The original “Poltergeist” is a marvellous, curious thing: a playfully upbeat and sunny film which steadily darkens, fiendishly subverting its very Spielbergian sense of wonder. The only sense of wonder here is the audience wondering why they bothered remaking it.
Instead of the close knit and generally happy Freeling family of the original, the remake introduces us to the self-absorbed and dysfunctional Bowen family who are downsizing to a less affluent neighbourhood after Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) is laid off by his employers. Eric’s wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is, we are told, a would-be writer who doesn’t really write anymore thanks to bringing up their three children: sullen and spoiled teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), troubled and anxious Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and amateur Mara Wilson impersonator Madison (Kennedi Clements). Almost immediately after moving in to their new home, strange things start happening until one dark and stormy night, Madison vanishes, taken by the spirits plaguing the house and the Bowen family turn to the local college’s Paranormal Investigation Department to help.
Tonally, the film is all over the place with the tension and peril falling in inverse proportion to the plot and events so as the film approaches the finale, the characters and performances become more relaxed and light-hearted. The paranormal investigators are astonishingly blasé about the countless measurable phenomena surrounding them and nobody acts like what is happening is even remotely a big deal. The film constantly pulls its punches, right down to the needlessly reassuring mid-credits scene which adds a treacly happy ending onto the already unsatisfyingly straightforward finale. There’s more emotion and drama involved in Kendra’s mobile phone needing replaced than in the haunting itself.
Perhaps the reaction isn’t so surprising given that Eric and Amy Bowen are the worst cinematic parents since the King and Queen of Arandelle. Oblivious to anything or anyone apart from their own [underdeveloped] issues, they ignore everything their children try to tell them about weird things happening and then glibly put their son, who suffers from chronic anxiety issues, in the creepiest attic bedroom which boasts an en suite cubbyhole crammed to the rafters with creepy clown dolls, a dormer window offering spectacular views of a sinister old tree outside – and no curtains. I know of no parent of young children who would dream of putting them to sleep in a bedroom with no curtains. Believe me, the horror of constantly being woken at sunrise by your little cherubs is more terrifying than any amount of wardrobe portals and possessed televisions.
The cast seem bored and disengaged with the material, especially Sam Rockwell and although Kennedi Clements is adequately cute, she lacks the ethereal presence of Heather O’Rourke’s iconic Carol Anne. Jared Harris (affecting a geographically widespread broad Oirish brogue) tries his hardest to be enigmatic and spooky as TV paranormalist Carrigan Burke, but he’s simply not in the same league as Zelda Rubenstein.
Attempts to modernise the original fall completely flat from the static on the TV (modern televisions tend not to show static, preferring a message advising there’s no signal) to the inclusion of tablets, smartphones and other digital ephemera. There’s a definite attempt to tie the haunting and power of the restless spirits to electricity but the film doesn’t really do anything clever with it and eventually starts to contradict itself as characters use things like remote control drones without any problems. Likewise, a lot is made of the family’s money problems and the rundown neighbourhood they’ve had to move into yet scenes of credit cards being declined are followed by scenes of Eric splashing out on expensive gifts without explanation or import. There are clear indicators that this 90 minute misfire has been butchered in the editing room with several scenes either beginning or ending with glaring continuity errors.
Where the original favoured slowly escalating dread and allowed the story and characters time to breathe, this hack job is edited for the instant gratification, clickbait attention span where, if there’s not a jump scare every five minutes, you’ll have lost the audience’s attention to the latest Snapchat or Vine. Everything it borrows from the original isn’t done as well and everything new it tries to add doesn’t work. Yes, one toy clown is creepy. Ten clowns are not ten times as creepy, they’re annoying. It’s a disappointing return to directing for Gil Kenan in his first film since 2008’s underrated “City Of Ember”. I expected much, much better from him after his directorial debut “Monster House”, a near-perfect family-friendly horror film which comes much closer to capturing the spirit of the original “Poltergeist” than this sorry mess. As to what producer Sam Raimi was thinking, I’m genuinely surprised he allowed his name to remain on the finished product.
Everything about this film is like a disappointing cover version by a third-rate tribute band and the only thing I thought about during its entire running time was how much I wished I was watching the original. Annoying and unnecessary in equal measure, it’s this kind of rubbish that gives remakes a bad name.