(author’s note: I was originally planning to save this for October – Horror month – but then I thought: what the hell – I’ll save that month for some potentially more quality releases, so here goes. There are “SPOILERS”, but if you’ve seen the original, not really spoiling anything:)
Where to start, when reviewing a “reboot” based on a film that has been pretty much cemented it’s “classic”-status decades ago? As I’ve stated multiple times – on podcasts and elsewhere – the original “Poltergeist” from 1982 was one of the first horror movies I ever saw; part of the triptych of horror films that aired on TV during one summer in the late 80’s that included “The Omen“, “Jaws” and that film. So one could call me permanently biased, as that moment was kind of a major event that partially molded my cinematic tastes.
And because of that, I was pretty damn vocal when this remake/reboot was announced last year. “Why would they do that?”, I said. “The original ‘Poltergeist’ is sacred ground”, I said – even angrier. Okay – I admit that Sam Raimi and his Ghost House Pictures being involved was a bit intriguing and I really did enjoy director Gil Kenan’s film”Monster House“, but minor intrigue does not really mean anything until you see some footage. The teasers and trailers came and outside of a few cool images were really doing nothing for me, some of them I didn’t even bother to watch. But I guess curiosity took the best of me, so as the so-called “extended” version of this film became available(I’ve not seen the theatrical one, but the extended cut looks to have about 8 minutes of more footage in it).
The Bowen family – Eric (Sam Rockwell), his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three children: Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and Madison (Kennedi Clements) – move into a new home. Eric has just been laid off from the John Deere company, so the family is forced to pick a house that suits their price-range and they get a really good offer on a house, that the realtor promotes by having “lots and lots of closet space” and a huge tree in the backyard. As the family moves in, Griffin spots Madison talking to a closet in her room. Strange occurrences begin to happen: sounds, objects moving, voices, electrical appliances turning on spontaneously. As the parents attend a dinner party held by friends, they learn that the house has been built on an old burial ground. Meanwhile the spirits at the house launch a full-scale attack, luring & locking Kendra in the basement, the tree crashing in through the window and holding on to Griffin, while Madison is lured into the closet and she disappears. As Eric and Amy return home, a frantic search for Madison begins – until Griffin hears her voice from the TV.
As nobody else would believe their story, Amy turns to Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Addams), a paranormal researcher at the local University. Powell and her research team – Sophie (Susan Heyward) and Boyd (Nicholas Braun) – arrive at the house and are quickly stripped from any doubt that some malevolent spirits are behind all of the family’s torment. As they manage to contact Madison through the TV, her spirit is chased upstairs to her bedroom and into the closet. Eric angrily throws a table at the closet, opening a portal that transports the table through roof of the downstairs living room. Powell deduces that Madison is trapped in a dimension between our world and the spirit world and she needs some help in order to resolve this.
She calls Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) an old colleague as well as her ex-husband, who has his own reality TV-show where he exorcises or communicates with spirits. But the show is not a hoax; Carrigan IS, in fact, a powerful medium and the only person who can help bring Madison back from the other side, before the trapped spirits use her to get into the afterlife…
So, there you have it; it’s pretty much the same story as before. Instead of trying some in-depth analysis of the film and it’s themes, let’s go right ahead into the points where the filmmakers totally dropped the ball here:
1) That fine line between “reboot” and “copy & paste”
Does it really make a film qualify as a “reboot”, when you just change the names of the characters but actually tell pretty much the same story as before, even leaving large chunks of the dialogue from the original almost verbatim in the film? This is most apparent in the scene, where the Paranormal investigative team from the university arrives to the house; I swear they are almost using pages from the original script by Steven Spielberg(who does get a “based on the original screenplay by“-credit). I almost expected someone to address the family as “Freelings” at some point.
Maybe that is just that typical Hollywood studio note: “make it different, but still make it pretty much the same as before“….
There actually are some conflicting statements in the Internet about this film; some sources call it just a remake and some call it a reboot. Nevertheless, the repeated dialogue just sounds weird, especially when considering that they DID try to do some stuff differently. But that actually covers our next point:
2) Exactly what kind of a film were they planning to make?
This film has a wildly schizophrenic feel all over it. While watching, I actually got a feeling, that Kenan was actually TRYING to make a completely different film during pre-production, but a couple of days before shooting he was told that: “no, you can’t make the film focus on the kids – we paid these grown-up actors a lot of money, so you have to keep them on the screen.”
