Pretty high on the list of motion pictures that didn’t need to be remade was Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper’s 1982 horror classic which moved the haunted house genre to suburbia, and which still traumatizes children everywhere with its PG-rated graphic face-ripping and its homicidal giggling clown. In fact, the only part of that shocker which doesn’t seem to apply today is its vision of home ownership as a state of All-American normalcy, as opposed to the pipe dream it would eventually become for most of the population in the three decades that followed.
So when Gil Kenan’s remake of Poltergeist begins with the Bowen family moving into a great big house in the suburbs, even though Eric (Sam Rockwell) is unemployed and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a stay-at-home mom with no income, it sets an intriguing stage. Although the Bowens are likable people who love their three kids and are trying their best, they are clearly living beyond their means and getting what they deserve when their latest lavish purchase bites them in the ass, supernaturally.
And what a surprising delight it is when all of the vicious horror from the original Poltergeist climax comes rushing in at once at the beginning of the remake: the killer clowns, the whomping tree, and the skeletons arising from the earth to clutch their eldest daughter. What the sequence lacks in subtlety it makes up for in the promise that this new Poltergeist will get all the callbacks out of the way early, setting the stage for new ideas in contemporary haunted house cinema.
So what a terrible bore it is when Kenan’s film ends up going through all the motions anyway, with young Madison (Kennedi Clements) getting sucked into the afterlife, speaking through the television, and forcing the Bowens to seek out paranormal investigators and a high-personality psychic to save the day with them, exactly the way they did in the first film. The new Poltergeist turns out to be just retread of the original after all, and without the killer finale, because they already used it up in Act One.
That’s not to say that this new Poltergeist is a total wash: the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Kyle Catlett as the anxiety-ridden Bowen son and Jared Harris as Carrigan Burke, the psychic who won’t replace Zelda Rubinstein in our hearts but who does turn out to be a fun character. Javier Aguirresarobe’s impressive cinematography straddles a fine line between realistic and terrifying, and a handful of eery new images – particularly a chase with Madison’s shadow across the house – are worthy additions to the haunted house genre.
But it’s all so damned familiar, whether you’ve seen the original Poltergeist or not. With legions of imitators following in its wake, the barebones story of Poltergeist no longer has the oomph necessary to terrify all by itself. It’s the details and the context that needed to change with the times, not the visual effects. David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay has the right idea at first, to accuse suburbia of fresh new lies, but aside from moving a couple of scenes around, making the paranormal investigators former lovers and replacing a few iconic scares with watered down versions, the story all turns out the same as it ever was.
This new Poltergeist may be a competently produced little thriller, but it’s nothing new. And when the old version still terrifies just as well as it ever did, “nothing new” might as well be code for “boring.”