I had to really think about whether I wanted to review this movie for the site. There was never a doubt I would watch it, good or bad I had to see what a “reboot / remake / reimagining” would do for this series. But… should I review this movie when I know it won’t be as good as the first? Is it fair to compare the two? My answer to the latter is… absolutely. If you make a movie about ghosts, call it Poltergeist and structure it around the same basic premise as another movie of the same name, you open yourself up to those inevitable comparisons. So how did it do?
I’m not big on plot summaries, so allow me to borrow from Google to help tell the story…
All seems well for Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell), wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three children as they move into their new house in the suburbs of Illinois. Soon, youngest daughter Maddy (Kennedi Clements) begins talking to an imaginary friend, or so the family thinks. It’s not long before sinister spirits wreak havoc in the home, holding Maddy captive and forcing the parents to consult a team of parapsychologists who engage the supernatural entities in a battle for the girl’s freedom.
So there are no more Freeling’s, there are now Bowen’s. That’s a really good place for my brain to start, because it’s ultimately going to be the narrative of how I feel about this movie. The magic of Poltergeist (1983) wasn’t the jumps or the special effects, it was the relationship this family had with each other. I don’t want to get caught reviewing the first movie, but it’s important to make this point. The writers and actors created characters that I really cared about. After all, this was a Spielberg film in the 80’s (yes, it was his) so family was certainly a focal point. I really liked the Freeling’s, I laughed with them and I feared for them. A lot of this credit is due to the chemistry between Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. They felt like real parents and convinced us that they had a tightly-woven family unit. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are here as the parents of Kendra, Griffin and Madison (as the new “Carol Anne”). While Rockwell certainly has a Freeling-like quality about him, his dynamic with DeWitt and the rest of the family just wasn’t the same. This is echoed heavily when the two parents toast in their bedroom with “Here’s to the little jerks”. I’m by no means offended, I’m a Dad and understand what that meant, but it instantly told me we were dealing with a different kind of family.
Another thing that certainly felt different was the use of technology in this movie. Some may have had issue with this, but I actually appreciated the attempt at modernization in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. Right out of the gate there are tablets, cell phones and also drones. As strange as this may seem for a Poltergeist movie, I think this works. I also feel this is a fair way to welcome today’s millennials into the franchise. There was a heavy emphasis on technology, with the oldest sister using her phone to detect the impending spookiness to the brother using a drone to scope out the nearby parallel dimension. Even though the snow/distortion effect on the flat screen TV did seem a little out of place in today’s world, it still worked.
When it comes to remakes, the one aspect that tends to work for me are the updated affects. The early 80’s gave us virtually nothing but practical effects, which are sentimentally endearing but don’t always hold up. In Poltergeist (1983), I would refer to the scene in the bathroom where the guy pulls off his face. While it’s still fairly creepy, a viewing today might make you wince for the wrong reasons. Poltergeist (2015) holds its own without really pushing any envelopes. There was one bit, actually reminiscent of Poltergeist III, where the sister is in the basement and being pulled through the floor. We also have new-Carol Anne getting jerked up the stairs rather violently, which I thought was a nice touch. The one scene that I thought was especially effective was new-Robbie getting pulled through the house and out the window by the tree. That was a nice upgrade over the puppeteering in the first movie.
At the end of the day, how do you judge a remake? I think we can all agree no remake will eclipse it’s predecessor. At least, none of them have thus far, so it’s fair to set the bar low. I always get excited at the idea, but the execution ends up feeling like an unnecessary retread for the sole purpose of financial gain. The one thing I’ve learned is that you can recreate the movie, but you can’t recreate the reason I loved it when I was 7 years old. For me, the newer version of Halloween was enjoyable, Elm Street was average and Friday the 13th was atrocious. So where does Poltergeist (2015) fall? I think it ends up somewhere near the middle with the Freddy. It didn’t offend me, but by the end of the credits it didn’t renew my interest in the franchise. I was fine to say goodbye to the Bowen’s, but found myself wondering if the Freeling’s were living somewhere in a house without televisions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you’d run screaming from this, but you won’t exactly get sucked into your TV.