Film Review: Poltergeist (2015)

They're here. Poltergeist 2015 (Image © 20th Century Fox). 

They're here. Poltergeist 2015 (Image © 20th Century Fox). 

The Sam Raimi-produced Poltergeist movie is the latest film to join the Hollywood remake/reboot/sequel tornado, and it drags Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt into the franchise-molding meat grinder with it. The result is a heaping serving of spook house jump cuts that is neither fully satisfying nor dissatisfying. In fact, this spring fling sits rigidly in the average camp, and it’s the kind of cinematic fare the audience will forget over the next six months. It’s not new. It’s not daring, and it’s not original.

Poltergeist isn’t as terrible as some critics (the ones clutching their chests and shrieking, “My childhood!”) are publicly denouncing though. At the end of the day, it’s just another ghost movie in a long line of ghost movies about a family terrorized by the unseen. In this instance, the Bowes family is rooted in the Midwest, and a group of poltergeists dish up the usual bag of visual gags, jump cuts, and abrupt loud noises we’ve long been accustomed to in the horror scene.

Are there elements in this movie that are done well? Yes. Is there anything in this new Poltergeist that merits a viewing? Probably not.

This isn’t to say this film is awful. Director Gil Kenan perfectly captures the feel of a Midwestern suburb, even going so far as to subtly locate our family within Illinois through referencing towns and cities (Moline and Naperville) Illinoisians might be familiar with. The backdrop is believable, and it’s an interesting feat, considering this update was filmed in Canada.  Kenan’s cast, for the most part, is also on point, save for the eldest daughter and a paranormal researcher named Boyd.  The eldest daughter, Kendra (played by Saxon Sharbino) plays up the stereotype of a typical, angst-ridden teenager, and this Boyd character (Nicholas Braun) is a snarky, dim-witted moron whose sole purpose revolves around filling idle screen time.

In the film’s earlier frames, however, Kenan manages to weave together a nice technophobic theme as our characters, bearing the financial weight of unemployment, lose themselves in their gadgets. This theme carries an important role when the titular poltergeists first start plaguing the family. It’s a perverse intrusion, one that plays off the fears of parents everywhere. “Who’s interacting with our kids?” it asks us, and while the parents (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) are out at a dinner party, one-by-one, the ghosts isolate the three children at home with their digital screens. In the glowing reflections of cell phones, tablets, and television sets, the children are ensnared by unseen enemies, defenseless against torture and torment while the parents are having wine somewhere. It’s a theme as powerful today as it was in 1982 when the original Poltergeist movie came out, perhaps even more so. Had this theme continued, it would have made this re-launch of the franchise memorable.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film descends into a half-hearted attempt to “modernize” an old formula. The 2015 Poltergeist follows the exact same plot as the 1982 Poltergeist. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not exactly daring either. This remake doesn’t grab us with a sense of urgency and subjugate us to a fresh take on horror. Instead, it sits us down and plays a movie we’ve seen before, adding in finesses of remote-controlled drones and Apple laptops, and in a way, it’s reminiscent of the way George Lucas tinkered with his original Star Wars trilogy when he produced his special editions. Like George Lucas, Sam Raimi and Gil Kenan slapped some new paint and digitally enhanced graphics on an old body and re-released it. What once was blonde became dark brown. What once was a tube television became an LCD flat screen.

But the corpses are still there, buried deep under the house in a former graveyard some developer was too lazy to relocate.

For a new generation of viewers, this tactic may sizzle with freshness. For those who have seen Poltergeist, it’s the same old bag of tricks, down to all the memorable minute details and familiar scenes. Good or bad, it exists, and that’s all we can say of it, as Poltergeist floats in a bizarre limbo where we’re not engaged enough to have a strong reaction either way. Sam Rockwell’s performance is enjoyable though, so at least we’ll have a friend in the theater.