Sunday 14 June 2015

Poltergeist (2015) - Movie Review

Thanks to filmmakers like Michael Bay and Rob Zombie, the words ‘classic horror film’ and ‘remake’ are nowadays associated with the burning down of cinemas in fits of anger. Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company is responsible for a large number of remakes that do little more than castrate the icons attached to them, and Rob Zombie’s take on the Halloween series makes my bitching about Lou from Hot Tub Time Machine 2 look minute in comparison. Sam Raimi, the man responsible for some of the greatest cult classics ever created with the Evil Dead trilogy, is admittedly far less guilty of milquetoast horror than others. However, when your producer credits also include the Boogeyman trilogy, The Possession as well as the widely unnecessary Evil Dead remake, forgive my scepticism at this working out too well. So, how does this film hold up to the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg original?

The plot: Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their kids Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and Madison (Kennedi Clements) move into a new home, but before too long they start noticing strange occurrences inside the house. After Madison starts making contact with some ‘new friends’, it becomes clear that whatever is going on isn’t of this world.

The original Poltergeist is one of those films where its actual entertainment merit is irrelevant in comparison to its influence on the medium. That said, beyond basic respect, there’s a lot to like about the film: Its atmosphere, the genuinely likeable and relatable family, the brisk pace and its overall themes of familial bonds and conquering one’s fears. However, even with that said, within the first few minutes of watching it for the first time in preparation for this review, I immediately became attracted to the idea of modernisation. I mean, the gag about the neighbours messing around with the family’s TV seriously doesn’t make sense to me and I’m assuming that’s because of the generational divide. That may not be enough to completely justify this film’s existence, but it at least gives it the edge over pretty much every other horror remake out there.

Of course, this is pretty quickly quashed because this film has a very technophobic edge to it in response; if anything, the constant use of newer technology makes it feel even more dated. It may make for some nice touches, like some of the more subtle moments where you can see devices glitching out that aren’t brought entirely into the foreground, but it ultimately makes this feel less like a remake of Poltergeist and more like a remake of a different 80’s horror film called Pulse; trust me, we need a remake of that thing like we need more Nicholas Sparks adaptations. But if that was the weakest part of the film, then this still could have been salvaged. Unfortunately, we have a pretty hefty laundry list of things to deal with here.

Let’s start with the characters. Sam Rockwell is the kind of actor that never wastes a role and this is no exception, as he is a lot of fun as the father of the clan. However, it seems like he was given the more engaging moments at the expense of the mother, who has gone from the horror-trend defying stoner that she was in the original into a stereotypical overbearing mother. What’s worse is that actress Rosemarie DeWitt’s only acting method for the majority of this film is looking like there’s a really bad smell in the same room. Madison may not be as maddeningly cute as Carol-Anne but she is still able to hold her own alongside the others, even if she gives a very misguided attempt at making the classic “They’re here” line sound less cheesy and instead just sounding bored. She’s also been given the unneeded addition of being a psychic that can contact the dead, a plot point that is never mentioned again beyond its initial scene and eventually becomes rather stupid as the climax draws closer.

Griffin has been made into the main character this time around, with the subplot about his fears (read: co-writer Spielberg’s fears) brought out into the main plot. Unfortunately, even though Kyle Catlett is a capable actor, they Flanderised him into being scared of everything, not to mention tacking on the “nobody believes me” writing convention which, while not lasting as long as initially feared, is still unwelcome here. I will give credit that him becoming the central character is at least written competently. The older sister Kendra, originally my favourite character because of how she seemed to have the most realistic reaction to everything going on, has been turned into a modern-day valley girl. Yeah, it shows a lot more prominently in some scenes than others and they thankfully kept her love for her family intact, but it should pretty damn obvious that the film would have been greatly improved without this form of modernisation.

