Adding to the growing list of unnecessary remakes is Gil Kenan’s “Poltergeist,” which relocates the ghost story to the present but, while efficiently made, can’t hold a candle to the still potent 1982 original. Of course Kenan was given an impossible task, given the watershed nature of Tobe Hooper’s film, which was an important link in the studio trend toward big-budget versions of what would once have been B-movies—a process that began with “The Exorcist” in 1973 and continued with “Jaws” in 1975 and “Alien” in 1979. At the time “Poltergeist,” with its mixture of shocks and sheen, seemed innovative and surprising, but nowadays the tale of a haunting in suburbia is old hat; we’ve even had two servings of “A Haunting in Connecticut,” not to mention all those remakes of Japanese ghost stories. So what had seemed groundbreaking in 1982 is now just part of a tired subgenre.
Nor does Kenan’s film play with the formula in an inventive way. Unlike, say, “The Conjuring,” which varied the “Exorcist” template to fashion something that felt fresh, screenwriter David Linday-Abaire allows himself only minor alterations from his source, which was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg (who also, according to reports at the time, had a role in directing the picture as well). He’s brought the tale into a twenty-first century awash in technological toys (there are smart phones and tablets aplenty, and a drone even makes an appearance) but also plagued by economic turndown (the father has recently been laid off, and the subdivision into which the family moves has a run-down ambience). He’s trimmed away much of the character-establishing material at the front and plunged almost immediately into the menacing ghostly manifestations. He’s transformed the chunky, weird medium originally played by Zelda Rubinstein into a flamboyant TV haunted-house hunter limned by hammy Jared Harris. He’s expanded the heroic contribution of the boy of the family while diminishing that of the mother (instead of a story about the incredible tenacity of maternal love, it becomes a coming-of-age tale about a boy overcoming his fears to emerge as a protective big brother). And he’s made room for lots more special effects, especially in the climactic scenes of the land of the dead in the final act, where a host of half-decomposed corpses are introduced like a zombie army out of “The Walking Dead.”
It’s debatable whether any of these changes are for the better, and apart from a couple of moments 3D doesn’t add much. But thankfully they don’t debase the original. Kenan’s “Poltergeist” certainly doesn’t improve on Hooper’s film, or equal it, but at least it doesn’t bastardize it (as Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” did John Carpenter’s, for example). It relies for the most part on the most old-fashioned horror tropes (sometimes too much—the old “gotcha from behind” bit is overused) and even retains the hokey cemetery rationale behind all the spooky goings-on. Most notably it eschews blood and gore, relying instead on creepy sound effects, ordinary items turning into menaces (like a tree that turns into a ravenous predator or clown dolls that abruptly begin moving around of their own accord). Even a sequence seemingly designed to invite graphic mayhem (involving a goofy student paranormal investigator played by gangly Nicholas Braun and an electric drill) cheekily opts for tension rather than violence. And memorable moments from the first film are repeated with tweaks that might not be improvements but aren’t offensive—that tree might be done up in special effects far more elaborately than the craftsmen of 1982 could muster, but it still serves the same basic purpose.
The picture is also cannily cast. Sam Rockwell brings his laid-back, slightly nutty persona to the role of the father, tossing off amusing asides in likable slacker mode, and Rosemarie DeWitt makes an agreeable partner for him, despite the fact that the mom’s role is substantially lessened. Kyle Catlett, on the other hand, makes a strong impression in the much enlarged role of middle child Griffin, a scared kid whose not only the first family member to experience the strange phenomena going on in their new home but eventually stares them down in heroic mode. Saxon Sharbino is convincingly self-centered as teen Kendra, while Kennedi Clements is acceptable as 6-year old Madison, the girl who’s sucked into that infernal TV screen after intoning the famous words “They’re here,” though nobody could efface memories of Heather O’Rourke. Nor can Marc Streitenfeld’s score, while effective enough in a generalized way, be mentioned in the same breath as Jerry Goldsmith’s work in the original.
That’s a sentiment that can be applied to Kenan’s “Poltergeist” overall. In the context of today’s horror movies, it’s one of the better examples of the genre—tightly scripted, competently directed, nicely acted, efficiently made, and discreet in its employment of gross-out effects. But it inevitably comes up short when you toss the DVD or Blu-ray of Hooper’s film into your home system. And why settle for a respectable retread when you can still savor its superior model?