Poltergeist movie review: they’re here (remakes, that is)

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Poltergeist red light

If you have any inclination to see this, just rewatch the original. You will lose nothing, and you’ll have a far better time.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt

I’m “biast” (con): big fan of the 1982 original

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I don’t understand why this movie exists. There’s no reason for it. I mean, I get the business reason why someone decided it was a good idea to cash in on a nearly 35-year-old movie that many critics (including me) and fans consider one of the greatest horror movies ever made. But no one on the supposed creative side of this “new” Poltergeist could be bothered to even pretend to have something to add, something fresh to say that wasn’t said back in 1982 about the trials of a suburban American family whose house is menaced by nasty spirits. If you have any inclination to see this Poltergeist, just rent the original. (Or pull out the DVD — you probably already own it.) You will lose nothing, and you’ll have a far better time.

I wondered, as I was waiting for the lights to go down on my screening, just what screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful, Rise of the Guardians) and director Gil Kenan were going to do to update the original film’s use of television static as a medium for communicating with The Other Side. The first film did such a fantastic job of turning such an ordinary thing (as it was back in the olden days) into something deeply creepy. But with the advent of cable and now digital, TVs don’t do static today. What would replace this now?

Turns out, nothing. The new Poltergeist just pretends that flatscreen digital TVs (and also cell phones and iPads and other modern electronic devices) receive and display static. This isn’t only technically anachronistic, it’s a narrative cheat. (Once again: Why remake this movie if there’s nothing to add to it?) There are initial suggestions as the film opens that perhaps the idea that the maybe-danger of living too close to powerlines was going to be a factor in this haunting, and indeed there is a bit of electrical weirdness in the house the Bowen family have just moved in to (you get a shock of static electricity when you touch the wooden bannister on the staircase). But that is a decoy. And the way this mysterious modern static is used isn’t in the slightest bit eerie, partly because, you know, no one will ever see static on their smartphone. If you were a kid in the 80s after the original film gave us all the heebie-jeebies, I know you stood in front of the TV one night in the dark living room after all the channels signed off (yeah, that used to be a thing, too), touched the screen (and maybe got a little shock), and whispered, “They’re here…” and gave yourself a little scare. You won’t be able to do that with this movie.

This Poltergeist’s biggest “innovation”? A box of clown dolls. I guess it figures that if one clown doll is scary, a box of ’em must be even scarier. Not so much, as it happens. (Was the original film the first to use a scary clown doll? I think it might be.)

The story is almost so much the same that, again, just watch the old film. Cute little Carol Anne– er, that is, Madison (Kennedi Clements) gets lured into another dimension by restless dead people, and Mom (Rosemarie DeWitt: Kill the Messenger, Men, Women & Children) and Dad (Sam Rockwell: Laggies, The Way, Way Back) bring in expert paranormal help to get her back, including Jared Harris (The Boxtrolls, The Quiet Ones) as a reality-TV exorcist, and while Harris may have his charms, he is no Zelda Rubinstein (the weird and awesome medium from the first film). The most upsetting thing for me about 2015’s Poltergeist is Rockwell’s presence. He’s a fantastic actor, and as usual, he’s flip and funny and then also profoundly moving: he has one moment here in which he turns a simple, clichéd “We just want our daughter back” into something heartbreaking. It’s nowhere near enough to make the movie worth your time, even for Rockwell fans, but if you want scary, consider this: How is it possible that this was the best script an actor of his talent has been offered lately? (Ditto for the amazing DeWitt, though we already know how bad Hollywood is for women… and don’t even get me started on how this remake diminishes her character versus the original film.) This Poltergeist is a depressing example of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy not only on a large scale but on small ones, too.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Poltergeist for its representation of girls and women.

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Eric Hoheisel
Eric Hoheisel
Fri, May 22, 2015 12:54pm

I found the new POLTERGEIST very underwhelming too. One of the worst narrative changes was shifting the central hero from the mother character to the son. The actor playing the son was good but his whole character arc was so forced and silly that it just didn’t hold together.

The cgi effects also offer a big fail in comparison to the great practical effects from the original, the corpses look like they escaped from the game that opens the movie.

Vince Kramer
Vince Kramer
Fri, May 22, 2015 12:57pm

Totally agree with this review. Well said.

Mon, May 25, 2015 9:16pm

“But with the advent of cable and now digital, TVs don’t do static today.”

Actually, they do if you turn the TV off Channel 3 (where the cable signal comes in) My mom does that all the time, though I have yet to see anything supernatural creeping around the house. ;)

Mon, May 25, 2015 9:20pm

“But no one on the supposed creative side of this “new” Poltergeist
could be bothered to even pretend to have something to add, something
fresh to say that wasn’t said back in 1982 about the trials of a
suburban American family whose house is menaced by nasty spirits.”

Funny–the FRIGHT NIGHT remake had pretty much the same problem, even though it also tried to make a ‘burb haunted by foreclosures/unemployment creepy enough for the undead to check in. I wonder if that’s because too many successful movie makers really can’t grok being economically void–and as a result, they can’t show the fusion of that and the supernatural it spawns.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  deering24
Tue, May 26, 2015 2:05pm

The new Fright Night was both funny and scary, though, at least.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, May 27, 2015 6:29pm

Farrell and Tennant were terrific here, and this had some solid moments. But plot-wise it was fatal to make Charley a nerd-turned-popular kid–really killed the rooting interest.

Wed, May 27, 2015 10:29am

I’m not convinced there’s even much of a business reason. Have DVD sales of the original been, well, even noticeable lately? Have people been saying “hey, that film was great, why don’t they make them like that any more”? Even among people who care about old film, I hear a lot of talk about The Exorcist or Amityville or even Jaws, but Poltergeist not so much.

I’m sure one could do something interesting with digital video artefacting in the role of static…

(When people read Neuromancer now, and its famous opening line “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”, they think “oh, it was deep blue”.)

reply to  RogerBW
Wed, May 27, 2015 12:04pm

Neil Gaiman updated the Gibson line in his book Neverwhere, back in the late 1990s: “The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel.”

There’s a theory that audiences recognize titles even when they know nothing else about the movie. Studios sometimes try to capitalize on that brand recognition, because it’s safer than releasing an entirely new movie. There was an attempt to reboot Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with no involvement from the people behind the TV show, because younger audiences were familiar with the name. The project seems to have crashed and burned, so it may not be a very good theory.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Wed, May 27, 2015 2:09pm

Horror movies are cheap to make and cater to an undemanding audience. This one will earn back its production budget in North America alone after its second weekend.