Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

Well, another beloved horror film has been strip-mined in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. 

The new edition of Poltergeist (2015) is a sad, uninspired shadow of its cherished source material, a work of art lacking totally the visual lyricism of the Tobe Hooper film. 

Even more importantly, this remake lacks the original’s sense of spirituality and very humanity. 

Instead, the 2015 film is a 90 minute cash grab and little else.

I should preface my remarks, however, with a note.  We live in an age of remakes, and so -- lest I go insane -- I do not rail mindlessly against them. 

On the contrary, I take remakes on a case-by-case basis, so that the good ones -- and there are some -- doesn’t get tossed away with the bad. So I was open to a new Poltergeist, as I have been open to other remakes.

My criteria for the new Poltergeist are as follows:

One: Does the remake speak to issues of today in the way that the 1982 film expressed the Zeitgeist of its age? 

In other words, is the spirit and sub-text of the original carried forward into the remake?

Importantly, I don’t expect this new Poltergeist to be about the Reagan Age like the original was. No, I expect it instead, to reflect the Obama Age. Its mission,  therefore, is to show and tell us something about the world we live in now.

Two: does the remake derive creative inspiration from the original and find something new to say about the central ideas and characters, (a haunted house, and a suburban family)?  

I was seeking here, perhaps, to see a half-enunciated idea from the 1982 film developed and expanded upon, revealing to us another or fresh angle of the narrative and its individuals.

Finally -- and perhaps most fundamentally -- is the remake at least as scary a film as the original? 

In a way, this last bench-mark -- fear -- is related to the other two.  If this Poltergeist doesn’t speak trenchantly to 2015, it can’t really be scary.  If it doesn’t give us new shades of the familiar story, it won’t be scary either.

Sadly, the new Poltergeist fails all three tests rather egregiously. 

The down-on-its luck Bowen family, teetering on the edge of financial disaster, purchases a foreclosure in a near-abandoned neighborhood. 

Eric (Sam Rockwell) is out of a job, and Amy (Rosemary De Witt) is a stay-at-home writer who spends more time looking after the children than actually writing.

They are parents to Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), a sassy teen, perpetually-scared Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and gifted, open Maddy (Kennedi Clemons)

Before long, Maddy has detected the presence of spirits in the house. These spirits -- who communicate through the television -- quickly develop a profound interest in her. 

One night, when Eric and Amy are away at a dinner party, the spirits punch their way into our world, attacking Griffin and Kendra, and stealing Maddy away to the spectral plane.

With the help of a parapsychologist, Dr. Powell (Jane Adams), and later a reality-TV show medium, Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), the Bowens seek to retrieve their daughter from The Other Side.

As I "read" and understand the original Poltergeist, it establishes two key thematic ideas and develops and explores them thoroughly.  

The first is that television is a negative influence on children, and a portal of evil.  It is located in the house (often at the hearth), and therefore brings evil right into the heart of the family.

The second conceit involves the larger national economy. A family called “the Freelings” learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  If things seem to be too good to be true, they probably are.

Because of the corruption and lack of oversight in the economy of the 1980s, Mr. Freeling’s avaricious boss is free to commit a horribly immoral (but profitable!) act: moving the headstones at a local cemetery, without moving the bodies underneath them.  

This idea of irresponsible laissez-faire economics creating blow-back is punctuated in the film by a composition in which Steve Freeling is seen reading a copy of a Ronald Reagan Biography: Reagan: The Man, The President.

This remake actually begins quite promisingly, with tips of the hat towards both themes, only with a 2015 twist.

For example, the film opens with a close-up of the pixels on an I-Pad.  

As the camera pulls-back, the pixels form into the imagery of a horror video game and a zombie.  In short order, we also see that the new American family -- the Bowens --  has moved into a house near electrical towers.  

The family also learns that the former owner was a “techno-phile” and that he wired the entire house for universal wi-fi access.  I-Pads, I-Phones and flat screen TVs now take the place of the original’s portal of evil. 

The idea here could be that with the development of wi-fi and personal devices, the evil of the TV is now spread to every corner of the house, not just the living room, or the upstairs TV. 

Now evil can access you and your children anywhere and at anytime.  

On the second front, the new Poltergeist positions the Bowen family as struggling in an economic sense.  

