The Hollywood remake factory strikes again. But director Gil Kenan (City of Ember, Monster House) and producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert (Evil Dead) have a particularly tough row to hoe when it comes to reimagining Poltergeist. As intense as the original is by 1982 standards, it’s one of the few straight-up horror films of the era specifically pitched at a somewhat younger audience, as opposed to adults and older teenagers. (Steven Spielberg fought hard for its PG rating, a battle that contributed to the 1984 creation of the PG-13 certification.) So it’s not just a beloved ’80s horror movie; in its own way, it’s a beloved ’80s family movie as well.
To their credit, Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire give the project their all. In the original, the Freeleng family were the archetypal affluent early-’80s suburbanites, so it makes sense recast their spiritual descendents the Bowens–father Eric (Sam Rockwell), mother Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), teenaged daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) tween Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and young Madison (Kennedi Clements)–as victims of the economic downturn. But it also makes the early going a bit too reminiscent of The Amityville Horror (a connection made plain when Madison starts talking to her brand-new imaginary friend not five minutes into the film).
That the remake lives not only in the shadow of the original, but also in the shadows of every “haunted family in trouble” film, back from Amityville to the recent Insidious and Conjuring franchises, is inevitable. But the filmmakers don’t seem to have put much work into figuring out why its predecessors became iconic, and how to make the film stand out while making the tropes work.
Trying to replicate the power of Heather O’Rourke’s delivery of “They’re here” is a fool’s errand, so I understand the choice to have Clements deliver it somewhat out-of-hand, but in this context it becomes a bit of a throwaway. But that’s nothing compared to how Kenan squanders the clown doll and the creepy tree, the two most widely-remembered “monsters” in the 1982 version. He deploys both in a single sequence so overcooked and ridiculous it’s more likely to elicit laughter than gasps or screams. Multiplying the number of clown dolls only adds to the silliness (although it does provide the film’s best line: “Who keeps a box of clowns?”). Marc Streitenfeld’s score, obtrusive at the best of times in this film, ascends to obnoxiousness.
That’s not to say the remake is entirely lacking in strengths. In terms of plot, it’s strongest when it focuses on the strain that puts on the family dynamic (although you may find yourself wondering exactly what bank would give a mortgage to an out-of-work dad and a stay-at-home mom), and excellent performances from Rockwell, DeWitt and Catlett reinforce it. Carrigan Burke, a basic-cable exorcist who takes up the role played by Zelda Rubeinstein’s eccentric medium Tangina Barrons in the original, is the most memorable element unique to the remake, thanks to a scene-stealing performance by the great Jared Harris. And the early glimpses we get of the “underworld” are remarkably horrific for a PG-13 film–of course, Kenan ruins it later by showing it up close, exposing it for the CGI construct it is, but it’s fun while it lasts.
Sadly, this new version of Poltergeist neither stands on its own two feet, nor does it come anywhere close to the standard set by our memories of the original. While it’s not a complete waste of time, it is a disappointment.