Trapped In The Closet
I’m not ashamed to say I’m old enough to remember the summer of ’82 when E.T. was released and then a few weeks later, Poltergeist followed. Although Tobe Hooper is credited as the director of that film, I think most people involved with that production claim that Spielberg was really in charge. In either case, it was a great film that I never really thought of as a horror film because it had so many Spielbergian touches. I always viewed it as an action/adventure film with elements of horror. Without a doubt, it is a classic. The phrase, “They’re heere,” has arguably as much pop culture cachet as “I’ll be back.”
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a film is a classic that should remain unscathed. In the new age of filmmaking, Hollywood will remake whatever they can get their hands on and screw it up. Such is the case with the new Poltergeist. This was a doomed proposition from the start. Remaking a classic is never a good idea to begin with, but the filmmakers gave it a shot and it starts off promising, with familiar beats that made me, as a fan of the original, feel at home. A few unnecessary tweaks are made: instead of the Freelings, we have the Bowens; instead of Carol Anne, we have Maddie. But see, I have a problem with that. The name Carol Anne is synonymous with Poltergeist, just like, John McClane is synonymous with Die Hard, like John Connor is synonymous with The Terminator. Before I go on, I must say that as a kid, my head was blown open when, early on in the original film, the Freelings are shown smoking pot in their bedroom when they’re interrupted by one of the kids. Here, the parents are engaged in light foreplay when they’re interrupted, but who would’ve thought the earlier film had the prescience to include a scene that would play to Denver audiences, to the entire country, so well here in 2015?
I suppose the filmmakers changed the names of the characters because they wanted this film to stand apart from the original. To be fair, some other tweaks worked better for me. In the original, the ghosts enter the home through the TV after the networks have signed off after the playing of the Star Bangled Banner. Now, that we’re in the age of 24 hour broadcasting, the filmmakers came up with an inventive method for getting the ghosts to appear. I also thought it was clever that they replaced the character of Tangina, so memorably played by Zelda Rubenstein, with the character of parapsychologist and reality TV star Carrigan Burke. I thought this was very inspired and totally apropos for today’s audience.
But the movie makes far more mistakes that betray these few inspired tweaks. It was established early on that the Freelings were a tight knit loving group. Craig T. Nelson, a masculine leading man presence as dad Steve Freeling, is replaced by Sam Rockwell’s milquetoast Eric Bowen, who with the exception of one scene, acts like he really doesn’t want to be involved with this production. I like Rockwell, I think he’s a great comedic actor, but I think that made him a bad choice for the role. Rosemarie DeWitt is bland and unmemorable as the mom. Saxon Sharbino as the teenage daughter is just a totally unlikeable character. The two bright spots in the cast are Kennedi Clements and Kyle Catlett as Maddie and Griffin, respectively replacing Carol Anne and Robbie Freeling. Clements is a great find and looks eerily like Heather O’Rourke, the late child actor of the original film. Kyle Catlett is also effective and is given more weight in this remake. As mentioned, Jared Harris as Carrigan is good, but much like the rest of the cast, he isn’t given much to do. He is given a ridiculous eye-rolling romantic conflict which delivers no payoff other than a goofy credit sequence. Except for Griffin, none of the cast does anything of much interest onscreen nor are they given much of anything to do onscreen other than step through familiar beats that were better done by the original cast in 1983.
From the beginning, things feel a little off. Whereas Steve Freeling was a successful real estate developer already living in the house with his family, this movie starts off with the age-old trope of the family moving into the home at the beginning of the movie. Dad has been laid off; we get clues that the dad is a recovering alcoholic, which would have been an interesting element to explore, but oddly, nothing comes of this. We hardly get to know these people before Maddie is talking to imaginary friends through her bedroom closet door. But the biggest miscalculation in this update is that when the house first becomes malevolent and attacks, the parents aren’t even at home; they’re at a dinner party. The gruesome history of the house and the neighborhood are also revealed at this dinner party which occurs within the first thirty minutes. So the children are at home under attack and the parents arrive just after Maddie is abducted. In the original, the parents were at home during the abduction and were a part of the phenomena, making them instantly emotionally invested in the conflict, because they experience it themselves when it first happens. Not so here. There’s no skepticism whatsoever from the parents when they arrive home. When the siblings tell them that Maddie is gone, it’s hard to believe that by the next scene, they’re calling the ghostbusters. And why the screenwriters reveal the neighborhood secret so early on is beyond me. It robs the film of a chilling revelation in the final act.
Even the set is not as interesting as the original. Granted, the fact that the Bowens are downsizing their home due to Eric’s layoff may have something to do with the pre-fab innocuous appearance of the home, but in every haunted house flick, the house is just as much a character as the people within. Here, the house is just as bland as most of the characters. And that includes the ghosthunters, who are understandably much younger in this version–video production is now a young person’s business; I assume that’s the case with ghosthunters who use video as well–but again, these characters provide absolutely nothing of interest as compared to their predecessors. I’ll go one step further: the spirits are more boring here as well. Part of that is because someone on the production team had the horrible idea of showing us the spirits onscreen as well as showing us the Other Side. Really? Do filmmakers in the 21st century not understand the concept of leaving certain things to the imagination? But even more egregious than attempting to show us unhappy spirits and a netherworld rendered as CGI images, the filmmakers here make another big mistake: in the original, film, the spirits had much less screen time, yet were afforded much more depth and sympathy due to an additional element of malevolence which is not present in the remake. Here, the spirits are not given any dimension at all. They’re just muddy claylike CG figures along the lines of the creatures from 2007’s I Am Legend.
When the film does stay true to the original, it unfortunately comes across as dated. In a post-Chucky Annabelle world, are clown dolls all that scary anymore? Does it make sense that the previous owner of the home would stash a box of clowns in a closet? It does if you want to include callbacks to the original, far superior film, yet you don’t improve upon them. And the callbacks all come across as nothing more than checkboxes, insuring the filmmakers touched upon them, while not bothering to explore them. To be fair, I suppose having a man rip off his face in a PG film in 1983 (despite it looking fake even back then) would be frowned upon today (and also because the PG-13 rating didn’t exist at the time). Even so, the callback in this remake is the definition of lame. It begs the question, why even attempt it? Which is the question I pose to the entire cast and crew of this film.
On my way out, I came across the only other guy in the theater at this screening. I asked him if he had seen the original film, to which he said no. I asked him what he thought of this film and he shook his head, indicating he didn’t like it. I told him to do himself a huge favor and go see the original. If you want to see this story done right, in the old days when CGI wasn’t even a blip on the radar, yet the effects are still for the most part mesmerizing, Jerry Goldsmith’s score sets the perfect tone for each scene and the performances are properly emotional, humorous and serious as necessary, I recommend you see the original. You won’t be sorry. I can’t say the same if you go see this remake.