MGM’s ransacking of their archives for properties to remake to negligible response, other than sullying their reputation through wanton disrespect, might not seem that heinous in respect of Poltergeist. It was, after all, the spooky equivalent of Jaws. A Spielberg concept “directed by Tobe Hooper”, run into the ground through neglect and the desire for artistically bankrupt sequels. But Gil Kenan’s update is so wilfully redundant, particularly when the original had something special going for it, it might be worth keeping the 2015 take in mind as a harbinger of what will become of many an ‘80s classic (well, there are only so many ‘80s classics to start with, but you get the idea) when their master architects are no longer around to put the kibosh on suits’ plans to jump-start a brand.
MGM’s plundering hasn’t produced anything anyone’s sat up and taken notice of, and none of them have felt like a prestige or event picture, from Carrie to Robocop to Fame to Red Dawn. And with a ho-hum speed-ramped Ben-Hur and a Fuqua’d The Magnificent Seven to come this year, and Road House and another Thomas Crown Affair in the pipeline, that doesn’t look like it’s going to change very soon. There was some vague hope for Poltergeist. After all, Sam Raimi was attached as producer, who had garnered respect for shepherding various horror properties to the screen (mostly remakes of Japanese fare). And Kenan seemed to have the right sensibility. Monster House was well-regarded, and his live-action debut, City of Ember was under-seen but suggested he wouldn’t have to return to expressing himself purely via pixels any time soon.
Poltergeist, though, as suggested by the limp attempts to update it for a generation 30-years on, brings little new to the table, particularly arriving as it does in the shade of James Wan’s more effective series of family-shockers. Maybe that’s down to David Lindsay-Abaire’s antiseptic screenplay (he also contributed to the less than impressive adaptations of Rise of the Guardians and Oz The Great and Powerful; the latter suggests he impressed Raimi, but I can’t think why, given the end result), or maybe it’s just a general lack of confidence given the original’s insurmountable iconography.
The closest we come is in the depiction of the parents, whose own domestic disturbance is far more engaging than the frightful occurrences (he’s out of work, demanding she stay at home to complete that novel, although really it’s about his insecure breadwinner status). Indeed, when Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt (another reason to have looked to the picture’s potential, as they’re excellent choices) are on screen, before they’re bowdlerised by the incessant un-special effects of the last half hour, you might almost believe Poltergeist is heading some place interesting. Rockwell’s never one to play a normal guy, but that makes his efforts to be an understanding dad and gracious husband more marked, leading to a memorable sequence of gross immaturity as he embarks on a spending spree with his one non-maxed-out credit card. DeWitt has less to do, but she tends to make you forget when she’s doing it.
The kids aren’t as successful, though. Kyle Catlett, the lead in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, comes across like he’s just stepped out of a new Kenan CGI animation, and where his oddball quality worked in Spivet, here it just tends to mark the movie out as cartoonish and ungrounded even before anything strange has happened. Saxon Sharbino is just another teenage daughter, and Kennedi Clements, essaying the “They’re here!” role, is insufficiently supported by gradually escalating strangeness so her plight lacks any impact.
Which is the biggest problem. The picture unfolds in such a functional, mechanical manner in respect of the supernatural element, it neither surprises nor scares anybody. Tree scene? Check. TV set (big TV set)? Check. Gateway to another realm, but now with copious, bland CGI? Check. Jared Harris offers some relief as smooth showman ghostbuster Carrigan Burke, full of war stories and bearing the demeanour of a faker, and Jane Adams offers contrasting gravitas as the earnest faculty professor on hand, but by this point the picture can only play out its store in undemanding, unconvincing fashion.
When we arrive at the house kidnapping the family car, for yet more CGI-assisted attempts at a top-that finale, there’s still ten minutes to go, and it’s a snooze. One might hope this would impede the studio’s will to remake its back catalogue, since none of them thus far have really been worth the effort, but if there’s any chance of just one landing, you know they’ll take it.