As sacrilegious as a Poltergeist remake may seem to some, there are a number of smart creative choices behind 20th Century Fox’s update on the 1982 Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg horror. For one thing, director Gil Kenan has established his own genre skills based around digital trickery, courtesy of his 2006 CGI animation release, Monster House. Secondly, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Rabbit Hole, which he also helped adapt for the screen in 2010, suggesting some flair for domestic turmoil material. Finally, the remake’s leads are Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt; two actors who almost always do good work even in disappointing projects, and the two are reliably strong as the parents in Poltergeist.
So, it’s not like this film was immediately starting off on the wrong foot, and the final result generally doesn’t make too many glaring missteps. The issue is that there’s not a lot of weight to those steps.
The story is largely similar to the one Spielberg came up with in the 80s. A married couple with three kids – moody teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), perpetually nervous Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and lively youngest child Maddie (Kennedi Clements) – move to a new home in the suburbs, an apparent downsizing from their previous domestic situation due to father Eric’s recent job loss and mother Amy’s lack of getting a book project off the ground. One might be inclined to wonder how a house in which all three kids’ rooms seem akin to the size of a big city apartment can be much of a downsize for anyone, but it’s probably best to let that slide. Almost immediately after they move in, a host of malicious spirits start haunting them.
When Maddie is abducted by the apparitions, they seek the help of some parapsychologists (led by Jane Adams) to help bust the ghosts. Where the remake radically differs from the original is in the figure the experts bring in when things look dire. Instead of a spiritual medium (as memorably played by Zelda Rubinstein in 1982), we get Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), a minor celebrity who hosts a show in which he explores haunted houses. The original film’s iconic line “This house is clean” is re-purposed as a catchphrase and Twitter hash tag.
Thanks to advances in technology, Kenan’s update offers a full visualisation of the world beyond ‘the light’ that the original could not. The realisation’s pretty neat, with a touch of medieval horror to the look of the after-world figures. Elsewhere, one extended set-piece involving the kids being terrorised while the parents are away has some strong scares, and Kenan’s gliding camera tricks work particularly well there. Less successful is the revisiting of some of the original’s iconic beats. In a similar fashion to The Conjuring’s Annabelle doll, the evil clown is ridiculously over-designed in order to scream, “I am scary.” It is subsequently not scary.
This Poltergeist is an efficient, amiably entertaining riff on an established thrill ride, but the film does little to spook long-term. The tricks are there in the act, but there’s not a lot of magic to them.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.