A marvelous horror movie, 1982’s Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg Poltergeist is a terrific entertainment, and one of my favorites of its kind. It’s a sustained piece of slowly mounting haunted house tension, with warm family dynamics and small creepy details eventually erupting in a spectacular crescendo of special effects-driven freak outs. A quintessential portrait of early-80’s suburbia wrapped up in skillful metaphor about expanding without regard for unintended consequences (or evil sprits) unchecked sprawl might kick up, it’s one of those films that has a time capsule quality, but has enough evergreen genre elements to make it timeless. When it came time to remake Poltergeist, building an entirely new film on the bones of the old was out of the question. Most of Gil Kenan’s remake is a bland updating, content to riff on the original’s most famous moments, finding new and slightly worse ways of doing everything.
The result is a contemporary Poltergeist of high competence, but little interest. It only works because its inspiration is still a good movie, and following it closely is a good way to make an effective little horror picture. This one plays like a passable tween-friendly summer diversion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can almost imagine heading home for s’mores and giggles around the campfire afterwards. Kenan’s film is brighter and lighter, with 3D and CGI taking the place of practical effects, and rounder edges on the frights. It runs nearly 30 minutes shorter, adds an awfully conventional arc for a young boy from coward to hero, and by and large keeps threats and moments of wit in a lower key. It’s both a little more and a lot less than what you’d expect. Unfortunately a bunch of clown dolls isn’t significantly creepier than one. Grown-ups sneaking a sip of liquor isn’t as interesting as sharing a joint. Nor is ditching a realtor as funny as pushing a TV for a concluding punchline.
But there’s entertainment value here, and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (of Rabbit Hole) does some smart updating. Now the neighborhood isn’t new. It’s hollowed out with foreclosures. The family moves into the house because of layoffs constraining their finances. There’s a recessionary sadness hanging over the opening. How were they to know their house was built on a cemetery? Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt play the parents, in a likable pair of performances. Their kids, sullen teen (Saxon Sharbino), nervous boy (Kyle Catlett), and little girl (Kennedi Clements), are the first to discover the haunting in their house, like electric disruptions and strangely menacing trees and clown dolls. Then the threat becomes very real when the youngest daughter is snatched by malevolent spirits and held hostage in their ghostly realm.
Who they gonna call? A paranormal researcher (Jane Adams) and a TV host (Jared Harris), of course. It all builds to flashes of nightmare hallucinations, a portal to the spiritual plane opening up in a closet (and looking a lot like Insidious on the other side), and a suburban home barfing up its supernatural secrets. It’s predictable button pushing, with fluid camerawork tracing digital intrusions through an eerily normal house pulsing with malevolent creepiness. Never particularly scary, it at least isn’t a desecration. It’s just barely enjoyable enough, I suppose. Kenan manages a brisk trot through some shivery concepts, efficiently deploying fine effects while finding a good deal of charm in the actors. The kids are sufficiently freaked out, and the adults get some dry one-liners to cut the tension. It’s not a bad time at the movies, with some moderate chills over before you know it.
As a fine example of what it is, I suppose you can shake off the déjà vu and find comfort in familiar rhythms. But why settle for a competent, but lesser, vision unless you absolutely have to? It’s hard not to wish the exact same cast and crew had been put to use on a wholly original movie. Not only has this been done better before, but Kenan’s even done a better family-friendly 80’s horror throwback before, his 2006 animated debut feature Monster House, a fast, funny, creepy good time. (Rent it and the original Poltergeist and have yourself a good double feature.) Here’s hoping this big budget remake allows the filmmakers opportunity to do more interesting original work in the future.