I’m going to try and be fair to this new Poltergeist remake and not just compare it endlessly to Tobe Hooper’s 1982 original, a paranormal classic and the template for countless ghost stories these days. It will be hard to avoid, though, because this new version makes no bones about telling the same story in virtually every way. The structure and happenings are almost carbon copies. Scenes are basically the same, with similar ends, though they might be told in different ways from time to time. But they aren’t fooling anyone. We see what is happening.
In this new version, Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt play Eric and Amy Bowen. In the opening scenes, the Bowen’s are moving into a bargain-price home in an old neighborhood next to some power lines. They needed a deal since Eric lost his job and Amy is staying at home to raise their three kids and write “her book.” (Side note: why do so many characters in movies like this take time off work to write their novel? It has become a lazy character trait.) Almost immediately, the house begins to show signs of its paranormal history. It seems to pulsate with electrical current, lights go on and off, electronics are fried. You know, the usual.
As the parents work to get on their feet and establish their lives, the entities begin to threaten the kids. The oldest, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), stays mostly free of the apparitions, but middle son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) has a heck of a time with clowns and trees. I say clowns because there are several this time, and they all look menacing which misses the point of the innocent-looking clown from the original. Then, of course, there is the youngest daughter, Madison (not Carol Anne for some reason), played by Kennedi Clements. Poor Maddie bears the brunt of the ghostly invaders.
Maddie is snatched up by the ghosts through a portal in her closet, and it is time to call in a team of reinforcements, a trio of paranormal investigators from the local college led by Dr. Brooke Powell, played by the always interesting character actor Jane Adams. Powell and her team come in and their investigation leads them to realize they aren’t enough reinforcement; they must call in Carrigan Burke, a celebrity ghost hunter played by Jared Harris. This is perhaps the biggest departure from the original Poltergeist, as Harris replaces Zelda Rubinstein’s infinitely more interesting mystic, Tangina. Harris, on the other hand, is doing his best impersonation of Quint from Jaws.
The rest of the film moves briskly through the plot points everyone remembers from the original. This Poltergeist also has two endings, and the first ending has some impressive vibrance and crafty thrills. The second and final ending falls flat. Rockwell and DeWitt, both fantastic actors, are solid and believable as the parents, but they are nowhere near as entertaining and warm and, well, perfect as the Freeman’s (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) in the original. Director Gil Kenan, making his first foray into live action filmmaking, handles the material well enough. That is to say, there are no glaring problems with the look or feel of the picture. It just kind of… exists.
There are no real scares here, mostly because we all know where the story is going, when, and how for the most part. The differences in individual scenes are different for the sake of being so, not because they are attempting anything new. No matter how hard everyone tries here, the new Poltergeist can never get out from under the shadow of its predecessor, thus never feeling necessary in any way. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in that way everyone involved with the original Poltergeist should feel incredibly flattered. But they can rest easy knowing their original version has not been bested.