Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist, while rarely a fixture at the top end of Best Horror lists, has earned itself a rightful position as a classic of its era, thanks in no small part to the considerable influence of Steven Spielberg. Thought of by many as a Spielberg film in all but name, Hooper’s film slotted perfectly into the Amblin man’s affable brand of blockbuster adventure, appearing the same year as the mighty E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Spielberg took an exec-producer credit and the movie still feels as though it whirls in orbit around his incredibly successful body of work at the time. But to whom does Gil Kenan’s remake offer such warm-hearted, cosy fidelity?
The answer is a little confused and so too is the movie, which spends half its time attempting to rekindle that feeling of old, and the other half feeling like an ADHD remix of the many, many haunted house rip-offs that have busied multiplexes in recent years. From Dark Skies (the ghoulies here look peculiarly extra-terrestrial) to The Conjuring (creepy dolls, untrustworthy furniture). Sticking with James Wan for the moment, his Insidious for example is plenty indebted to Hooper’s Poltergeist. Yet now we’re presented with a remake that feels like it’s trading on both the original and its countless variations, while never latching onto any more coherent modern cinematic touchstone, except perhaps the whizz-bang pointlessness of J.J. Abrahms.
In fact if anything, the modern equivalent of Speilberg’s influence is the hollow artificiality of 3D cinema (you can watch Kenan’s film in 3D if you wish; I didn’t). 2015’s Poltergeist obviously plays to the strengths of 3D at times, but it also serves to underline the continuing weaknesses that come with the medium; emotion and intelligence having been exchanged for more surface-level depth of focus. In short it’s an overstuffed trick-bag that forgets that you’re supposed to care.
Meet the Bowen family. They’re moving into a spacious new house in what is supposedly a bad neighbourhood (yet looks like idyllic suburban America). They apparently have no neighbours whatsoever. The film doesn’t acknowledge this weird phenomenon. But you’d imagine if anyone was living nearby they’d at least remark on the near-constant batshit events occurring just down the street.
Despite having had no job for who knows how long, father Eric (a game Sam Rockwell) has managed to buy the house and is happy to splash out on gifts for his loving, also-jobless wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their trio of lovely but poorly named children. The youngest, Madison (Kennedi Clements) clearly got off lightest in this regard, but she’s too busy getting sucked into the wardrobe by malevolent spirits. Poltergeists, in fact, who like nothing more than making creepy clown toys appear to the constant despair of middle-child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) for no reason whatsoever. It’s enough to make the oldest, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), put down her pink iPhone long enough to roll her eyes.
As events escalate a number of dutiful nods to Hooper’s original cascade in front of the viewer, bamboozled into view by the film’s compressed running time. So the creepy tree is given a jolt of CG Viagra and the classic line “They’re heeeee-re” is tossed off with an almost meta level of weariness. Crazily stacking furniture gets reinvented as inexplicably balanced comic books, and a dinner party that might as well be themed Exposition For Grown-Ups sets in place the old they-never-moved-the-cemetery routine. All you need now is a crazy medium to waltz in and set things right again.
Enter Jared Harris sporting an Irish(?) accent that in itself seems paranormal. One suspects Harris simply hadn’t had enough lamentable experience in the naff corners of mainstream horror after last year’s excruciatingly shit The Quiet Ones, and felt the need to go one better. To his and everyone else’s credit, he has. Kenan’s Poltergeist is nowhere near as awful as The Quiet Ones. But it’s still comfortably far removed from good, as nagging questions, plot holes and hammy lines of dialogue pile up like so many creepy toys queueing for space in the astral plains of Madison’s wardrobe.
The problem here is that any attempt at atmosphere or character development is sacrificed in favour of a cacophony of jump scares and otherworldly encounters. This time around instead of Steven Spielberg we have Sam Raimi taking an exec producer credit, and his questionable ethos of More Is More makes this Poltergeist retread feel like the frantic act of throwing everything at the screen and assuming some of it will stick. Individual elements occasionally work, but the ratios are all out of whack. No one ‘boo’ moment is given enough time to develop. It has the same nullifying effect as the first season of American Horror Story; too much crazy too much of the time. It cancels itself out.
So while Poltergeist fails monumentally as an exercise in creeps, it pretty much gets a pass as a 90 minute slice of utter nonsense. It is kind of fun, once you adjust your expectations from “I’m about to get scared” to “This is going to be really silly”. Quite whether that’s what anyone’s handing over their cash for, however, is another matter entirely. Suddenly Sam Rockwell’s enjoyably goofish routine (rolled out here just a notch above coasting) makes sense. There’s no way you can take this movie seriously, not in this life anyway.
Toward the end one character struggles to get through a door when there’s an SUV-sized hole in the wall right next to them. It’s an apt picture of brainlessness that sums up the film at large. Approach Kenan’s movie with this in mind and you might have a passable time. Or hold out and see if Insidious Chapter 3 fairs any better. Or fuck everything and put Hooper’s movie on again.