One of the most overlooked animated films of the '00s is Gil Kenan's Monster House, a terrific little throwback that fully captured the spirit of the boisterous/sentimental/scary Amblin flicks of the 1980s. Kenan was raised on those movies, and his affection for that era of filmmaking shined in that film. The monster house itself was perhaps the film's most memorable character; a delightful animated bundle of creaky boards, jagged edges and sinister glimmers of light. In theory, he ought to be the perfect director for a remake of Poltergeist, which was clearly a source of inspiration for Monster House. Admittedly, no one really needs a Poltergeist remake, but that's true of most remakes. At least Kenan might be able to capture some of what made the original special while adding his own ideas to the mix, right? Sadly, that didn't happen. It gives me no pleasure to say that Poltergeist feels like it could have been directed by anyone.
The 2015 version of Poltergeist changes the names of the characters (they're the Bowens instead of the Freelings), but the set-up is basically the same: a family is moving into a new house, and it turns out the house is haunted. Sure, it's just little things at first: a closet that seems magnetic, a box filled with creepy clowns, a baseball that rolls down the hallway on its own – but eventually, really scary stuff starts happening, paranormal experts are called in and everybody buckles in for a special effects-driven supernatural showdown.
The script was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer for his superb play Rabbit Hole and has yet to deliver anything else nearly as interesting (save for writing the fine film adaptation of Rabbit Hole). Early on, he adds some interesting 21st century touches into the mix: the economy has taken a toll on the neighborhood the family is moving into, and many of the nearby houses have been foreclosed on. Indeed, the Bowens may have difficulty making their own house payments: Eric (Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) has been struggling to find employment for months, and Amy (Rosemary DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) hasn't been able to find time to work on her novel. While the Freelings moved into a swanky new neighborhood in the midst of an economic boom, the Bowens are moving into a much humbler neighborhood during a time of economic crisis.
That's a nice touch, but the film doesn't do much with it: while the 1982 film doubled as a commentary on the cost of the American dream, this new movie doesn't seem to have any comparable metaphorical ambitions. Likewise, the movie's initial plot strands involving Eric's increasingly problematic alcoholism and Amy's struggles to express herself creatively don't really go anywhere – they're just generic bits of “character” designed to make the film's non-creepy first act feel more substantial. The new Poltergeist is repeating an old song, but doesn't seem to understand the lyrics.
Still, this is fundamentally a horror movie, so I suppose the real question is whether or not it's scary. Not really, and that's not just because you never sense that any of the characters are any real danger. Almost all of the scares here feel like reworked versions of scenes from the original, and this film's banal digital effects never come close to matching the effectiveness of the 1982's version's Oscar-nominated practical effects. I hate to come across as a CG vs. practical snob – I realize that we're working in an entirely different era now, and it just makes sense to do certain things digitally – but it's the lack of imagination that hurts the effects, not the actual quality.
To be fair, the new Poltergeist is a classier pointless horror remake than a fair number of the pointless horror remakes we've seen recently. It isn't a crass, sloppy cash-in like the Michael Bay-produced version of A Nightmare on Elm Street – it's a polished, well-acted cash-in like John Moore's remake of The Omen. The acting is solid across the board, with fine performances from Rockwell, DeWitt, Jared Harris (chewing the scenery as a reality TV ghost hunter) and the three kids (young Kennidi Clements, who plays this film's Carol Ann equivalent, is particularly charming). The film's big horror sequences may not feel genuinely threatening, but Kenan knows how to put a movie together. It's a competent movie, but a disappointingly generic one.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 2015