Boohoo! You remove a couple headstones and suddenly it’s the end of the world for the dead. Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt and Jared Harris star in Poltergeist.

PoltergeistCast of Characters:
Eric Bowen – Sam Rockwell
Amy Bowen – Rosemarie DeWitt
Carrigan Burke – Jared Harris
Dr. Brooke Powell – Jane Adams
Griffin Bowen – Kyle Catlett
Kendra Bowen – Saxon Sharbino
Madison Bowen – Kennedi Clements

Director – Gil Kenan
Screenplay – David Lindsay-Abaire
Based on characters created by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais & Mark Victor
Producer – Roy Lee, Sam Raimi & Robert G. Tapert
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language

After he’s laid off from his job, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell), his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three kids are looking for a fresh start in their new home. Once settled in, the youngest child, Madison (Kennedi Clements), begins experiencing strange behavior. The family initially shrugs it off as just harmless imaginary friends of hers, but as the activity escalates beyond the explainable, the Bowens realize it’s something dark and malevolent that threatens their home.

After re-imagining Freddy, Jason, Michael, Leatherface, Norman Bates and running The Omen, House of Wax, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left and Dawn of the Dead through the remake mill, it’d only be a matter of time before the Tobe Hooper directed/Steven Spielberg produced supernatural horror classic Poltergeist would be retrieved from the vault.

And as little Carol Anne once said, “They’re heeeere.”

If you haven’t seen the original Poltergeist (don’t bother with its two sequels), you’ve been missing out on one of the best horror films from the ’80s. Amidst the blood-soaked R-rated slashers that dominated the decade, it was a pleasant PG-rated surprise (although initially rated R before Hooper and Spielberg appealed) that relied more on unsettling suspense than excessive blood and gore. Adding to its legacy was the “Poltergeist curse” (six cast members died in the six years that came in between the first and third films) that, as star JoBeth Williams later revealed, was allegedly brought on by the filmmakers using real human skeletons when filming the swimming pool scene.

Odd as it might seem, the uphill battle for this film isn’t so much being able to step out from under the shadow of the original; it’s being able to distinguish itself from the recent resurgence of supernatural flicks (The Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister, etc.) in the past five years or so, all of whom owe at least some thanks to the original 1982 film. Disappointingly, this is business as usual.

Disappointed might not be the right word. It’s not like I was jumping up and down in excitement over this. Then again, when you have the director of Monster House, Gil Kenan (a bit of a departure compare to this, mind you, but a good film nonetheless), Sam Raimi as producer and a cast led by Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt, you at least hope for the best. That I and my low expectations got some enjoyment out of this makes this a minor success; that the talent just mentioned ends up producing a decent at best, mediocre at worst middling film is where the disappointment comes in.

This is in no way a bad film; I’ve sat through the far worse remakes that disserviced the original and just movies in general. However, though it’s competently made in terms of production value and Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography creates an effective enough creepy atmosphere, it’s missing the magic that the original had. A large part of that has to do with the fact that this version jumps the gun a little too early, rushing itself in setting up the malevolent spirits of the household. The original took its time to establish the Freeling family, and even when they first begin noticing the paranormal activity in their home, they treat it with a sorta naive excitement. In turn it made the scares all the more shocking when the entities go from playfully yanking chairs across the kitchen floor to sadistically abusing their state of minds (e.g., Martin Casella’s face-peeling hallucination).

Most of the callbacks to the original occur within the first 15-20 minutes (barely buried human bones, psycho toy clowns, creepy trees, etc.), leaving plenty of room for Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire to add their own flavor to the mix. Unfortunately, most of their own flavor are ho-hum retreads (a chase involving Madison’s shadow across the house walls is a nice visual touch, however) and a superfluous backstory involving the two paranormal researchers being former lovers. Aside from one truly inspired scare, it’s a pretty thin offering from them.

But as much as the script doesn’t give them much to work with, I gotta hand it to Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt for putting in the effort anyway. Rockwell, always an engaging presence and DeWitt make for a believable, natural pair. The two of them, plus additional supporting help from Jane Adams and Jared Harris (you can’t beat Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina Barrons, but Harris is still good here), elevate the too trope heavy for its own good material, and child actors Kyle Catlett and Kennedi Clements do a fine job at convincingly acting out their characters’ fear and vulnerability.

And despite lacking in the scares department, unless you count the obligatory use of cheap, loud sound effects, Kenan does provide us with that truly inspired scare I mentioned up above, a terrifically tense moment involving one of the researchers and a power drill that is able to be quite the heart-pounder without needing any “BOO!!” jump gags or shocking imagery.

Given the effort the cast puts in, had we have gotten more moments like that, this might’ve been a better film.

The talented cast turns in an earnest effort, and director Gil Kenan supplies the film with a moody vibe that isn’t without its moments. But while adding a few changes here and there without disrespecting the 1982 version, Poltergeist 2.0 doesn’t really add anything of value and ultimately has a “been there, done that” feel in regard to just the supernatural thrillers of today and not even its own franchise that holds it back from being a truly effective remake.

I give Poltergeist a C+ (★★½).

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