But by far, the most drastic change and effectively the worst overall is that of the psychic medium. Through her ethereal yet comforting voice and presence on screen, Zelda Rubenstein became iconic in her role as Tangina in the original. Here, we have Jared Harris as Carrigan, a paranormal activity reality show host.

There aren’t enough Cartmans in the world to properly explain how lame this change-up is and it gets even worse as Carrigan's role in the film becomes bigger. *SPOILERS* He ends up saving the day in the end and stops the ghosts. With this alteration, the film’s attempts at keeping the original essence of the strength of familial love are eviscerated as it is now just about them needing to be saved by an outsider, and a hack outsider at that. Of all the things a remake of Poltergeist could have made useful, a Derek Acorah stand-in most certainly is not one of them.

Beyond the character re-workings, the film is largely an extremely uneven combination of decent attempts at keeping fresh and hokey failures at being scary on its own merits. The famous clown doll and tree outside the son’s bedroom, because of Griffin being made into a complete wimp, have no atmosphere surrounding them; I mean, it’s hard to take things seriously when Griffin is getting scared out his wits by leaves brushing on the skylight of his bedroom, as opposed to the genuinely creepy-looking tree from before. They also felt the need to multiply how many clowns are in the kid’s bedroom, as well as going a bit too far with the main clown doll. While the original was creepy but at least in that way that could still realistically be sold for kids, the one we have here looks like it was made solely to be frightening and that’s because it was. Not only that, it puts a damper on one of the original’s strongest scenes, as the clown reveal is easily one of the best executed jump scares in the history of the medium; here, it’s just loud, telegraphed and devoid of any tension.

Actually, speaking of jump scares, the overall scares here are minimal at best. The filmmakers admittedly come up with some decent set-ups for genuine chills, like the surprisingly well-done re-working of the scene where the daughter gets pulled into the closet, but then they don’t know what to do with them and just resort to cheap jumps to get audiences to react. The fact that a lot of said jumps are caused by that bullshit cliché of the family members doing it by accident and the score doing most of the work for them just makes it worse. Of course, that closet scene already had problems with the rather goofy looking effect of light leaving the light bulbs in the room and floating into the closet; the effect work in the original may be a bit silly, but even they don’t hold a candle to this. With that said though, the final effect for the closet was seriously gorgeous in the original, looking like a giant throat ready to swallow the family whole; by comparison, we get a generic vortex that looks like a throw-away from any bog standard disaster movie.

We also get a massive downgrade on the effect of when the daughter is trapped on the other side and has to be rescued, in that we actually see where she is. Sure, the effects work is decent and the atmosphere is actually pretty tense, given that it thankfully avoids any egregious jump scares, but the old rule of 'fear of the unknown' still applies: What we don’t see is a lot scarier than what we do. It also makes for the most shoe-horned in use of found footage I’ve seen yet with a camera attached to an RC drone used to scout out the other side before Griffin goes in. Tying the rope around his waist too wouldn’t have hurt either, morons.

All in all, it tries so hard to pay tribute to the original while still updating it for newer audiences, and to its credit it succeeds on a couple of occasions; hell, I’d even go so far as to say that the effects work is superior to the original’s for the most part like with the hands on the other side of the TV reaching out for Madison. However, between haphazard attempts at character re-working that leave some characters with either too much or too little to do, weak jump scares that fail to deliver anything other than surface tension despite some nicely crafted set-ups and the writing that feels even more dated and clichéd than its source material, this lacks too heart and atmosphere to even warrant existing.

On its own, it really only comes out as an okay film, but as a retelling of one of the cornerstones of the genre, that simply isn’t good enough. It’s nowhere near as sacrilegious as a lot of other horror remakes out there, but it doesn’t do too much to honour the original either. I know that I’ve mainly focused on comparisons here, but then again there is a reason why my rating system is the way it is: What movie would you rather watch and is it even worth seeing at all? Would you rather fork out the money to see this movie once at the cinema and leave unfulfilled, or buy the DVD of the original and have something you would want to watch more than once?

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