In the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg directed 1982 horror classic, “Poltergeist,” there’s a memorably horrifying scene that takes place in a kitchen. A supporting character’s late night snack becomes an opportunity for some angry spirits to assault the victim through a vivid hallucination. We watch a man under the impression that his food is covered with maggots and that his face is melting off his skull. Even today, the scene is graphic and far stronger than the PG rating would indicate. This sequence is briefly recreated in the 2015 remake, though it goes by so fast and is so comparably tame, it feels like a tossed off moment. Whereas the first, superior telling of this story lived up the tag line that it “knows what scares you,” the remake wants to creep you out, then send you home smiling.
Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt play Eric and Amy Bowen, whose family moves into a new home angers some hostile ghosts. It’s been skillfully made by Gil Kenan, who makes his live action directorial debut. The establishing scenes didn’t remind me of Spielberg or Hooper but David Fincher. We get floating tracking shots that inch through the tiniest of cracks, precise overhead views of the neighborhood and carefully designed sequences that are staged with class and imagination (particularly the unsettling, if forced, manner in which the infamous clown doll winds up in the re-telling). Before the big unveiling of all the supernatural shenanigans, the set up promised something special. This all unravels once the CGI killer tree shows up. Even the uttering of the immortal line, “They’re Here,” feels timid.
Rockwell is both too quirky and detached, as though he couldn’t swallow the material and gave a performance that gives him a safe distance from it. DeWitt is somewhat better, though never fully conveying the stress and horror of the scenario. While this mostly rehashes the original story beat-for-beat, its rushed, never takes the time to properly develop the characters and has lots of story threads (like Eric’s shopping spree, his tendency to drink too much and an odd romance between two supernatural investigators) that feel important but go nowhere.
The 2015 “Poltergeist” is similar to the neutered recent remakes of “Fright Night” and “RoboCop.” These remakes have clearly been made by talented filmmakers but only demonstrate, scene-for-scene, how the original did everything better. The biggest disappointment is the stand-in for the essential character of psychic/ghost buster Tangina, played by the mesmerizing Zelda Rubenstein in the original. Here, the capable but uninteresting Jared Harris plays the role, now a reality TV star (an addition as DOA as the Las Vegas magician subplot of the 2011 “Fright Night”).
If you ignore the original and take this on its own, you’ve got a strong start, a couple of aggressive jump scares (the 3-D and loud volume work over time) and a nonsensical, anticlimactic finish. Nothing here outshines what came before it. Even “Insidious,” the shameless 2010 “Poltergeist” rip-off, was truly frightening and re-shaped the source material into something distinctive and stylish. Keenan has a good eye but the material works against him. The Hooper/Spielberg film had visual effects both gorgeous and bone chilling but benefitted most from presenting a family we liked and a sense of mystery to the supernatural. Here, we’re always one step ahead of the screenplay, which is disinterested in fully investing in the questions of science vs. faith that arise. We get to see “the other side,” though it won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who remembers “Brainstorm.”
The last two scenes are disastrous: the closing sequence is meant to be a cute epilogue but feels like one of those studio-tested alternate endings they settled on over something stronger. Then there’s the scene that pops up in the middle of the end credits, which comes across like a bad outtake for the blooper reel. Why did Keenan want us to walk out with lukewarm sitcom material? Wasn’t this a horror film?
I hate smug, snarky film criticism, but I’m going to stoop that low to make a point: whereas the 1982 ‘Poltergiest” is gritty, awe-inducing, occasionally nasty and terrifying, the remake isn’t as scary as the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. It’s all too Polter-nice.