Though the calendar dawn of summer is still a month away, the 2015 summer movie season is already in full swing. So far, it’s off to a pretty strong start: whether you’re looking for a new tentpole release from Marvel, the thunderous return of a long-dormant franchise, or some brainy sci-fi, the multiplex has got you covered. All the same, it’ll take a number of other surprises and successes before 2015’s blockbuster season earns the same hallowed reputation as 1982’s “Summer of Spielberg.” E.T., Star Trek II, and Rocky III all landed within a two-week span of one another, making for a summer slate so crowded that even the year’s 8th highest-grossing film, Poltergeist, could seem like an afterthought.
More likely to end up as an actual historical footnote is Friday’s remake of the Tobe Hooper-directed, Steven Spielberg-produced/actually directed haunted house picture. A best-case scenario means that director Gil Kenan’s update will merely be ignored in the shadow of Ultron and Max Rockatansky, rather than branded with infamy by fans of the 1982 original. Like most remakes of classic spookfests, the new Poltergeist is a copy-paste rehash of the source material, just filtered through the humdrum mechanisms of contemporary fright flicks. But it speaks to the material’s lasting appeal that the playful spirit of the original Poltergeist still lingers in this new version.
Swapping the California hills for a suspiciously Canadian-looking cul-de-sac in Anysuburb, USA, Poltergeist 2015’s setup is largely identical to ‘82’s. Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are parents of three kids: bratty Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), milksop Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and “gifted” Madison (Kennedi Clements). The family is introduced trading down in housing after Eric is laid off from his high-paying job. Their new property includes one seriously twisted tree, one child’s bedroom with ample closet space, and several dozen restless neighbours occupying a cemetery beneath the foundation.
The more noticeable star power is one of the few modernizations that doesn’t spoil a proven formula. The economic uncertainty of the Bowens is a more generic timestamp for the film than the original’s sample of hippies-turned-homebodies, but DeWitt and Rockwell are effortlessly sympathetic and funny as the struggling but upbeat heads of the house. Early on, a mild but charming middle class dramedy seems like it’s going to burst out before any skeletal remains do.
But trouble comes with the scare-itory, and it doesn’t take long before flickering fixtures start to threaten both the Bowens, and a new generation of audience members at risk for epileptic fits. That’s kind of the problem: at 93 minutes, the new Poltergeist’s leaner, meaner approach cuts out most of the breathing room that the ’82 film reserved for having fun with its supernatural weirdness. A couple deep-cut references aside, the new film is focused mainly on getting to its own version of iconic scenes from the original as soon as possible. The quickened pace not only kills any opportunity for quirky downtime as memorable as an otherworldly setpiece, but makes getting through each of those setpieces feel like a checklist.
In spite of, or just as often because of modern horror filmmaking techniques, Kenan’s attempts at replicating Hooper and Spielberg almost always pale by comparison. Where once was a single and singularly terrifying clown doll, there are now a half-dozen interchangeable ones; a tornado in a little girl’s tea party that held your attention for minutes in 1982 is just setup for a bad jump scare in 2015. Worse is when attempts to directly one-up the original are made, such as a CGI tour through the spirit world that looks far too much like the fake video game the film opens with.
The upgrade in casting does pay further dividends later on, when Jared Harris’ reality TV exorcist is brought in to rescue an ethereally-abducted Madison. Again though, the oddities of the role Harris is meant to be filling have been mostly sanded off, but given even a moment’s release in tension, Poltergeist proves itself much defter as a paranormal character comedy than it does a proper ghost story.
You’d hope improved technology and a seemingly decent budget would permit Kenan to shoot in less than 80% close-ups, or fill the house with detail worth properly lighting, but like the Bowen abode, Poltergeist may have been cursed from the get-go. It’s a shame: the cast is game, and Kenan does pull off a stunner or two. While a devilish bit with a power drill seems like it belongs in another movie entirely, an image like the light in Madison’s lamp pulling itself out of the bulb, then floating off like a tiny star, is pure magic. Spielberg’s Poltergeist blended horror, humor, and awe so spectacularly that the film’s competing tones seemed symbiotic. They’re still here in the new Poltergeist, but modern trappings bury much of the fun under a cheaply constructed haunted house ride.
The new Poltergeist doesn't desecrate the familiar skeleton of the original, but it doesn't do a whole lot with it either.