I can’t stand it when critics spend their entire review on a film comparing it to its predecessor. After all, a film should be measured on its own merits, not why it is or isn’t better than a film made thirty-five years before. However, that’s exactly what I’m going to do with the unnecessary remake of Poltergeist, a classic horror film that, like the majority of films from the eighties, should have just been left alone. And the reason I’m going to do so is because with all of the advancements in special and visual effects over the last thirty years, what should have been a major improvement fails to live up to the archaic, but gritty, practical effects utilized back in 1982.
The 2015 version of the film follows the same basic premise as the original: a young girl gets sucked into her closet by a poltergeist and can only communicate with her family through a television set while being urged to help the vengeful spirits cross-over into the light. One of the most aggravating changes made to the film is the swifter pace, which highlights a major issue in most contemporary horror films. Tobe Hooper used a very slow-burn method of film making to allow us to become engrossed in the normalcy of the world that is about to get flipped on its head, allowing the scares to slowly grow throughout the movie and give the viewer the opportunity to experience everything at the exact same time as the family experiences it. Cut to 2015, where horror is more jump-scare than psychological, and director Gil Kenan doesn’t waste time making it clear that every part of this house is supposed to be scary, and is far from clean (in that spiritually-possessed way).
The majority of the film is centered on Griffin Bowen (Kyle Catlett), the middle child who senses danger around every corner of the family’s new house. With a flurry of typical music cues that end up leading to nothing and weird noises in a scary attic (is there any other kind?), subtlety is thrown out with the rabbit ears, right down to the door handle that makes the hair on the kids’s heads rise and the stick that youngest daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements) continually pushes into the ground only to joyously laugh as it rises back up each time. Kenan seems to believe that the spirits have to be responsible for everything in the house, whereas Hooper grounded the film far better by showing that sometimes an unnatural event is something simple and mundane, having nothing to do with evil spirits. Back in 1982, the channels changing on a television was explained away, hinting that everything we see may not necessarily be supernatural and that this could very well happen to your family. But that connection is severed because now everything is so heightened, it’s obvious we’re just watching another scary movie.
The issue I had with this change in pace is only amplified by the weakness in the visual effects. Which isn’t to say they are poorly done; the effects themselves are on par with most films made today. However, how they are used tends to mitigate what made the original film so frightening. Adding hand prints to the television as Caroline… er, Madison spouts a variation on the character’s famous line, is a perfect addition; giving the tree that swipes Griffin from his bedroom a computer-generated hand (and stretching the limbs out to navigate the house), not so much. Using that type of CGI only distances you from the believability of the event, which on its face is far from believable. But in the original, because of the way it was filmed, it makes you wonder if that scary tree outside your own bedroom window may just one day do the same thing. Here, it’s simply a diversion — I wasn’t fooled into seeing anything but a computerized image. This phenomenon happens a lot in this film, including a quick (and ultimately unnecessary) homage to the scene in the original when the mother is “attacked” in her unfinished pool by skeletons. Kenan does something similar toward the end of the the updated version, but with the skeleton merely a CGI monster in a moment of less than a few seconds, it’s just not scary.
And I’m all for paying homage to the parent film, especially when it’s done well. In one scene, Eric and Amy Bowen (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt, respectively) are at a dinner party with friends, who mention that the housing development the Bowen’s just moved into was built on an old cemetery plot. It’s not only a fun nod to the original, but it puts the idea out there that the original could very well fit into the timeline of this movie. But then we’re subjected to the reiteration of the scene in which Griffin is attacked by a toy clown. When I first saw the trailer for the film, my first thought was if the filmmakers got the clown right, then the film might be good; if they didn’t, the movie wasn’t going to be good. Lo and behold, I was not impressed with the clown in the trailer and that reaction totally bled through for the entirety of that scene, which happens much earlier in the new version, depriving us of the build-up that made the original attack so creepy (and once again, having the actual toy attacking the kid is far scarier than a CGI image doing the same thing).
But I would be remiss if I didn’t take a step back and view the film on its own two feet. If there’s one aspect that raises the grade of this film, it’s the decision to cast Sam Rockwell as the father. Rockwell does everything he can to help the script and his character step out of Craig T. Nelson’s shadow and deliver a performance that kills. Rockwell’s depth of emotion is so well done, as is his very unique and natural fatherly attributes, not once did I believe he wasn’t the father of the three kids that basically rule this movie. Without him, the movie more than likely would have faltered even further than it does. The scene in which the poltergeist locks the eldest daughter, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), in the basement to keep her from protecting Madison is one of the better updates, as is her infinity for Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris, who has seemingly locked in the spiritual guru role in horror movies), the man who does his best to upstage the much creepier Zelda Rubinstein. It was also really interesting to actually get to go into the other side and see what Madison was dealing with. This sequence is probably one of the scarier moments, however, still a bit subdued compared to the majority of things that happen in the original, slow-burn version.
Which begs the question why this film was even rated PG-13. From what I saw, the film is far more muted than the original, which was rated PG — of course, that was back when the PG-13 rating didn’t exist. But that’s my point, really. The entire experience was so watered down by “updated” visual effects and a faster pace, it stripped the film of any true rawness and kept the characters from ever fully connecting with what was going on around them or finding a place among the haunted house of yore.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include San Andreas and Aloha. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.