Poltergeist (2015)

Gil Kenan is a brave man. Although it boasts about as many scares as Jumanji, the original Poltergeist – a Tobe Hooper/Stephen Spielberg co-project on which the latter’s fingerprints are more obvious – is curiously beloved by genre fans. Remaking it was always going to be an arduous task, regardless of whether the director in question had the visual flair to put his own spin on the material. In the case of Kenan (who helmed the enjoyable family horror Monster House), he understands the appeal of Poltergeist enough to update the story for the modern age. Where he falls flat is in failing to do anything new or, more crucially, scary with it.

Likeable character actors Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie De Witt are the Bowens, down on their luck parents to three sprightly kids; adorable Madison (Kennedi Clements), bed-wetter Griffin (Kyle Katlett) and grumpy teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino). After Pa loses his job, they’re forced to relocate to a ghost estate that was built, they are informed much too late to cancel their cheque, on the grounds of an old cemetery. No sooner can you utter the words “paranormal activity” than iPhone screens are going fuzzy, doors are opening and closing by themselves and young Madison is sucked into the TV set.

As remakes go, Poltergeist is among the least offensive. It’s presented with such an innate, cautious respect for the source material that it’s barely even its own film. To be fair, Kenan utilises enough modern technology that, unlike the recent The Town That Dreaded Sundown remake, which muddied the waters somewhat, it’s never unclear what year we’re in. And, as with the best modern horror movies, technology turns out to be a hindrance against otherworldly powers. Adding to this, when it comes time to deal with the titular ghostie, the kids call upon spirit chaser Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), a psychic investigator who fronts his own Ghost Hunters-style internet show. Devouring the scenery with gusto, Harris adopts an Irish brogue not heard onscreen since the glory days of Darby O’Gill, but it’s impossible not to warm to him – particularly with Rockwell pulling faces every time he opens his mouth.

Rockwell’s easy chemistry with De Witt, along with their believably strained family unit, elevates Poltergeist from its contemporaries. The Bowens are a messily realistic family with well-established interpersonal issues. The kids’ performances are all strong, particularly Clements as wide-eyed Madison. But it’s Griffin who has the most to deal with as, relegated to the attic room, he finds his irrational fears more grounded in reality than he thought, especially when a tree bursts through the sky-light.

Speaking of which, most of the set-pieces are resurrected here and, although Kenan assured journalists, prior to the film’s release, that not everything was as it seemed, they hit pretty much the same beats as in the original. Aside from the tree, the evil clown doll is present, accounted for and multiplied, the ground opens up in nicely gooey fashion and characters are thrown about the place with enjoyable goofiness.

There’s liveliness to this new Poltergeist that ensures, even with the fuzzy 3D and almost by-the-numbers replication of past events, it clips along at a nice enough pace. The CGI effects are often ropey, but there’s a strong final-act sequence in the netherworld, which is populated by Death Eater-like ghouls, that is impressive and well-realised. It even hints that Kenan might have a few more tricks up his sleeve.

The director works off an agreeable screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, whose background is mostly with kids’ stuff. As such, the dialogue isn’t as clunky or self-referential as we’ve come to expect. There are no “Who is Fred Krueger?” moments, nor does Poltergeist expect to be accepted with the same respect as its predecessor. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, intentionally so, and Rockwell, in particular, seems bemused by the whole thing.

Although it has many so-called horror fans up in arms, hating Poltergeist just because it doesn’t capture the magic of the original film – or because it has the audacity to be a remake in the first place – is misguided and counter-productive. It was never going to compare to the Hooper/Spielberg original. That film has had twenty-odd years in which to build up a sense of nostalgia among genre fans. It also has a weird history attached to it, and is an endless talking point.

In a strong year that’s already boasted; the terrifically original It Follows, the deviously nasty Unfriended, and clever remake/reboot/sequel hybrid The Town That Dreaded Sundown, among others, it’s easy to discount Poltergeist. As a horror movie, it isn’t particularly scary or tense and, although the family are often in peril, their survival is pretty much guaranteed. However, viewed in the same manner as kids’ horror/adventure movies such as Joe Dante‘s wonderfully troubling The Hole, it’s quite effective.

It’s not breaking any new ground, and the action is mostly PG-rated, but as remakes go Poltergeist isn’t nearly as offensively terrible as the fanboys would have you believe. Compare it to the likes of Friday The 13th or A Nightmare On Elm Street and it’s downright enjoyable. A perfectly serviceable chiller, with a great cast, some decent visuals and a strong foothold in a tough modern world, it’ll do just nicely for a lazy Saturday night on the sofa. Or with a particularly easily-frightened date.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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