City of Ember
Poltergeist (2015) ** (out of 5)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by: Gil Kenan
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings. It’s what Hollywood does today. I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I? I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines. For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original. Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable. Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before. Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly? Wouldn’t it be simply treading water? Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist. You’d be right. Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?
Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status. It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though. On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version. To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be. It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form. This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should. Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.
We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed. In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’. Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms. Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right? Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine. The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.
For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed. By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family. Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone? How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates? For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing. Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches. Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.
Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however. Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively. The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses. This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife. I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place. It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.
Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film. Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish. That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist? With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original. If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked. If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked. Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.