In 1982, director Tobe Hooper, whose genre fame to that point was limited to one feature film (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) and one TV mini-series (Salem’s Lot, based on the Stephen King book of the same name, 1979), directed a movie based on a Steven Spielberg story, called Poltergeist—and neither Hooper’s career nor the modern horror-movie genre would ever be quite the same. (Although the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was later to be seen as one of the defining films of the modern horror genre, it was—except to aficionados—pretty much seen as schlock at the time. As well, Hooper’s TV adaptation of the King book wasn’t as well received then as it’s now seen in retrospect.) Poltergeist, however, became a modern horror classic which, due to a series of odd (and fatal) coincidences, inspired the legend of “the Poltergeist curse.” (I won’t get into the so-called “controversy” over whether Spielberg actually directed it, or talk about Hooper’s career after Poltergeist—those could be totally separate columns.)
In the original movie, we’re introduced to the Freelings, a nice typical suburban California family. Steve’s a real-estate salesman (who we think might possibly be a bit too honest to be a good salesman); Diane’s a stay-at-home mom with artistic aspirations; the three kids (Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne—oldest to youngest, respectively) seem like normal kids. (The Frelengs are played by Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins and Heather O’Rourke.) We’re gradually introduced to them; we find out they have kinda dorkish neighbours (the scene with the duelling remote controls was hilarious) and, in short, we kinda like them. There’s nothing abnormal about them and they have our sympathy and/or empathy right from the get-go. Then, while Steve’s off trying to sell houses in their relatively new subdivision, Diane and Carol Anne discover there’s something odd about their house (not unheard of in California: there’s the Winchester “ghost house” in San Jose, and the so-called “Mystery Spot” in Santa Cruz, where they tell us gravity is wonky. It’s not; it’s all tourist hype).
Things escalate until Carol Anne is swallowed by her closet and the Freelings have to call in the local college’s paranormal researchers, and later psychic dwarf Tangina (played to the hilt by Zelda Rubinstein) to rescue her from the Other Side. There was a lot of humour in this movie, and quite a few scares for the average movie viewer; none are of the “it was only the cat” type typefied by the orange tabby Jones in Alien. The movie had a happy ending, all questions seemed to be answered and we left the theatre in a sort of cathartic glow. (Which lasted just until Poltergeist II: The Other Side was released and was permanently squashed when Poltergeist III, mercifully the last of the series, was released.) As is usual with movie series that are series simply because the first one was so good they figured they’d jump on the bandwagon, it just kinda petered out, helped by the fact that several of the cast, notably Heather O’Rourke (Carol Ann) and Dominique Dunne (Dana) from the first movie—along with several from the second movie—had died. Thank goodness, many of us said with a touch of schadenfreude, there won’t be any more of those (although we were saddened by the coincidental deaths of cast members)!
Well, fast-forward thirty-three years from the first movie and we’re now in the land of, not sequels, but remakes. Let me state my opinion loudly and clearly before we get into it: there can only be one good reason for a remake: to improve on the original movie.
Capsule review (no spoilers) of Poltergeist (2015): There is absolutely no reason for this remake. There! I’ve said it. It doesn’t add anything to the original (it actually isn’t as good as the original) and, as far as I’m concerned, is only there to exist on the good will of the name. The filmmakers don’t bother to build a good audience rapport with the Bowen family as the original did with the Freelings. The Bowens (Eric, Amy, Kendra, Griffin and Madison—played in order by Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett and Kennedi Clements) are moving to a new town (somewhere in Illinois, judging by the license plate) because Eric has lost his job at John Deere’s corporate headquarters in Moline. Amy is an aspiring novelist who may or may not be writing—as well as taking care of the three kids—while Eric looks for a new job; and Kendra, Griffin and Madison are just analogs of the Freeling kids. (Although both girls are about 7, Heather and Kennedi are playing Carol Anne/Madison (“Maddy”) as a five-year-old. Except for hair colour, they are uncannily alike, which I suspect is deliberate. Again, trading on the first movie.)
They take great pains to show that the Bowen house is under a whole bunch of powerlines (over and over) and then never use that in the film, really, except to have Kendra say “We can’t live here—power lines!” There’s even a recurring joke where someone gets an electric jolt from the ball on the newel post at the bottom of the balustrade. (Which makes no sense, as wood is an insulator!) We get foreshadowing of the moving clown doll, Carol Anne—I mean Maddy—talking to the TV, the willow outside the house and so on. Not much of the movie seems to connect with the rest of the movie; it’s disjointed, and makes no real sense. They’ve replaced Zelda Rubinstein with Jared Harris as Irishman Carrigan Burke, a TV-host “ghost cleanser,” and the tagline “It knows what scares you” with the tagline “They know what scares you.” Why? Who cares? Save your money; see if you can find a copy of the original. IMDB gives this 5.1 stars (out of 10); I’d give it 4. (In case you’re interested, IMDB gives the original 7.4 stars.)