The family moves into a foreclosure in the years after the 2008 Recession. Mom and Dad both are unemployed, and money is tight.  When we are doing poorly in terms of money, we sometimes cut corners, we sometimes make bad choices...and then have to live with those choices. We put off health care expenses. We accumulate credit card debt.  We delay a visit from the plumber, or an electrician.

Again there's ample material here to build a sub-textual case about the economy, and attempt to tie it in with the spectral outbreak.

Indeed, the first twenty minutes or so of Poltergeist are impressive -- the film's best -- because one can detect the filmmakers laying the thematic ground-work for some case about our world today, and how our technology and a weak economy are creating “evil spirits” to menace us. 

There’s a scene here, for instance, in which Mr. Bowen goes to the mall and comes back with an arm-ful of new (expensive) gadgets for the family, living the lie that the family can afford it, and “deserves” a treat.  

But after this scene (which follows one in which Eric learns, embarrassingly, that two family credit cards are over the limit…), absolutely nothing comes of the economy sub-text, or -- crushingly -- the technological one either.

The ideas are dropped without a look back, so that the movie can slavishly recycle the details of the original film instead of charting new territory. 

A malevolent tree grabs the boy on a stormy night. The little girl gets sucked into the closet.  Paranormal investigators come in and quantify the spirits as poltergeists; ones angry about the head-stone incident. Then an eccentric medium is called in to clean the house. The girl is rescued after an instance of bi-location, and then the spirits strike one more time.

It sounds familiar, but there is no sub-text here, no Zeitgeist moments that make us relate to or understand the characters better. There is no philosophical meaning to any of this action. Automatically, then, this remake is a lesser film than the original.  It doesn't operate successfully on multiple layers of meaning.

Let’s move on to the second criteria I enumerated above.  Does anything new happen to develop the ideas of the original?  

Well, we get the recycled family, the recycled house, the recycled medium (now a man), and the recycled paranormal investigators.  Nothing to new to see there.

So what does this movie add the mythos or franchise?

A toy drone that is flown into the other world, so that you can see “the Other Side” in 3-D with your own eyes.  

The original movie didn’t follow Mrs. Freeling’s journey to the spectral realm, but the remake does. The Other Side here doesn’t resemble an astral plane at all, oddly, but rather an organic one, where rotting corpses are piled upon each other, stretching out and trying to grab any one they can get.

The film’s one legitimate inspiration is that the Robbie/Griffin character has been given increased importance and depth. In many ways, this film is really his story.  We learn early on that his mother lost him in a mall three years ago, and so now he is afraid of literally, everything. The film is his journey towards courage, towards being “the super boy” his Mom wants him to be. 

Kyle Catlett gives the best performance in the film, too. Whatever good qualities this Poltergeist possesses owe mostly to his efforts.

Lastly -- and it must be said -- this version of Poltergeist just ain’t scary.

I suspect this sad result has much do with the slap-dash direction and pacing. By contrast, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist builds and builds, accelerating constantly. The last act is something akin to kinetic madness, but importantly, the original film starts out  small, with only omens of disorder, with things being…off.  The storm clouds must gather before it can rain.

In the original, the ghost attacks don’t start immediately There’s a period of time during which the Freelings learn of the spirits, and exhibit curiosity about them.  The mayhem only begins later. 

But here, there is absolutely no build-up, no character-development at all. Instead, the movie just picks from “They’re Here” to the tree attack.  And then the clown attack is moved from the finale to the middle of the film, a grave miscalculation that short-circuits suspense and tension.

Another comparison: the original Poltergeist is 114 minutes long. The new one is 93 minutes in duration. That’s an important distinction and one that bears mentioning. Twenty long minutes of plot/theme/character development are just...lopped off.  

So make no mistake: this is the slap-jack, cliff-notes version of the story, one with no time or patience for mood, nuance, under-score or character-building. All the stuff that makes the original Poltergeist something special -- like the funeral for Carol Ann’s bird, or Dr. Lesh’s explanation of death -- is omitted here. Presumably so the theater can pack in an extra showing a day.

As a consequence of this choice to simplify the story, the Bowen family feels a lot more generic and less real than did the Freelings.  And since we don’t care or sympathize with this family to the same high degree, the new film actually takes half-a-dozen toy clowns to achieve not even fifty-percent of the scares accomplished by one toy clown in the original.

