"Isn't it like, you know, very uncool to move all those bodies and..."
"Well, it's not like it was an ancient tribal burial ground."
-- Dinner party conversation in Poltergeist
When the 2015 remake of the horror classic Poltergeist was released in theaters, people seemed to have one general reaction. A remake? Why? Has Hollywood run out of new ideas?
Well, it seems a little odd to call a movie from 1982 a “classic”, but in the realm of horror movies, 33 years ago may as well be 100 years ago. Especially considering that the original Poltergeist, unique among horror movies for its scientific-sounding terminology and almost plausible plot, directly or at least partially inspired a slew of future horror hits. Without it, there would be no The Ring, The Conjuring, Insidious, or any of their indirect knock-offs that fill the slots of DVD rental machines and haunt movie-based TV channels.
Advertised as “an electrifying take on a spine-chilling classic”, this new version of Poltergeist is credited as being based on Steven Spielberg's original 1982 screenplay, but really, the general plot has been “contemporized” enough to argue that the Poltergeist name was just slapped on to add interest. Names are changed, characters are added, various 21st century techno-gadgets abound, and various events unfold differently, to the point that one would be better off viewing this movie as just another “family terrorized by a haunted house” knock-off. Like most movie knock-offs, it occasionally suffers from bad acting, weird dialogue, and large plot holes, but it makes up for these mistakes with some unexpected thrills and stylish design.
The story opens with some creepy-good visuals, which were most likely inserted into the film to give potential 3D viewers something to look at, then focuses on the Bowen family, who are forced to downsize after their father/husband, Eric (Sam Rockwell) lost his job. Unfortunately, much of the first 20 minutes revolve around the family's adjustment to their supposedly new economic circumstances. Their new house is supposedly too small, yet it looks huge in the outside shots. The wife/mom, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), has only two modes: reassuring or concerned. Their spoiled teenage daughter, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) complains that a new cellphone “isn't a luxury, but a necessity”, and her character never really goes any further than that. Their youngest daughter, Madison,(Kennedi Clements), is precocious and slightly annoying. In short, they're cookie-cutter characters that don't require much acting.
But there's one good role/actor in the family, and that's the son, Griffin (Kyle Catlett), who suffers from a bad case of middle-child syndrome. Assigned to live in the attic with a spooky old tree that taps against the window, he's the only one who notices Madison's ongoing conversations with her suspiciously locked closet, and finds a dumbwaiter filled with old toys (and a ticked-off squirrel) in the attic. Without giving away too much of the movie's plot, I can safely say that he becomes the hero of the story.
This Poltergeist, thankfully, spends less time playing around with the idea of strange goings-on in the house than the original film did. Within ten minutes of Madison's “they're here” encounter with the TV set, the horrific moments come hard and fast. Children are tossed around like CGI rag dolls, inanimate objects (including the creepy clown doll featured on the cover) come to life, decayed arms reach out from nowhere, and in the film's best trick, the world's worst tree terrorizes Griffin. A lesser movie would waste time by letting the parents doubt all that has happened, but after hearing Madison's voice emanate from the TV set, her mother has the good sense to seek out the parapsychology professor who taught at her alma mater.
Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) is the Tangina of this remake, which is apparent from her slightly awkward demeanor and large spectacles. She doesn't have quite the same charm as Zelda Rubinstein had in the role, but the actress does the best with what she's been given.
She brings in some students to document the case, but with the exception of Boyd the skeptic's (Nicholas Braun) encounter with a drill-wielding spirit, they are all literally just there to hold stuff. In an effort to cleanse the house and save Madison, Powell brings in renowned expert and reality TV star Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), whose colorful personality is an unexpected bright spot in the movie. Without spoiling the ending, or the actual ending and the bonus end scene included after the credits, the family battles against the lost souls, saves Madison from the (literal) clutches of death, and sets out for a new home with a less interesting history behind it.
Now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and 3D Blu-Ray, Poltergeist's special features consist of the usual still photo gallery and trailers, plus an extended cut of the movie and an alternate ending. These extras sound a lot of more interesting than they actually are. For example, the extended unrated cut of the movie only consists of about eight minutes of footage, in which the family notices more weird things around the house and Madison discusses “the lost people” with her mother. The alternate ending, which runs less than five minutes, is barely different from the original, but sets up a potential sequel. It's worth noting, however, that the disc's menu navigation and design are among the best I've ever seen.
Poltergeist 2015 doesn't hold a candle to the original, but it's still worth watching for a good scare or two.