This is an unnecessary remake of the 1982 horror film of the same name, and it shows that Hollywood studios are basically lacking in originality and imagination. While this remake basically adheres to the story of the original it adds little beyond some CGI special effects and modern touches. The original film was written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper (of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre notoriety) and it basically set the template and influenced other haunted house films that followed, like Insidious, The Conjuring and their ilk.
The Bowen family move into a new home in a housing development in the suburbs. Eric (Sam Rockwell) has lost his job at John Deere and is forced to basically downsize the family’s lifestyle. Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is an aspiring author and stay at home mother who is trying to make the best of the situation. Surly teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) is resentful of the move to an area that doesn’t even have a shopping mall or decent cell phone reception. Only the two youngest children seem sensitive to the eerie vibes of the house, which is situated near some overhead power lines. Middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett, from The Young And Prodigious T S Spivet) is the first to notice the strange phenomena in the house.
It turns out that the housing estate has been built on top of an ancient cemetery. The family begin to experience some unsettling paranormal activity. Maddi (newcomer Kennedi Clements) is especially sensitive to the plight of the spirits of the dead, and begins communicating with them via the television set. Maddie is eventually sucked into the eerie otherworld of the undead by a malevolent presence. The spirits haunting the Bowen’s house are not friendly ghosts, but poltergeists – mischievous and noisy and destructive spirits. The Bowens turn to a team of paranormal investigators to help them rid the house of the evil spirits.
Instead of the diminutive psychic ghostbuster played by Zelda Rubinstein, who was one of the highlights of the original, the Bowens seek help from the rather bland Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), a ghostbuster who hosts his own television show in which he exorcises demons from houses and declares them “clean.” This remake replicates the siege mentality that slowly consumes the family, and the desperate rescue mission into the dark recesses of a netherworld populated by angry and grasping spirits yearning to be set free.
Director Gil Kenan made his directorial debut with the animated Monster House, so he knows his way around the horror genre, but he followed that with the rather ordinary Young Adult adaptation of City of Ember. His direction is rather prosaic here, and the film lacks that sense of energy and vitality of the original. He tries to create a claustrophobic mood, with some success.
What was once considered scary seems now rather muted, especially for audiences who still fondly remember the original. Somehow, slamming doors, strange things that go bump in the night and scary-looking dolls that mysteriously come to life do not have the same effect as they did thirty years ago. And those famous words “They’re here” do not evoke that same sense of terror and unease. There are some slick, clever CGI effects that bring an ancient tree to life. And a scene involving a power drill is actually quite tense.
Rockwell normally is drawn towards eccentric, goofy, rebellious and sarcastic characters, but he struggles to breathe much life or energy into his rather cliched role here. DeWitt is also good as the level headed mother, but is ultimately given little to do. Catlett is great as Griffin, who becomes the hero of the piece, and he brings an intelligence and maturity beyond his years to the role.
Poltergeist has been adapted by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), so one expected more emotional substance and finely drawn characters rather than the stereotypes we get here. What we are left with is a vague sense of disappointment and an opportunity wasted.
Poltergeist is aimed firmly at today’s adolescent audience for whom the original is considered “too old”, which seems to be the main rationale behind many of these unnecessary remakes. That, and the pile of money to be had at the box office!
Director: Gil Kenan
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt and Kennedi Clements
Releasing in cinemas: 21 May 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television