Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) sulks in the back seat of the family car, her face grim as she gazes out the window. “There are power lines,” she says as the camera cuts to confirm her observation, showing towers and wires stretching into the distant horizon. “I can feel the tumors already.”
So begins the 2015 remake of Poltergeist. While Kendra’s dad, Eric (Sam Rockwell), does his best to laugh off her dread, he misses his turn, en route to the house that you know is built on top of dead people. (The new film changes out the “ancient Indian burial ground” for “old cemetery,” for reasons unexplained but not hard to guess.) When the family arrives at the house, the real estate agent reveals she’ll cut the price and so, within minutes, they’re on their way to tumors.
Or, less poetically, they’re on their way to a series of harrowing encounters with a poltergeist. The logic here is vague, as it must be. These spirits don’t constitute a “classic haunting”, according to Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), the paranormal specialist they call in once six-year-old Maddy (Kennedi Clements) is sucked into the closet, through a seemingly solid wall. Instead, they’re a remarkably cohesive conglomerate of violent spirits, determined to use the little girl, whose own young spirit is at its “purest point”, as a means to regain entry into the above-ground world.
These spirits actually seem pretty adept at manipulating that world before they capture Maddy, as a long series of scenes showing tricks reveal: they roll baseballs, slam chairs and tables, entice a tree to crash through a window to snatch Maddy’s brother Griffin (Kyle Catlett), or poke their own gooey hands up through the garage floor to seize Kendra’s ankle. All of this happens before Eric and his wife Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) notice, let alone believe, Griffin’s descriptions of events. Once they do notice, when Maddy speaks to them from inside their staticky widescreen TV, Eric convinces his wife not to call the cops because, he reasons. “There’s got to be someone who’s gonna believe us,” Amy wails. And voila, there is.
These someones include the professor Brooke and a couple of grad students, as well as the reality TV star Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), the spawn of Quint (from Jaws) and Anthony Bourdain: cocky, charming, and especially fond of telling stories about his grisly scars. He’s not Tangina, but bolstered by his TV background, Carrigan brings a welcome cynicism to the proceedings. When he hears Maddy’s predilection to communicate with spirits described as a gift, he shrugs, “I wouldn’t call it that,” almost in passing. Asked about the ghosts, he explains, “They’re more like a mob,” driven by “anger and frustration.” Eric tries his best to reject such silliness, insisting that none of it is believable. Carrigan here offers pretty much the look of comic exasperation you want to see, as he asks Eric whether everything that’s happened before his arrival is believable.
Eric concedes that their savior-to-be has a point and so agrees (tearfully, no less) to “believe” that Carrigan is “here to help.” And with that, the movie — assuming your belief or not, it hardly matters — galumphs ahead to the process of getting Maddy back. While Eric hangs on tight to her favorite stuffed animal, the experts rig the house with heat sensors, cables, infrared cameras, microphones, and noise filters, contraptions that, in the 1982 movie, posed something of a counterweight to the technologies that filled the suburban home, the TVs, the radios, the electric lights, technologies commandeered by the poltergeist. Today, as before, the poltergeist cadre seems unable to hijack the experts’ gizmos.
Such are the contradictions that make scary movies go. Everyone here has a cell phone, but the script can’t sort out how to use them, offering only a brief moment where Kendra uses her iPhone to follow a noise that takes her to the garage where that hand comes up through the floor. It’s a weak contrivance, at best, as is the decision to include Griffin’s new toy drone as a means to “get eyes on Maddy” by sending it through the closet wall that opens up when it suits the plot. This allows for gasps of horror as folks look at the dark poltergeist world, all forbidding shadows and grabby 3D skeletal hands, (another idea short on originality), until the movie forgets about it.
For all the goofiness of the first Poltergeist, it makes a sustained case for the threats posed by advancing tech. It doesn’t make that case nostalgic, as all the bad juju quite literally comes up from the not-so-buried past. Now that another 30 years of tech has advanced, the possible threats only loom larger, the nostalgia even further receded. So many chips to fry, so many screens to sabotage, so many ways for the mob to wreak havoc. But no. The new movie doesn’t even try to grapple with what’s in front of it.