It’s pretty obvious that “Monster House” was the main reason Kenan was hired to make this film in the first place: the house coming to life, going after the kids while the parents seem oblivious to these happenings is practically what the plot of that film was too. And it’s in the scenes that focus on the kids when this film actually has some life in it. There are moments, when Griffin and Madison are first intrigued but kind of scared of the occurrences in the house and later full-on terrorized by them, when the film almost feels like a live-action version of “Monster House“(especially during the “abduction scene” with the big tree holding onto Griffin, while the house uses Madison’s favorite toy to lure her into the closet – all the while Kendra has been lured to the basement and is almost sucked into the rotten ground) and is actually rolling on nicely, but then:
We cut to scenes with the grown-ups and you can really see that Kenan really didn’t even bother to give them much direction. While hanging out with them, the film feels totally void of real emotion or drama – with one exception: Jared Harris’ medium Carrigan Burke. But that can partially be explained with the fact that Burke is kind of a child at heart himself. And of course with the fact that Harris is one helluva actor. But outside of that?
The team of parapsychologists are kinda non-entities compared to the ones in the original film. In the original, all of them were given moments to shine, especially Beatrice Straight as Dr.Lesh. Here it seems that they hired Jane Adams for the part in hopes that she would bring some of her usual independent film-quirkiness into this….but no: the only interesting thing about her character is that she was once married to Burke. And that’s it. The other two members of the team don’t really even register.
And then there’s the case of the Parents:
3) Aren’t we supposed to care for these people?
Remember the Freelings? Remember the chemistry between Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as Steven and Diane Freeling? How charming and kooky they were? And the way they actually kinda thought that all this paranormal stuff was kinda cool, before it all went to hell and how shocked and traumatized – and desperate – they became after that? Goddammit, you rooted for them to get their daughter back from the Other Side and their family back together.
Well – there is none of that in this film, because the Bowens? They are – for a lack of a better word – assholes. The father, Eric, starts the movie as unemployed, whiny, angry at the world. He lashes his frustration at the family, to the point where he’s almost bullying his son for being so scared of everything. There’s one slight little hint at backstory in a throwaway line his wife says to him about there being a “high-school team in the town he could coach” – I guess that would mean he’s a former Jock of some sorts, and basically ashamed that his son is a cowardly nerd. Which actually makes him even more unlikable. His big moment of being a family man actually consists of him maxing out his last credit card and buying stuff for the family so they’d love him. Oh yeah.
The mother, Amy, doesn’t fare any better. She talks about “starting to write a book” while she stays at home, but this never materializes, and she actually confesses that this is all just a pipe dream, and she really does not know what to do with her life. Remember the great scene in the original, how Diane Freeling dealt with the death of Carol Anne’s bird, arranging a nice funeral and all? And the way Diane and Carol Anne were excited by the phenomenons at first and were exploring those together? There’s none of that here; Amy is totally emotionally detached from her kids, and does not care when they rave about the mystical occurrences in the house. In fact, when Griffin is rambling about it, she calls him “a big baby“. What the fuck?
And actually, after that scene, the parents are talking in bed about how “they should have stopped at two kids“, but correcting by saying “the youngest is okay, it’s the middle one that’s the problem“. I shit you not – it was at this moment when this reviewer almost stopped the film and switched to the original just to wash the taste of this down.
And the situation is not helped by the fact that both Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell totally sleepwalk through the movie. There’s no sense of emotional attachment from either of them – in the end they’re just reacting to VFX. It’s really sad to see Rockwell, who you can usually rely on to bring at least some quirky characteristics to ANY part he plays, look this lost in a movie. I really hope this is an isolated incident, and not a sign of Rockwell entering a “Bruce Willis”-phase in his career.
4) The great moments from the original are totally watered down
So yeah, a little rundown:
- The great “chairs piling up in a single shot”-moment? Nope – here it’s Griffin’s comic books that get piled up in a CGI formation. But this is done in cuts, totally diminishing the effect of it all happening in a one-er.
- The great shot of the children’s room being a crazy vortex of toys as the paranormal team first opens the door? Nope. One of them gets electrocuted by the railing end post, and one gets a chair pulled from under him inside the room.
- The moment when the poor guy hallucinates about peeling his face off in the bathroom? Nope. We get a lame scene featuring a power drill, that’s basically just there for a 3D effect.
- The mother going through the portal to save her daughter, and the last embrace before it? Nope. As the parents are totally useless, it’s actually the son, Griffin, who goes through(as he’s the only one who seems to care for Madison anyways)
- “This house is clean” – deduced to a catchphrase that Burke uses in his TV show.
- The great ending zinger of: “You only moved the headstones!!!” Nope – as Eric is unemployed and in no way connected to the development of the residential area, this becomes a throwaway line by Burke.
In short(yeah right, as if this article is short): a movie balancing between remake and reboot but not really finding a footing on either side, with some horribly misguided characterizations. Bright side to all of this? The original is still out there, and the most recent “25th Anniversary” DVD/Blu-Ray release has a damn good-looking transfer. Go see that – don’t waste your time and/or money on this.