Sunday, October 2, 2016

31 Days of Horror: Poltergeist (2015)

Directed by Gil Kenan.

2015. Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.
Sam Rockwell
Rosemarie DeWitt
Jared Harris
Kennedi Clements
Saxon Sharbino
Kyle Catlett
Jane Adams
Nicholas Braun
Susan Heyward

The Bowen family is searching for a new home. They settle on this particular house mostly because it sucks the least out of all the ones they've checked out. Soon after they move in, things start going bump in the night due to some ghosts who were residing in the home before the Bowens got there. Eric (Rockwell) and Amy (DeWitt), our mom and dad are fairly oblivious to this, at first, but come around when things become too obvious to ignore. Oldest daughter Kendra (Sharbino) whines about her cell phone not working. Son Griffin (Catlett) already had frayed nerves before any of this started because the sight of his own shadow is a traumatizing ordeal for him. Finally, youngest daughter Madison (Clements), who is six, acts like she's three, and winds up inside the flat screen TV in the living room. Some local ghostbusters are called and they decide bring in Carrigan Burke (Harris), a dude who has made a living dispatching supernatural presences on his "reality" show. Yes, this is a remake of the 1982 film of the same name.

Tonally, the new Poltergeist works hard to inspire a sense of dread that's tense, but not too overwhelming for kids. This doesn't quite work because it misses that narrow groove and winds up in no man's land. It's a bit too dark to be the fun for all ages movie it would like to be, yet too light to generate real frights for even most tweens. The whole thing is rather tepid until late in the proceedings when the visuals sends things into overdrive. Before we even get to the finale, the visual aspect of this film is where it excels. The fx of the original Poltergeist were Academy Award nominated, however, they're severely dated when viewed through the prism of present day movie making. Much of it looks like cheap animation. This newer version looks good. Things on the screen appear to actually be the things they represent and doing the things they're purported to be doing. It helps keep us in the movie as opposed to being yanked out of it because we notice how bad it looks.

As a youngster, Mama Dell often told me that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. It's a lesson the makers of this Poltergeist need to learn. Yes, the visuals good, but they show us too much. When there is an attempted rescue of Madison we go inside the dimension where she is trapped. This robs that portion of the film of any suspense and lessens the frights. During the parallel scenes in the original the viewer is kept in this dimension. We're never shown what actually happens on the other side. We can only imagine what horrors are taking place. What Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg realized is they could never show us anything that would rise to the level of whatever we conjured in our own minds. The ghosts cooked up by director Gil Kenan and his team look creepy, howl and growl, but appear fairly harmless like performers in a haunted house attraction at a carnival. Sure, they jump out at you, but they're not really going to do anything.

Giving away too much is a problem with the overall narrative, as well. Everything that happens, or is going to happen, is explained as if we weren't actually watching the movie. Having one character or another periodically explain what we just saw kills the film's momentum dead in its tracks. Constantly spoon-feeding your audience like toddlers shows an almost incomprehensible lack of faith in them. It plays into the notion that everyone has ADHD, nowadays, and further cripples visuals by not making them work for anything. Without having to be actively involved it's easy to tune out, especially when we know someone is coming along shortly to get us up to speed.

The characters suffer from either being too bland or too extreme. Our parents take the bland side. They lack personality and would be impossible to tell apart, if not for the difference in gender. Our little damsel in distress, Madison, suffers the same fate. She gets little screen time, and does nothing with it. Literally, her only real job is to deliver the iconic "They're here" line. The way she does it is bereft of any emotion or emphasis. It's like she's announcing the arrival of her bad cousins who bully her rather than the fantastic supernatural "friends" she's made. Madison's two siblings fall on the extreme side. In the opening paragraph I mentioned that Griffin is afraid of his own shadow. It might even be worse than that. He's one of those kids who might literally crap his pants if you said "boo" to him. It's an obvious set up for his character arc to be dominant within the film. The story of his sister's capture is really all about his own journey out of cowardice. Older sister Kendra has clearly decided the universe revolves around her. I get that teenagers are more prone than the rest of us to be arrogant, self-centered pricks, but this chick is ridiculous. I'm really not convinced she cares that her sister's life is in imminent danger. If there is one character I wish were pulled into another dimension and left there, she is it. To be honest, though, I have a sneaking suspicion the spirits on the other side would send her back long before there is a need to call anyone for help. Speaking of help, Jared Harris is also on the extreme side. He's more used car salesman than paranormal expert and it gets to be grating rather quickly. It doesn't help that he has a potential love story shoe-horned in as one of the other ghostbusters is his ex-wife. Sigh.

While the framework of this movie is the same as its predecessor, the guts of it are not. Its storytelling is of a more rudimentary nature, but it's more elaborate from a visual standpoint. The two tactics combine to push the new Poltergeist into pretty, but dull territory. It's excessive hand holding of the audience means we never get to join the film. Since we never join it, we don't care how it turns out like we do when we sink our teeth into a well-prepared entree. We just consume a pre-packaged and heavily processed meal that looks tantalizing, but lacks any nutritional value.


  1. I have no interest in the remake. Even though it's been a long time since I've seen the original, there is no way the remake can be scarier or as inventive as the original.