The haunted house sub-genre is my favorite kind of horror and 1982’s Poltergeist is one of my favorite films. I approached the remake with the absolute skepticism of a diehard fan who believes someone has trampled on sacred ground. (And seriously, who in their right mind would attempt to remake a Steven Spielberg film? Sure, Tobe Hooper was given the director credit but it was widely known that Spielberg was on set every day calling the shots.) The new Poltergeist maintains much of the storyline, has a terrific cast, and is an entertaining update that surprisingly does not totally suck – but also never truly soars.
There are two major elements missing in this film. The first was the ability to connect to universal terrors and the dreadful feeling of innocence lost. Yes there’s the creepy tree, the sinister clown, and the portal to the other side that abducts a child but none of it truly resonates on a deeper level. Perhaps its the almost instant acceptance of the weird events by the family and the lack of gravitas which points to an issue of tone (fun vs. frightening). I’ve seen more terror in a mother who looses a child at a mall than this family who lost their daughter to something bizarre in a closet. To it’s credit, the movie genuinely captures the disaffected modern family more prone to outbursts about lost phones and jobs than missing children. Perhaps it’s nostalgia but I miss the Amblin years of tight-knit Spielbergian families who loved each other on screen and then faced a threat together.
The second missing element was the absence of a strong antagonist so clearly defined in the original. In horror movies, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can root for only one of them but the stakes have to be clearly laid out. There was no face for the antagonist in the original but you felt it’s presence nonetheless. Here it was much more ambiguous, and the directer opts to keep the action moving swiftly along without lingering to much on anything. The threat is just not clear, and the focus on the ghostly shenanigans shortchanges any emotional payoff.
The film was directed by Gil Kenan who also directed the scarier and more emotionally engaging Monster House, and he is clearly aiming for a tamer PG-13 crowd. I’m not sure Poltergeist was the right film to make safer given that the original’s reputation for being one of the scariest films ever. I’ll give him credit for the smart updates (the ghost hunter with the reality show, the flying drone, the twist at the end when you think everyone is safe). The cast work well together and Sam Rockwell is solid as always. The effects are seamless and really add to the overall spectacle but the movie was much too short (that tacked on epilogue shows they were trying desperately to get to the 90-minute mark). It’s fun popcorn movie that adds little to canon of haunted house movies and like most remakes, is thoroughly superfluous. It’s certainly entertaining, but ultimately it’s just not as scary as it should be.