After years in development hell, Poltergeist proves to be more pointless than frightening.
The image of a small girl with hands pressed against the white static of an over-sized television screen is one burned into the memory of all classic horror fans. Poltergeist (1982) was an iconic film that brought the disturbing nature of horror directly into the living room of the middle-class suburban home.
For this reboot of the definitive film, director Gil Kenan (Monster House), with the help of master of horror and producer Sam Raimi, attempts to bring this bloodless horror into the modern era. After putting the film on hold in 2010, it looked like the film would never escape development hell until MGM joined forces with 20th Century Fox to finance the picture.
The biggest challenge for Kenan though, is not in comparison to the original film but in comparison to other recent ghost films – in what has become an oversaturated market (Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and The Conjuring, to name a few). The elements that made the original a frightening and memorable tale have become the staple clichés of the genre: a spooky child, a house built on secrets and a malevolent presence. And while the original film may have popularized them, these elements are the very things this reboot must challenge.
The story finds a financially struggling couple, Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt), who have moved their family of five to a new suburban development that proves to have dangerous secrets below the manicured lawns and white picket fences. When paranormal forces threaten their family and their youngest daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements) is taken, they must look beyond the physical realm to get her back. To do so they enlist the help of paranormal expert Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and ghost hunter-turned-reality star Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris).
Rockwell revels in his role as the goofy but loveable father, while DeWitt holds steady as the emotional core of the film. Adams brings a sense of authority to her meek doctor and Harris does well to fill the dramatically large shoes of the original film’s Zelda Rubinstein. The standout performance however, is Kyle Catlett’s neurotic and anxious middle child Griffin, who carries a lot of the film singlehandedly. His fear is consistently believable and brings some much needed level-headedness to the disturbing events that occur around him.
The original film made a point to highlight middle-class America’s consumerism, while Kenan’s reboot updates this to the ever increasing reliance on technology. All electrical goods become a source of horror as spirits take over, which makes for some novel frights, although it never quite feels like it reaches the creative potential of the concept.
Like most modern horror films, Poltergeist relies heavily on jump scares to produce most of its frights. While the majority are quality scares, and there are also some genuinely well-constructed moments of tension, it’s a shame the film relies so heavily on them. It would have greatly benefitted from upping the tension a bit more and relying less on using jolt scares and annoyingly loud bursts of audio to do so. The stretch between the beginnings of the haunting and the climax is fairly bare of good scares, and could have also used some beefing up. In saying that, the most interesting scare, involving a power drill, smartly leaves most of the impact to the imagination of the audience.
One of the more annoying tropes plaguing ghost films, which has only worsened in recent years, is the need to have at least one main character remain skeptical in order to keep the plot going. It’s something to dread, because it’s a lazy way of keeping characters in a haunted house when there’s no other reason for them to stay, working only to make characters look stupid (“What’s that? A floating table? Stop being silly and eat your dinner!”). But here, once the Bowens start experiencing the paranormal activity, no time is wasted in any attempt to rationalize the madness. Everyone’s on board and it’s refreshing that they all believably accept the paranormal events that they are witnessing.
It’s strange then, that the rest of the film pays no consideration as to how these events would play out in the real world. When Madison crosses to the other side, there’s no apparent emotional breakdown from the family or even what appears to be great shock that ghosts even exist. They seemingly hold it together pretty well, especially seeing that they just lost their youngest child to the wrong side of a flat screen TV. If the rest of the film had taken place over a few hours then it could be forgiven, but with what seems like the passing of days by film’s end, it leaves the viewer with questions; why they are still keeping the other kids in the house? What has the family been up to this whole time? Did they all go to bed like normal each night? Did they have their normal Friday night meatloaf? Did they catch yesterday’s re-run of Ellen? Hell, Griffin even decides that this is the perfect time to take his new drone toy for a test spin (obviously setting it up as something that will be important later).
To make matters worse, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire continues to give his characters zingy one liners once Madi’s taken, which at best seem inappropriate given the context. Dealing with the loss of a child at the hands of supernatural forces hardly seems the time for characters to churn out witty jokes. Unfortunately, it’s Rockwell’s hip-father and Sharbino’s angsty-older sister that are the worst offenders, leaving you wondering whether anyone is taking this seriously at all.
The most disappointing part of all of this is that the family’s reaction and processing of events are what would have set it apart from its predecessor. It seems implausible that the family would have been even able to spend a moment longer in the house without fearing for their safety. And yet they do and for the second half of the film no characters seem in any immediate danger by being in the house. Nor do they give it a second thought.
While Lindsay-Abaire injects some new life into the first half of the film, the later half copies almost beat-for-beat the plot of the original. At this point, for those that have seen the original, the film plays out as expected and there is little fun to be had. The climax is brief and rather unsatisfying, and the portrayal of the other side suggests little use of the imagination.
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe employs some beautiful tracking shots throughout that work to immerse the viewer in the house. The space becomes alive as we glide in and out of furniture and architecture. The 3D though, while at times used well, doesn’t add much to the overall film and wouldn’t be missed. Overall, the updates and reimaginings don’t prove substantial enough to warrant this reboot, which feels wholly unnecessary. Still, the film proves to be an entertaining watch and worth the hour and a half running time, more so if you are unfamiliar with the original it is based on.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10