Most people’s scorched-earth fulminations against remakes or reboots of iconic movies from their youth fade the further they are from adolescence or, at the very least, a cover of online anonymity. Not even the worst reboot can erase your precious memories or a film you love. Rape is not the sort of act that any movie performs on your childhood.
The bottom line with remakes or reboots is that we occasionally receive a kickass gift we’ve coveted for years. A small handful genuinely, and unconditionally, suck. A few implement a modicum of new-spin momentum that neither sullies nor substitutes the original. Mostly, the majority settle for acceptable mediocrity and / or mimicry of what made something popular in the first place.
Asking why, then, studios would even bother is like asking why gas stations sell hot dogs. You know they sit there all day, rotating and reheating until they only chemically resemble meat. But someone buys them. Perhaps, under desperation or duress, it’s you. As the world turns, so do the gas station hot dogs.
On its face, a rejiggered Poltergeist seems like a light-the-lights-or-lose-the-rights remake. It’s not as if dozens of other movies not called Poltergeist haven’t traded on its merits for 33 years. Plus, the original remains one of the gnarliest PG-rated films and far more intense than its PG-13 counterpart. But just as you sometimes need something to eat, you sometimes also only need something to watch.
As such non-nutritive substances go, director Gil Kenan and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire’s revision of Poltergeist is reminiscent of 2006’s Poseidon or 2005’s The Amityville Horror — a significantly shorter simulacrum that works on its own single-serving terms.
This Poltergeist is more indicative of Kenan’s aim to please than his considerable skill. Kenan’s Monster House, of which this film’s least-hinged moments resemble a live-action remake, remains the undisputed champion of performance-capture cartoons, and City of Ember, though a bit sluggish, remains a smart, mostly unloved family fantasy film. In fact, Ember’s expensive underperformance in 2008 landed Kenan in movie jail. Thus, Poltergeist, Kenan’s first film since, sufficiently pleads time off for good behavior. With impish, effective efficiency, he and Lindsay-Abaire shave 20-plus minutes from the original’s running time and carve out only a bit of its spirit in the process.
The Freeling family is gone, replaced by the Bowens. So, too, is a shaming of America’s love for building on cultural graves. (“It was a cemetery! It’s not like it was an ancient tribal burial ground!,” one person says of land on which this version’s haunted house stands.) Instead, Lindsay-Abaire’s context comes from how a recession-constricted job market forces families to adapt on the fly. After he’s laid off from a posh job, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell), his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and kids Kendra, Griffin and Maddie (Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett and Kennedi Clements) relocate to a well-manicured, but foreclosure-riddled, subdivision called Willow Point.
Poltergeist wastes little time showing Maddie, the youngest, carrying on one-sided conversations with ghosts of “lost people,” whose bodies weren’t actually relocated before building began. Their beckoning quickly becomes a reckoning. Within a half-hour, the evil clowns, aggressively violent trees and appliance-frying specters bear down on the Bowens at full speed — snatching Maddie into a spirit realm and prompting a squabbling pair of paranormal investigators (Jane Addams and Jared Harris) to help.
The brevity goes for wild over warm, sacrificing the original’s aching, agonizing urgency of losing someone and the family’s crisis of suspending disbelief over what has happened; you’d think the Bowens called in people to trim their tree’s canopy, not expel evil spirits from its twisted roots. But Rockwell and DeWitt easily establish the emotional accountabilities of this marriage, the friendly fire and frayed edges of the family are believable, and Addams and Harris employ body language, kooky accents and a few other tricks to bolster their otherwise wispy characters.
Save one new bit involving a drill and a cynical graduate student, the horrors themselves aren’t terribly frightening. But they do let the pathology and psychology of fear pop through (kids will appreciate seeing themselves take heroic action and Catlett is terrific as Griffin) while paying honorable visual homage to Tobe Hooper’s vision. Kenan appropriates the original’s eerie blasts of amber light, and his effects team gives some CGI effects more tactile weight than most pixelated phantasmagorias. (Even if we know they’re not, a good deal at least look to be in-camera.)
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe also deploys a few new nifty tricks. He frames several shots with subtly devilish delight, as shadows or halos of light draw eye shapes on appliances or heads on a wall. A drone-camera sequence in the spirit world invites updated tech without getting too goofy. The film also capitalizes on an HDTV’s screen-filling enormity as hands probe a weak spot to push through and, with the sound team’s help, makes full use of a surfeit of switched-on gadgets to goose with juice. (A phone’s digital burbles sound like a malevolent, slow cackle.) And while unnecessary, its vertiginous 3D conversion makes it feel as if we’re on the precipice of tumbling through pliable planes of reality.
Modest pleasures, these, and none you will remember fondly more than a night or two after it’s over. But it’s awfully hard to get yourself worked up over a movie that barely bothers to work itself up.