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Entries in Poltergeist [2015] (1)


Poltergeist (2015)

Hooked on a Freeling

Last week, I wrote that Mad Max: Fury Road had ruined me for summer movies this year. The same goes for remakes, too, and the exhilarating experience of watching George Miller reinvent himself in real time made getting through Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist update exponentially more painful. Not that I’d expected much (revisiting horror classics rarely pays off), but I hoped the director of Monster House and the writer of Rabbit Hole (David Lindsay-Abaire) would at least make my ninety minutes worthwhile. Alas, their movie is a lot like its eponymous ghosts—an aimless, ham-fisted phantom who inhabits two disparate worlds, while belonging to neither.

The first world is that of Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic, Poltergeist. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg to create a supernatural commentary on suburban malaise that also worked as a harrowing family drama. The resulting film gave a whole generation nightmares and pushed ratings-system boundaries.* Hooper and company used the ultra-relatable Freeling family to plunge audiences into a weird and wily world of possessed clowns, corpse-filled swimming pools, and nether-realm portals that ran horizontally into a little girl’s closet and ended vertically above the family room.

The second world is actually a planet-sized sausage factory in which original ideas go in and safe, market-tested product rolls out—polluting the surrounding universe in a cosmic cloud of diminishing standards. Between The Conjuring, the Conjuring spin-off, Annabelle, Insidious, Insidious 2, the forthcoming Insidious 3, and the twenty other off-brand haunted-house/haunted-child/haunted-bauble flicks of the last five years, pop culture is awash in movies that ultimately only want one thing (besides money): to be as scary as a 33-year-old movie. 

It would take a damned genius to wade into these waters and not be overwhelmed by expectations. Sadly, it feels like Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire were forced to shoehorn fan-favorite Poltergeist touchstones into a movie that would have been better off as a drama about unemployment and the dangers of power lines.**

Let’s back up. In this reality, the Freelings have been swapped for the Bowens. Eric (Sam Rockwell) is a recently laid-off John Deere executive. His wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a frustrated writer. Using what must either be a gargantuan severance package or awesome royalties, the jobless Bowens move their three kids into a large house in suburban Illinois. Snotty teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) won’t get off her phone; middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) suffers PTSD from having been lost in a mall three years earlier; youngest Maddy (Kennedi Clements) talks to ghosts and gets trapped in one of her struggling family’s massive flat-screen TVs.

Eric and Amy seek help from a local university’s Paranormal Research Department and, eventually, from a ghost-hunting reality-show star (Jared Harris, providing some much-needed charm, but still cowering in Zelda Rubinstein’s shadow; the iconic actress’s signature line from the original has literally been reduced to a hashtag: “#thishouseisclean”). Besides new ghost-chasing gadgets and an unoriginal yet mildly tense scene involving a drill, Poltergeist 2.0 is little more than a truck-stop-spinner Greatest Hits collection—with a few key tweaks reminiscent of Spielberg’s ghastly E.T. edits from a few years ago, that serve as a reminder of how stale our allegedly progressive culture has become. Instead of Mom and Dad smoking pot after getting the kids to bed, Eric and Amy drink booze; the face-ripping scene now consists of a bloody-eyed reflection in a faucet, made possible by Walking Dead-quality CGI. And as if one evil toy clown isn’t creepy enough—how’s about a box of ‘em?! 

It’s a shame, too, because Rockwell and DeWitt (and, to some extent, the actors who play their kids) are great in these roles. When Amy, frustrated that Eric blew their remaining credit on silly gifts, yells at Griffin for whining about the strange things happening in their house, the film slips briefly into authenticity. The hurt feelings, the underlying tension of greater problems—tempers come to a recognizable head that, say, a malicious spirit might feed off of.*** Think of the emotional depths Lindsay-Abaire and Kenan could have plumbed by incorporating (or even acknowledging) Spielberg’s original idea of “The Beast” into their story. Instead, the filmmakers veer right back into nickel-Xerox scares with tattered tangents standing in for complete thoughts.

Sure, some audience members will jump in their seats (the teenage girls in my screening did, sadly), but die hard Poltergeist fans are more likely to throw their drinks at the screen when the “Hooper High School” bumper sticker shows up. Both Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire are old enough to have been raised on and traumatized by Hooper’s film, but their re-telling is less loving tribute than hasty, demographic-chasing product rollout. 

I can’t recommend this film as a legit horror-movie experience. The 1982 Poltergeist still fits that bill (looking past some dated special effects). I can recommend it as a lesson in how not even brand-recognition, star power, and high-priced digital artistry can save a film that lacks identity. Poltergeist 2015 is lousy with spirits, and its spirit is lousy.

*Ah, the 1980s: when the only thing kids needed in order to see a guy claw his own face off was a little “parental guidance”.

**Seriously, there are a lot of ominous shots of power lines and trees in this movie.

***Hell, this isn’t even the best movie our leads have appeared in together this year: check out Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire in August to see what two tremendous actors can do with a thinking-person’s script.