Seriously, it takes a whole clown collection to make a jump scare here work, as opposed to the original film’s build-up to that under-the-bed terror.  

In fact, the presence of the clowns make no sense here.  A whole car's worth of clowns is discovered in a crawl-space outside Griffin's room.  Eric quips that people "collect" weird things, and that's the only explanation we get.

That's true, Eric.  

But if you go to the trouble to collect weird things -- like all these old fashioned clowns (some made of very expensive porcelain, apparently) -- you likely aren't going to leave them behind when you move.  

Especially if you have money problems. You'll either take them with you, or sell them on E-Bay in a bid for quick cash. The Great Recession Economy is also the E-Bay Economy.  Sometimes E-Bay or Craigslist money are all that gets people through the gaps between pay checks these days.

But this remake HAS to have clowns in it, right?  At the very least so you can plaster one on the poster...

Listen, I can understand remaking Poltergeist.  I can.  

The two ideas of the original film, as I’ve laid out here, involve the integration of technology into our home, and the way that families respond to shifts in economic policies. Those are ideas with huge relevance and importance today, in 2015.

But this Poltergeist is lobotomized, and doesn't know how to turn those ideas into meaningful themes.  And it it doesn't even know what it's about, how can the director make form reflect content?

Oddly, the remake doesn’t even seem to have the resources behind it that the original did.  Here, for example, the house doesn’t fold up on itself in the finale.  

And here, only one corpse bursts up out of the yard, instead of the virtual mob we get in the original, in the pool, in the house and in the yard.  

Here, we don’t get the visual manifestations of the ghosts/demons, either, or the wall-climbing scene.   
Spectacle-wise -- the one area you expect a horror film made in 2015 to improve on the 1982 original -- this film is a total downgrade. It's cut rate not just in terms of ideas, but in terms of special effects too.

The denouement of this Poltergeist is also a debacle.  Remember how the Freelings went to a motel and kicked their TV to the curb, pushing out the portal of evil?  

Here, the Bowens do the same thing…but with a new house.

And it makes no sense.  You can live without a TV in your house.  But if you won’t buy a new house, where the hell are you going to live? 

Out of your car? Gimme a break.

On top of all these deficits, the new Poltergeist looks just like Insidious, The Conjuring or a dozen other modern horror movies. There’s no appeal or value to the film's visual canvass, and no sense of the camera as an active player in the drama. There’s just no classicism, no lyricism, and no poetry in this film’s color schemes or compositions. It could have been made for TV, for all its use of film grammar.

One example: remember how the original Poltergeist connected visually the static blue of the TV screen with the blue “strobe” of the Other World, thereby drawing a visual connection to theme of “portals of evil?”  

Again, I don’t hate remakes as a rule. 

I don't.

But boy do I hate this one. This new Poltergeist doesn't know what scares you, and worse, doesn't know how to scare you.


  1. james8:15 AM

    There are posters for this on the side of buses locally reading "It knows what scares you", which made me think "Is it terrible remakes?".

  2. John extremely interesting review and warning. A horror film not knowing how to scare you is a big problem, yikes!


  3. To reflect the original film, in the current post 2008 Recession Eric Bowen should have been reading The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by then-Senator Barack Obama. It would have been a nice moment because that is what the Bowen family are trying to still do.


  4. Our reviews are extremely similar, we found the same faults. It's just less intense, and to think that the original was PG! haha hahahah aha! Well, PG-13 didn't exist yet so some PG's were stronger than others, but still....this one should have been the horror spectacle that the original was, or maybe more. Modern horror films are afraid to be scary, and that's just sad.

  5. Thank you for confirming what I suspected. Wild horses could not drag to see this insipid bastardization of a classic (and one of my all time favorite films).

  6. John, I've now just given up on horror remakes....period. I've yet to see a successful horror remake since JC's 'The Thing'. 'Evil Dead' was passable, barely. There is not the requisite skill in the directors of today to successfully remake a great horror film.

  7. I really wondered why they went forward with this remake. "Insideous" pretty much was a remake of "Poltergeist" already. That film pretty much took the wind out of this film's sails in my opinion. But as you said, there was potential to do something interesting with a modern take on the same story. It sounds like this may have been edited to death, or worse - never even fleshed out during the writing process to begin with.

  8. This was a good remake and i have seen many.