Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist was one of my first horror movies and perhaps the first to give me nightmares (thankfully there’s 24-hour programming now because the thought of that late night TV sign-off still gives me the creeps). When you hold a film so near and dear, it’s tough not to walk into a screening of the remake ready to tear it apart for exploiting the original, but the new Poltergeist is actually a nice surprise. Is it as good as the original? No, but it does rock some fantastic performances, a very appealing sense of humor and a whole bunch of fun scares, too. It certainly won’t wind up becoming a classic like the original, but it’s still a good time if you’re looking for an entertaining thrill.
Similar to the 1982 original, Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist focuses on a family of five, Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their kids Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and Madison (Kennedi Clements). They’re a bit strapped for cash so when they get a good deal on a house in a rather dated suburban community, they bite. Soon after moving in, strange things start happening. Eric and Amy eventually learn that their house was built on a cemetery, but it’s too late. The spirits target little Madison and lure her into a closet and over to the other side.
The moment the movie began, I started scribbling down cynical notes and sighing at the overabundance of foreboding modern technology references and the silly title card placement, but mere minutes in I had no choice but to change my tune because I was actually coming to like the Bowen family quite a bit. The original film features some laughs, but screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire gives this version a far bolder sense of humor. At one point, during a quiet moment alone, Eric and Amy joke that they should have stopped after two kids, they toast to their “little jerks” and indulge in a handful of dick jokes. I’d like to bet the material felt a bit mean spirited on paper, but Kenan and his cast do such an excellent job establishing an appealing family dynamic with spot-on comedic timing that it all comes across as natural, playful and absolutely hilarious.
This cast really could have made anything work. DeWitt makes for a very believable loving mother, but she also effortlessly steps into Rockwell’s territory and dishes out some sassy jokes of her own every once in a while. But Eric is definitely the Bowen with the biggest sense of humor. Not only does Rockwell deliver one successful zinger after the next, he’s also got this one especially memorable sequence that involves a squirrel and some physical comedy that he absolutely nails. As for the kids, Catlett is the scene-stealer. The film establishes Griffin as a tech whiz who’s scared of absolutely everything and basically leaves it at that, but Catlett has no problem taking it from there and turning Griffin into an especially expressive and endearing character. Clements is spot-on as little Maddie as well. In fact, she’s so good it can take you out of the movie so that you can marvel at how impressive it is that such a young actress can make her jokes and big scares so convincing. Sadly, Sharbino gets the short end of the stick here. Her performance is serviceable and she does make Kendra feel like an important part of the family, but the script just doesn’t give her much to do.
Jared Harris is definitely no Zelda Rubinstein, but he does come far closer to delivering an equally memorable medium than I expected. He steps in as Carrigan Burke, the host of a show called Haunted House Cleaners who wraps every episode by declaring, “This house is clean” (see what they did there?). It sounds a little silly, but the film does something unexpected with Jane Adams’ character that makes him more than a tacky TV personality. Susan Heyward is forgettable as one of Adams’ assistants simply because she doesn’t really do anything. Nicholas Braun nearly crashes and burns as the other assistant after a bizarre and confusing conversation between his character and Griffin, but then he quickly redeems himself as the centerpiece of one of the film’s strongest scare scenes.
I wouldn’t call any of the scares in Poltergeist ones with the power to keep you up at night, but almost all of them are fun, crowd-pleasing jolts that put a big grin on my face. The movie also boasts a ton of great visual tricks that feel fresh and also serve as satisfying nods to the original, like when Griffin’s comic books form a pyramid of sorts, much like the kitchen chairs in Hooper’s version. For the most part, Kenan’s got a strong eye for simple yet very eerie visuals without using familiar genre camera techniques that might make impending scares predictable. In fact, for the most part, Kenan’s got a very light touch on the camera and covers most scenes using a minimal amount of shots and very well choreographed blocking.
Did we need another Poltergeist? Probably not, but Kenan did put a fun spin on the material that feels far fresher than most studio horror remakes. There is a small handful of scenes that end abruptly and/or feel like they came out of another movie, like that conversation between Catlett and Braun for example, and the third act might move a little too swiftly, but overall, the new Poltergeist is an effective film that pairs its scares with a unique fun-loving vibe, making it more of an entertaining romp with big thrills than a disturbing nightmare like the original.