When a film foregoes the press screening circuit, only to play for a slim number of us amidst a general public promo screening just two hours before it opens its doors to the rest of the movie-going community, you enter with an expectation of a product hauntingly bad. Take Hercules for example, which screened under similar circumstances last year before landing at number five on my worst movies of the year segment. Just one month later, As Above/So Below (which was also largely critically derided) proved this model wrong by delivering an edgy horror throwback that I simply adored. Again at the Thursday night 6 o’clock showing. So going into Poltergeist, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and with low critical ratings – as of writing this, it stands at a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes and 48 on Metacritic – the writing was on the wall, thusly establishing the low expectations that allowed me to sit back and let this somewhat cruise-controlled remake take me on an enjoyable – if not great – horror thrill ride.
To its credit, Poltergeist boasts an impressive one-two punch in its cast (featuring the always wonderful Sam Rockwell and indie-cred queen Rosemarie DeWitt) and a producing credit to the cornerstone of horror shlock Mr. Sam Raimi. Raimi’s stock has fluctuated more than the price of an oil barrel over these past few years – what with him directing the god awful Oz the Great and Powerful and producing the divisive (but nonetheless gory as hell) remake of his own horror classic, The Evil Dead – but the man knows horror better than most – as evident not only by his Evil Dead entries but most notably in Drag Me to Hell, easily one of modern horror’s most underrated gems.
Though Poltergeist would have likely stood head and shoulders taller had Raimi himself been sat behind the monitor, Gil Kenan (of Monster House directorial acclaim) does an apt job as commander of scares. And like Spoon providing tribute to the Cramps’ “TV Set” in the credits song, Kenan does a fine cover of the Steven Spielberg-produced original with updated tech work and a similarly (if much more muted) eerie tone.
It’s been a minute since I last took Tobe Hooper’s 1982 Poltergeist in in its entirely (the last time I tried, I turned it off because I was getting too freaked out – a wholly uncommon occurrence for me) so you’ll have to forgive any forgetfulness on my account. Taking that into consideration, the big chess pieces are all relatively the same. A down-on-their-luck family – the Bowens – move to the ‘burbs – into a neighborhood that looks notably similar to the 80s version – where they soon discover that their new abode is also inhabited by PO’ed ghosts. Same shit, different day right?
One part of the equation really struck me the wrong way though. Perhaps the greatest ask for suspension of disbelief in a movie about ghosts abducting a girl through a closet portay is this family’s constant ragging on how run-down their new house is. Call me a country bumpkin but that casa of theirs looked half a McMansion and must have had an asking price north of $400,000. To movie scribe David Lindsay-Abaire: get your Hollywood money-treeing out of my face, I’m trying to watch a movie not here you pass judgement on us non-millionaires!
As far as trees go, the film’s signature lively tree – an alarmingly mobile willow – and a transportive tv set appear in updated form to facilitate the capture of young Madison. In the original series, Heather O’Rourke (RIP) brought a breed of tow-headed creepiness to the role that worked in tandem with the cutesy innocence she’s been asked to portray. As Madison, Kennedi Clements is adorable and quirky though not nearly creepy; just the right ingredients for a mark that we really want rescued.
DeWitt and Rockwell stir genre-defying emotion into their roles while the other Bowen children – the noxious older sister played by Saxon Sharbino and scarredy cat kid bro played by Kyle Catlett – fail to move the dial much. Jared Harris gets to have fun camping it up as supernatural professional Carrigan Burke with Jane Adams providing a sufficient though underdeveloped counterpoint as colleague/ex-wife Dr. Brooke Powell.
Though the budget for this remake is being kept under lock and key, we can assume from what we’ve seen that Kenan’s resources included a sizable chunk of change for him to invest in CG work (that largely works) and performers who attempt to elevate the material beyond the humdrum re-run it could have so easily been.
With all that out of the way, does Poltergeist reinvent the wheel? Absolutely not. Nor is there anything particularly noticeable about this remake that demands its existence. But moreso than with most of these regurgitated remakes, I see within Poltergeist the actual potential for younger audiences to join in on the fun; to acquaint themselves with an eerie story that’s compelling enough to get them to rush the horror clan. And, like the undead living beneath the Bowen house, we could always use more members.