The horror remake craze finally seemed to be dying down when it was announced that Sam Raimi’s Ghosthouse production company would be “re-imagining” the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper kiddie horror classic ‘Poltergeist’ thanks to a struggling MGM’s desperate attempt to make any cash whatsoever. In theory, the results should be disastrous given how much the charms of the original ‘Poltergeist’ are tied to its era. Yet, somehow, this thing is surprisingly watchable. It’s easily one of the best of the 21st Century horror remakes, though for the love of god please don’t let that encourage any more of these things.
The major reason for the success of ‘Poltergeist’ 2.0 is simple: Director Gil Kenan. Arguably, the guy already made a fantastic ‘Poltergeist’ remake with his debut ‘Monster House‘, and this singular 3D spookhouse talent has been without work for seven long years since his underperforming follow-up ‘City of Ember’. Kenan knows exactly how to whip up atmospheric CGI scares without stretching outside tasteful PG boundaries, and also understands how important the fractured family dynamics and dry humor were to the appeal of the original movie. He finds just the right balance between callbacks to the classic and new takes on old gags. Realistically, this is likely the best one could possibly hope for from a ‘Poltergeist’ remake. Would it have been preferable for Kenan to make an original horror romp? Uh, yeah… undoubtedly. But that’s not what we got. At least this compromise is worthy.
Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt star as the parents in this trip down Spielbergian memory lane. In a nice contemporary twist that’s never hammered home too hard, they buy their haunted house as a result of struggling finances in this nutty recession. They’re a loving and believable parental team, but with their share of flaws and plenty of quipy wit. Their kids are equally well cast and credibly neurotic, from Saxon Sharbino’s sarcastic teen to Kyle Catlett’s troubled middle child and Kennedi Clements’ vaguely psychic youngster.
Kenan slowly introduces us to the family while also dialing up the haunted potential of their new suburban surroundings. All of the iconic household scares that Spielberg and Hooper (I don’t subscribe the authorship controversy; the 1982 film has both of their authorial stamps) dreamed up long ago appear – including self-stacking objects, creepy clown dolls, and a kiddie closet portal to the other side. Yet Kenan wisely never repeats any scares or set-pieces slavishly. He plays around with the formula for fans of the original (even tipping the cemetery back story early and offhandedly), while still giving new audiences the classic beats.
For the first hour, Kenan really delivers one hell of a ride. He plays with Spielberg’s sense of wonder (especially in a beautiful light-ball sequence), Hooper’s harshness (within PG-13 reason), and even producer Sam Raimi’s relentless scarehouse tactics in various sequences while still making the world his own. The performances are sharp and on-point to keep everything grounded, while also slipping in a gently comedic tone to lull the audience in.
Then, once the scares kick off, the tension never lets up. Kenan has a balletic sense of camerawork that takes full advantage of 3D’s enveloping and eye-poking potential like few contemporary horror flicks have. It’s a genuine blast filled with wonderful set-pieces (including an excellent haunted drill sequence that subs in for the face-tearing moment that could never make it into a family horror flick these days), excellent visual effects, subtle humor, and breathless pacing. Unfortunately, the fun doesn’t last forever.
Even those who love the original ‘Poltergeist’ have to admit that the movie loses a bit of its mojo when it gets into the paranormal scientific mumbo-jumbo section that Spielberg wrote with much more conviction in ‘Close Encounters’. Kenan keeps the pacing from sagging at this point in his version, but there’s no denying that the movie loses much of its charm, intensity and effectiveness while racing to a CGI-fest finale. Seeing Jane Adams (as the lead scientist) and Jared Harris (as a Reality TV ghost hunter) reunite is amusing for ‘Happiness’ fans, but neither of them can hold a candle to Zelda Rubinstein’s iconic house-cleaner from the original film. Kenan also seems to run out of his directorial bag of tricks in the finale, delivering a lot of easy jump scares and cuddly CGI corpses instead of the intense, surreal and nasty climax that Hooper whipped up in 1982.
Unfortunately, this ‘Poltergeist’ concludes with a whimper rather than a bang after building up some surprising good will. The last act feels so rushed and choppy that you can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t studio tampering involved. That’s a shame, because Kenan was clearly onto something good for the first hour that slips through his fingers. Thankfully, the bum endnotes are not movie killers. Anyone dreading a soulless and perfunctory ‘Poltergeist’ remake need not fear. Flaws and all, this movie turned out infinitely better than anyone had any right to expect and offers the finest 3D family horror romp since… well… since ‘Monster House’. (Well, unless you count ‘Coraline’, I suppose).
Hopefully, it won’t be another seven years before Gil Kenan gets to cut loose with another 3D genre romp. Anyone who can do this well with such an unnecessary project deserves a chance to let his imagination run wild. ‘Poltergeist’ 2015 might not top the original, but it’s still far better than the sequels and most of the knockoffs. That’s really all we ever could have asked for.