had at least one previous owner, why didn’t the entities manifest before? Sure, the last guy might not have had a young moppet to entice them, but none of the neighbors did either? And the realtor makes a big deal about how he had run speakers and wires for anything electronic through all the walls, but that never really pays off in terms of something the entities can play havoc with. It may have been tied into the running — well, limping — theme that it’s all these electronic gadgets that really tore apart the family, making them vulnerable in the first place, but anything to support that connection has been gutted from the script. And again: if the gadgets are really the problem, why didn’t they cause the same problems for the last guy?

Even the core revelation of the story is left unchanged, and then allowed to go off like a damp squib. There is no build-up and revelation here; the parapsychologist (Jane Adams) just guesses the truth of the old cemetery as an offhand remark. And now that the family’s dad is just some schmuck who got bitten by the recession instead of a star salesman working for the same real-estate company that built the development, the resonance of this truth is wasted. Steven Freeling was paying the price for the sins of his company; Eric Bowen just got sold a bum deal. And while I’m sure there’s a horror film to be made that builds on the psychic scars of the recent housing crash and its effects on everyday families, this ain’t it.

The only new element is a trip through the charnel-house other space where Madison is trapped, under the direction of a haunted-house reality-show star (Jared Harris). And even this is only new as compared with the original Poltergeist; it’s a clear rip-off from Insidious, but with almost none of the careful thought that went into The Further.

Once you’re past all the horrible structural deficiencies in this shockingly unimaginative adaptation, the execution is about as good as you could hope for. Rockwell, DeWitt, Adams, and Harris are all great actors, but despite their best efforts there’s just not enough for them to work with here. The special effects look good but, as Spielberg’s best pal from back in the ’80s said, a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing. And this remake of Poltergeist is just that: a pretty boring thing, existing more as a cheap attempt to cash in on the original’s greatness while failing to understand anything about what made it great.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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