Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), Steven Spielberg (story)
Directed by: Gil Kenan
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
When fans greet each new remake announcement with skepticism and question the point, it’s not exactly rhetorical. While it’s implicitly understood that these resurrections are monetarily driven, it’s not too much to hope that the creative forces have found some other compelling reason to dig up these corpses and transplant them into the 21st century. With Poltergeist, you’re left wondering if producer Sam Raimi and company aren’t too far removed from the Cuesta Verde real estate agency, as they’ve effectively moved the surface level headstones without bothering to bring the souls along. The result is a purgatorial update with shiny new suburbs that never shake the skeletons and ghosts buried there three decades earlier.
It’s hard to quell anything without a voice of your own: from the outset, Poltergeist ruthlessly commits to running through the beats of the original with only some minor cosmetic changes. In this version, the Freelings are traded in for the Bowens, a nuclear family that’s seen better days: patriarch Eric’s (Sam Rockwell) recent job loss has forced a move to a new neighborhood, where his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) can grow even more discontent as she struggles to balance domestic duties with writing aspirations. All three children are pretty upset about the move, especially middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett), who already struggles with a chronic fear of, well, everything. His suspicions about this house—and the supernatural forces residing within—are quickly confirmed when an entity pulls his sister Maddie (Kennedi Clements) into a netherworld dimension.
The latest karaoke remake, Poltergeist breezes through its expected paces by trimming nearly 30 minutes off the run time. Depending on how you look at it, this is either crippling or merciful: perhaps sensing that their film had so little to say, everyone involved hurriedly recited their lines before shoving their stuff into a car and getting right out of dodge. It’s sort of a shame, really: even if it’s just a sing-along, this Poltergeist has some pretty exceptional performers who aren’t given much time and space to make it their own. The lived-in quality of the original film is especially glossed over in favor of hitting the iconic stuff, none of which resonates because it’s practically happening to strangers.
These moments you know because they were made iconic thirty years ago, and they’ve only been dutifully recreated here with minimal effort (read: the spooky tree and the clowns—of which there are now many because that’s fucking extreme—are CGI). When Maddie half-heartedly delivers the famous “it’s here” line, it’s an apt reflection of just how limp these proceedings are, even when they’re shoving once jump scare after another into your face. The original might not have been the most subtle film, but it was at least patient in its build-up to its bonkers finale: this one is so breathless that its attempt to recreate the corpse-laden climax of the original (with, you guessed it, a CGI skeleton) feels like a complete afterthought. About the only thing that passes as an actual update in the new technology—if the latest Carrie was DePalma with iPhones, this is Hooper with flat screens.*
Granted, the story does diverge ever so slightly towards the climax, yet nearly every decision to separate itself is either telegraphed (Griffin’s troubled personality allows him to play a big role in rescuing Maddie) or severely ill-advised (of course we see “The Other Side” here, something the original wisely left to the imagination). Jared Harris’s attempt to fill Zelda Rubinstein’s shoes is a bright spot, one that valiantly sees him embracing the inherent campiness of a TV ghost hunting personality. There’s no topping the sheer out-of-left-field weirdness of Rubinstein strolling in unannounced to steal the show (predictably, Harris’s character hosts the oldest daughter’s favorite TV show), but Harris’s delightful irascibility enlivens the proceedings ever so slightly—in some ways, he’s a better Peter Vincent than the one we got in the Fright Night remake, at least.
While it has difficulty outpacing a rote script, the rest of the cast is similarly lively. Rockwell especially departs from his predecessor by finding the insecurity lurking beneath his typically cool façade: he might present a sarcastic, smarmy exterior in public, but his private moments are marked by desperation. Through him, the film almost discovers a reason to update the original: where Hooper’s film dug up the corpses of 60s and 70s turmoil during Reagan’s Morning in America, this one is set in the shadow of the recession. Having lost his job, Eric Bowen wants nothing more than to provide for his family, so he rashly splurges on luxuries even as stores deny his various credit cards. His decision to buy a lawn drone seems to hint at the War on Terror and speaks to a stark reality: life is much different than it was 33 years ago, our ideals of suburban America twisted in the three decades hence.
Why, then, is this Poltergeist so unwilling to engage that? Retracing the original film’s steps is anathema to the point: on its surface, Poltergeist is about disquieted ghosts terrorizing a family, but its blending of Hooper’s macabre sensibilities and Spielberg’s nostalgic Americana transforms it into a brilliant allegory for the unrested spirits of Vietnam, now paved over by suburbs crawling with counterculture troopers turned into Yuppies. If the 80s were an age of excess, they were also one of denial, so when those corpses spring forth from the Freeling lawn, they’re a symbolic reminder of what’s been buried and suppressed.
When the same thing happens to the Bowens, it’s not symbolic of anything; rather, it’s the latest peek-a-boo scare in the latest remake that’s unwilling to explore beyond its familiar title. Poltergeist only reminds us that we don’t repress our ghosts anymore—instead, we let them roll off of an assembly line into suburban multiplexes without giving much thought about the implications.
*Insert obligatory Hooper/Spielberg joke here, but just know that no one will ever accuse Sam Raimi of ghost-directing this latest outing.
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