Silver Screen: Poltergeist 1/2*
It doesn’t get more perfunctory than the superfluous remake of Poltergeist, a movie that never even tries to justify its own existence as it dutifully crosses off items from the Essential Horror Movie Cliché list.
Ball rolling across the floor unprompted? Check. Creepy little kid talking to invisible presence in seemingly empty room? Check. Loud children’s toys lighting up and making noise (also unprompted)? Check. Spooky dolls? Check.
The list goes on, and so does the movie, neither to any avail.
As in the 1982 original, vengeful spirits besiege a family’s home. Unbeknownst to them, the house was built above a cemetery, and the ghosts, unhappy about the mortal gentrification, drag the family’s youngest child (Kennedi Clements) into a parallel dimension. To get her back from the ethereal realm, the kid’s parents (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) hire a paranormal expert (Jane Adams) and her TV ghost hunter ex-husband (Jared Harris).
The original Poltergeist was cowritten by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper— sort of. Producer Spielberg famously took over the production, which bears far more resemblance to Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Hooper’s classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Spielberg eased the audience into the supernatural events by presenting them first as harmless, fascinating phenomena. In one of the movie’s most famous sequences, intrigued mom Jobeth Williams delights as her kitchen chairs stack themselves into odd formations and slide around the house.
Director Gil Kenan wastes no such time in his remake. The house is a malevolent force from the opening scenes, at least in the eyes of preteen son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), who is the film’s nominal protagonist. Rather than chairs, it’s comic books that get stacked in an otherworldly arrangement, and Griffin doesn’t think it’s neat in the slightest. This unadorned, painfully unaware haunted-house trifle plays everything straight up the middle, from its canned scares to its lazy subtext. (Papa has been laid off and the folks move into the house due to financial constraints— because the haunted house is a metaphor for internal troubles within the traditional nuclear family, just in case you’ve never seen The Shining or any other haunted-house movie released in the subsequent three decades.)
The Poltergeist remake suffers in comparison to the original, but even worse, it pales next to more recent riffs on the same material. James Wan’s 2010 Insidious— also known as the haunted house movie that’s not The Conjuring— ripped off the concept of a child dragged into an ethereal realm with far more style, spawning a couple of sequels of its own, one of which is in theaters right now. The Poltergeist remake’s lone innovation is to swap out the spiritual medium who comes to investigate the house with a pair of squabbling husband-and-wife ghost hunters. That’s exactly the plot of another vastly superior James Wan movie— you guessed it!— The Conjuring.
The shame of it is, Kenan has already made a bangup haunted house movie loaded with the patented Spielbergian blend of wonder and terror, 2006’s computer-animated cartoon Monster House. There the actual house itself is a fanged, ravenous monster eager to devour anyone foolish enough to step across its threshold. Monster House is an energetic, visually innovative delight— basically everything this tepid Poltergeist retread is not.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.