NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The 1982 Poltergeist wasn’t exactly the world’s most original film – Steven Spielberg basically threw together a bunch of elements from 1970s made-for-TV ghost stories (The House That Wouldn’t Die, Something Evil, This House Possessed, etc) and handed them over to Tobe Hooper to ramp up into a fun, effects-heavy spook ride. Like most things devised by Spielberg, it’s a collection of bits and pieces he likes – Nigel Kneale’s short story ‘Minuke’, the Twilight Zone episode ‘Little Lost Girl’ – blended with unashamed hokeyness. If it had a high concept it was that a bland new suburban house could be haunted, if it were built on a graveyard. Despite a couple of dud sequels, it remains a name-brand horror property – there was even a remote TV spin-off, Poltergeist: The Legacy – and so it inevitably gets a remake for the Insidious generation from Sam Raimi’s Ghost House shingle.
It uses pretty much the same plot as the 1982 film, but the social context is different. The house isn’t new any more, and even has a spooky attic bedroom with a hidden cupboard full of evil clown dolls (as someone says in Altergeist, ‘who makes these things?’) that makes it more like the traditional haunted houses Poltergeist was trying to get away from. This isn’t Spielberg’s happy, shiny suburbia of cheerfully squabbling brats, beery barbeques and consumerism but a post-recession wasteland depopulated by foreclosures. Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) is a laid-off exec maxed out on his credit cards and his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is supposed to be a writer but never even writes an email, as she has to cope with sulky phone-addicted teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), very timid Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and piggycorn-clutching moppet Madison (Kennedi Clements). They move in, spooky shit happens, Madison gets sucked into the flatscreen limbo, a new generation of parapsychs – professor Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and TV ghost-finder Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) – show up to help, and things play out as expected, all the way to a climactic ghostquake.
In 1982, Poltergeist was a big release; the remake is a hurried quickie which doesn’t hit the scare beats. It’s forced to compete with the better-evolved descendants of its model – the clown dolls aren’t as scary as Annabelle in The Conjuring and Griffin’s night terrors are feeble echoes of The Babadook. The bathroom mirror hallucination is reworked with a glib sceptic (Nicholas Braun), a hole in the wall and a power-drill in a sequence modelled on a couple of Lucio Fulci set-pieces. Rockwell plays full-blast desperation, which ought to give the horror a new social context – but the family’s money woes are just there to give them something to talk about and resent before the haunting kicks in and then get forgotten rather than turning the screws as they’re financially tethered to their hell house. Adams and Harris act as if they were in a sit-com about formerly-married colleagues on the ghost-hunting trail. Only big-eyed, tiny Clements (from Jingle All the Way 2 – there was a Jingle All the Way 2!) really seems to believe in the project – and she’s too young to know what a remake is.
The story is still strong and the cast are uniformly better than their material, so it’s not an endurance test like some botched do-overs, but it is a bottom-of-the-midlist spooker on the level of Ouija, Annabelle and the like. It opens with a bogus-looking CGI zombie that turns out to be from a kid’s phone game, but the rotting creatures found in limbo – where the potential to do interesting things with 3D is wasted – are almost as crappy-looking and generic. Like the remakes of (among others) Fright Night, When a Stranger Calls, Prom Night, The Evil Dead and The Fog, this isn’t so much a relaunch of a franchise for a new generation as a footnote which will fizzle and self-destruct in the memory within a few months. Scripted by David Linday-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful, Inkheart). Director Gil Kenan made the animated Monster House (2006) and the underperforming City of Ember (2008) and has no credits since … suggesting this was a get-back-in-the-game gig for him rather than a passion project.