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New Release Review - POLTERGEIST

The 1982 horror classic gets the remake treatment.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gil Kenan

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino



"It's long been debated whether Poltergeist was directed by its credited director Tobe Hooper or its producer Steven Spielberg, but this pathetic and pointless remake confirms that whoever was indeed responsible was certainly working at the top of their game."



When the original Poltergeist hit cinemas back in 1982, the Hollywood landscape wasn't all that different to today. Studios were attempting to force 3D on a reluctant public and remakes were everywhere. There are two key differences however. Firstly, back then 3D was acknowledged as the gimmick it really is, and movies like Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D and Friday the 13th Part 3 exploited the format's schlocky nature by throwing the kitchen sink at the audience. Today 3D is simply slapped on as a way of increasing the ticket price, with little effort made to make use of the extra fake dimension. Secondly, the remakes of that era were driven by filmmakers, not studios. John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader remade The Thing, Scarface and Cat People because they were fans of those movies, not because studios had run out of ideas. All three managed to justify their remakes by expanding, and arguably improving upon the originals. There's little in Gil Kenan's Poltergeist that suggests he even watched the 1982 version, let alone was influenced by it.
In a concession to the current state of the US economy, the bustling suburb of the original film makes way here for a ghost estate, into which reluctantly move Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt), along with their three kids, Eric having been laid off by John Deere (a piece of publicity I'm sure the tractor makers aren't too happy about). The Bowens are none too impressed with their new abode, but it looked pretty palatial to me (come live in Europe and you'll learn about cramped abodes). Pretty soon the youngest daughter Maddie (Kennedi Clements) is talking to 'imaginary' friends, who communicate through the living room 50" flatscreen, and the boy (Kyle Catlett) is being terrorised by a clown doll and a creepy tree planted outside his window. When all hell, or rather purgatory, breaks loose one night, Maddie is abducted through her closet into another dimension. Desperate to get her back, the Bowens hire TV ghost-hunter Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris, the latest actor to butcher an Irish accent).
The movie takes great pains to remind us of the Bowens' financial situation, but it's the most unrealistic portrayal of poverty imaginable. The house is enormous and every room seems to be fitted with a big screen TV. Despite his credit cards being maxed out, Eric arrives home one evening with a brand new smartphone for his daughter and a drone for his son. Where the money came from is never explained. Both items appear simply because the narrative requires them for later set-pieces.
Poltergeist is a rare case of a modern remake that's shorter than its source. David Lindsay-Abaire's script rushes through the first two acts, either because it presumes we're familiar with the original story or he can't be bothered coming up with anything new. References to '80s horror movies abound, from the recruitment of a media celebrity (Fright Night), to a clown in the dark reveal (House on Sorority Row), to a ball with a mind of its own (The Changeling) but none of them feel organic, simply symptomatic of a movie with no original ideas. There's also a scene borrowed from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation of all things. We're never given any time to get to know the family members; they're simply slices of spam to be fed through a grinder.
One scene in particular illustrates the flaws of this remake. The original gave us that unforgettable moment when JoBeth Williams turns around to discover the kitchen chairs have somehow been arranged on top of the kitchen table. This moment works because seconds prior we were shown that the chairs were pushed under the table. Had we not been given this detail, the moment would have no impact. The remake has no such table scene; instead we get a moment when the young boy turns around to find a house of cards has been similarly mysteriously rearranged. It has no impact, simply because we never saw the unarranged cards before this reveal. And of course the reveal is accompanied here by a loud bang on the soundtrack, a crude trick the original didn't require, thanks to its masterful use of visuals.
Another flaw here is in keeping the parents in the dark about the supernatural goings on in their home. They only learn about all this when they arrive home to find their youngest daughter has vanished, yet they never appear to call the cops! Instead they jump straight into hiring a team of psychic investigators.
The filmmakers' inability to tell a story through images means we get some horribly clunky expository dialogue. The reveals concerning the estate being built on an old cemetery are cringeworthy in their crudeness, and sound more like a recounting of the original movie's plot than anything approaching a natural conversation.
It's long been debated whether Poltergeist was directed by its credited director Tobe Hooper or its producer Steven Spielberg, but this pathetic and pointless remake confirms that whoever was indeed responsible was certainly working at the top of their game.



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