Spoiler review of Poltergeist (2015): In the original movie (and in at least one of the sequels; I don’t remember 3 well enough to say), the opponent was (according to Tangina the medium) “The beast.” In this film, the opponent is apparently all the dead people who still hang around the graveyard the subdivision is built upon. When Carol Anne Freeling says “They’re here!” she’s asked who is here? She replies, “The TV people.” When Maddy Bowen is asked who’s here, she says “The lost people.” Why? Only the screenwriter knows. The original screenplay held together, while this one is disjointed. In both films we (and the screen couple) find out that the subdivision is built on a graveyard; in both we find out that rather than moving all those bodies (a costly and time-consuming task), the developers just moved the headstones. In the original, it comes as a revelation both to Steve Freeling and the audience—there’s at least SOME explanation of what’s going on; here, it’s casually dropped by Burke in the process of “cleaning” the house and we don’t know whether that’s the actual explanation.
Things that don’t make sense (but are left in the movie): If Eric Bowen’s been out of work for a while (it’s specified in the film), how can they afford a new house? If two out of his three credit cards are declined at the hardware store (the clerk says “It’s over the limit”—usually, it only says “declined”—I know, it’s happened to me!) how and/or why would he bring home a pizza, an iPhone, a remote-controlled drone with camera and a piece of jewelry for his wife? (At the end of the movie, after their car and house have been demolished, how do they have a new SUV and money for a new house? In real time it takes ages for insurance claims—especially ones based on supernatural activity, I’m guessing—to go through. Other things: the Bowens’ youngest daughter disappears, and they don’t call the cops, they call the closest university’s paranormal researchers! (There’s a scene where the wife is arguing with Eric—she wants to call the cops, and he thinks the cops will blame them for Maddy’s disappearance.) If my child disappeared, I would call the cops, the fire station, the Boy Scouts, the RCMP, and ANY other agency I could think of! (In the original, the Freelings were obviously in shock; we don’t really see that from the Bowens.)
I could go on with things that don’t make sense, but it doesn’t make sense for me to do so; I just want to state that, while I think Sam Rockwell’s a fine actor, he’s out of place in this movie. The boy, Griffin, is less annoying than the boy in the original movie, however; and as said before, the correspondence between Heather O’Rourke and Kennedi Clements is amazing. Poor Rosemarie DeWitt: while JoBeth Williams got to develop her character in the original, she has no such option. She’s virtually a nonentity in this movie. Since there was a scary clown doll in the first movie, let’s have a whole box full of scary clown dolls; since Carol Ann talked to the TV and put her hands on it, let’s have Maddy talk to it—but the closet first–and have a whole bunch of hands appear from the other side of the TV! (In other words, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”)
I think that, besides the lack of build-up of either the family as sympathetic characters or the events as escalating, another of the movie’s problems is the special effects. Because there was no CGI per se in 1982, the moviemakers had to make do with puppets, stop-motion, in-camera effects—in fact, all the effects were practical, more or less. In 2015, we can show literally almost anything you can visualize, and they didn’t! There’s a scene in the original where one of the paranormal researchers watches a steak inch its way across a kitchen counter—and then erupt with worms and maggots (all practical effects, by the way), which is one of the chills in the original movie. There’s nothing like it in the new one. There’s nothing like the scene where the same researcher hallucinates that he tears the flesh off his own face and becomes skeletonized—the closest scene is where Sam Rockwell hallucinates that he vomits up a mass of worms and earth after drinking some whiskey. (By the way, in case you didn’t know, a “practical” effect is an effect done by “real” means, rather than computer graphics.)
Okay, there are one or two funny moments in the remake: one of the paranormal researchers tells the Bowens that, thanks to his advanced video camera he captured a piano bench moving several feet over a 7-hour period. When he is thrown to the ground by a child’s chair which flies through the air and smashes against a wall, Eric Bowen says drily “Did you get that [on your advanced camera]?” At the end, when a real-estate agent says the house she’s showing has tons of closet space, Madison says, “Our last closet ate me,” and the real-estate agent could only laugh weakly, not getting the joke. But the elements of humour are not well integrated and don’t really work. I could continue comparing the two, but really—there’s no comparison. An original work of horror in 1982 and a very weak and lacklustre re-imagining in 2015. I’ll stick with the original, thanks very much!
By the way, my wife and I will be going to Missouri shortly; if I don’t manage to post here for a week or two—although I will try very hard to do so—I hope you’ll forgive me!
I’d appreciate any comment on this week’s column. You can register and comment here, or comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. All comments are welcome, and don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!