Updates for technology and relative pop culture celebrity of mediums and paranormal researchers are just about all that separate the new version of Poltergeist from the 1982 Steven Spielberg produced classic that inspires it. Oh, and the fact that aside from a few decent starts in the first 30 minutes, the new version just isn’t very scary. Entertaining? Sure, but that’s more thanks to the presence of Sam Rockwell doing his best to add some levity to the proceedings. But scary? Save for a few iconic moments redone faithfully from the original, not particularly, mainly due to the inescapable fact that quite literally you’ve seen all the rest of it before.
The details in the film’s setup have been tweaked a bit, as well: this time, it’s the Bowen family that’s moving into the nice, suburban two-story house with the gnarled and creepy tree in the backyard. Out of work dad Eric (Rockwell), stay-at-home mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), eldest daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett, FOX’s “The Following”), and the family’s youngest, Maddy (Kennedi Clements) all do their best to settle in, but clearly something’s not right in their new home, and the wrongness seems to be centered around Maddy. At first it’s only Griffin who notices, however, and his fears are dismissed because (as audiences learn through some brief exposition) he went through something traumatic not long before and he’s been nervous and fearful of everything ever since.
But Griffin’s fears become undeniable once, well, the entire house seems to attack the Bowens. The tree outside Griffin’s attic bedroom drags him outside and nearly swallows him. Kendra almost gets sucked down beneath the house when black ooze breaks through the garage floor and a hand grabs her leg. And Maddy … well, Maddy gets taken through the black void where her bedroom closet wall used to be.
Desperate to get Maddie back, the Bowens turn to the paranormal researchers at a local university, who bring in lots of cameras and recording equipment a la “Ghost Hunters” more so to uncover a hoax the family is putting on rather than actually helping them. Once they’re rather violently convinced that what they’re dealing with is, in fact, a poltergeist, they call in help from Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), a gifted medium turned TV paranormal reality show star, who may be the only person with the knowledge and ability to help lead the fight to get the Bowens their daughter back and free them from the curse of the house and the souls trapped within it.
This new Poltergeist is the latest “revisionist” take on a classic horror tale cranked out by Ghost House Pictures, the production studio founded by none other than Evil Dead creators Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. Like their last horror remake, 2013’s Evil Dead, the new film plays the story straight and avoids camp, but they wisely cast Sam Rockwell in the Craig T. Nelson role of the original film to bring some much-needed comic relief throughout most of the film’s running time. Other noteworthy changes include shifting some of the dramatic emphasis away from the parents and onto young Griffin, played the talented Kyle Catlett, who is the audience’s initial viewpoint character for all the weird goings-on and ends up playing one of the most important roles in the film’s climax. Other changes are mainly cosmetic: the nasty spirits find they have far more ways than simply the TV to reach out and terrorize the Bowens, as they make their presence felt through the family’s smartphones and other home electronics. The production also injects some fun by updating the medium character for the 21st Century, with Burke’s status as a reality TV star making perfect sense considering the place that supernatural phenomena and its alleged observation and investigation currently occupy in pop culture.
But for all those changes, and the film making opportunities that newer technologies and better special effects afford in terms of making horror movies, the story progresses in more or less the same way that it does in the original, with very little new brought to the table in terms of actual scares. As strange as it might sound, the film gets less scary and suspenseful as the action intensifies, rendering the film’s final minutes, complete with the requisite “you didn’t think it was that easy, did you?” moment, almost devoid of any tension at all.
All that said, you should still avoid this movie if you’re creeped out by clowns, scary-looking trees, dark closets or kids staring at static on your TV and then making ominous pronouncements about unwanted guests arriving. The chills that come from the sights and sounds of those scenes must reach somewhere into our collective cultural unconscious to tap into fears that transcend time and medium, because somehow, though we’ve seen them before and we’ll no doubt see them again in some other film, they still manage to unnerve.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams. Directed by Gil Kenan.
Running Time: 93 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language.