Movie Review: Poltergeist

IMDB, Poltergeist 2015“Poltergeist” on IMDB

Horror/Thriller, 93 Minutes, 2015

When I previously reviewed The Whole Damn Poltergeist Franchise, I lamented the sad decline of the sequels, but marveled at how well the first movie has held up. It’s a classic that remains just as effective today as it did 30 years ago. There is no earthly reason to remake it.

Still, just because something is unnecessary doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad. Remakes aren’t generally good, yet there are exceptions. New perspectives and new ideas can revitalize old stories without cheapening or supplanting them. Modernization doesn’t have to mean bastardization. There are also cases, as here, of aggressively pursued mediocrity.

A foundational issue is that the movie is unable to commit itself to a path: sequel or remake. In many ways, this is a written as a sequel. The names and situations of the characters are completely original; we have the Eric and Amy Bowen (Sam Rockwell [IMDB] and Rosemarie DeWitt [IMDB]) instead of Steve and Diane Freeling.

Madison Bowen, played by the wide-eyed moppet Kennedi Clements [IMDB], takes the place of Carol Anne Freeling as the ghost-napped child. Both families look to local university groups to assist and both then bring in respected mediums. Here that means a large British man (Jared Harris [IMDB]) with his own Reality TV show rather than a “magic-munchkin” from the deep south.

Where Steve Freeling was living in a new development built by his company, Eric Bowen has had a run of bad luck and is moving his family into a more run-down, economical neighborhood. It’s unclear how a house that’s so haunted could be inhabited long enough to become run down, but that’s the story. The dynamic created by the financial issues is clearly intended to add drama, but only works to distract.

In many other ways the movie is clearly a remake. The circumstances of our ghosts are identical as are the specifics of the missing child. Both the killer tree and clown make returns. The team of researchers who are brought in to help parrot many of the original’s lines. It feels like the movie was written as a sequel, then retrofitted into a remake. The result is a bland, milquetoast experience.

The original story transitioned from marveled interest to haunting terror. We watched a normal, broadly identifiable family – one that could be pulled from any popular sitcom – face the horror of a situation that they couldn’t control. That this hinged on the tangible, universal fear of losing a child made it all the more impactful.

Here, we meet the family as they’re already facing challenges that may break them. We aren’t given any opportunity to share in their contentment. This transitions so quickly to the loss and recovery of their daughter that the audience is left bewildered. We just don’t know these people well enough to become deeply invested in their story.

The scares are predictable and relatively tame. This may still be a decent slumber-party flick for the tween set. Most importantly, they fail to convey any sense of purpose or drive behind them. The spirits seem more petty and contemptible than reasonably affronted. In a marked misstep, rather that keeping it mysterious and unknowable, we also spent significant time, via CGI, “on the other side”.

There are high-points. Rockwell and Harris are both excellent actors and bring their A-games even to this tepid material. I’ve always been a fan of DeWitt as well, although she’s underutilized. The effects are decent, if overused.

The movie sits squarely in the middle never rising to greatness or falling into disaster. It’s a popcorn ghost flick. I would accuse it of wasting its pedigree, but that seems harsh as – credit where credit is due – it is better than the two original sequels. Had they committed to either retelling the Freelings story or to being a modern sequel set 30 years later, they may have found significantly more success.

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