Poltergeist

**

Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

Poltergeist 3D
"Unfortunately the malicious ghouls of the title aren’t the only spirits haunting director Gil Kenan’s prefab carnival ride."

Let’s get the rote griping out of the way: Hollywood has remade a classic. Tobe Hooper and Stephen Spielberg’s Poltergeist was a whimsical, shocking film with a very dark heart. It took a close look at the disenfranchisement of the family unit who represented the perversion of all-American values during Reagan's rule. It also cast a prying eye on the mysticism of the afterlife, attempted to assign morals and meaning to the unseen. The spirits had something to say, they yearned for release, and when their banging and clattering garnered no effect they encroached into the physical world via ghastly means. Despite being an incredibly inventive, successful film, its lessons and methods were largely ignored, and today’s popcorn horrors seem to focus more on spirits as evil rather than frustrated.

Now that’s over with, let’s turn a weather eye to the 2015 update of Poltergeist. The bedrock of the original gives a solid base to build on, but unfortunately the malicious ghouls of the title aren’t the only spirits haunting director Gil Kenan’s prefab carnival ride. Despite best intentions to modernise the film, with specific attention paid to iPads, drones and mobile phones, as well as modern economic circumstances (out of work father, amateur-writer/stay-at-home-mum), little has changed. The plot hits the same beats as the original, but 93 minutes give little room for character development or the supremely satisfying calm before the recurrence of the storm that makes the original so electrifying. It should be noted that such a strong framework does give Poltergeist an edge amongst its peers - Spielberg’s original story was taut and full of memorable ideas and set pieces - and retreading this material is still fairly effective. Although CG is frequently lambasted, it has its uses in convincing electronic and corporeal aberrations.

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The cast is slim but everyone chips in and there are no dud performances. Sam Rockwell heads up the Bowen family, lackadaisical and charismatic as always. Kyle Catlett and Kennedi Clements playing the youngest siblings and do a sterling job in giving us an anchor amidst the supernatural fear. Rose DeWitt is sadly underserviced as the mother, a central character in the plot of the original, her story shortened and softened by the lean running time. In further efforts to modernise, Jared Harris is the irascible reality TV medium, Carrigan Burke, who gets a eye-rolling hashtag out of Zelda Rubinstein's immortal “this house… is clean”. Anything but a throwaway line in the original, it is commodified for self-referential humour here, robbed of the sense of false security it gave the family and, in turn, the audience. Unfortunately Kenan has no time to spare, instead spinning our carts and propelling us towards a bombastic finale.

An inability to linger, to rest on any of its attempts to build on the original, is Poltergeist's biggest problem. Hooper and Spielberg imbued their film with the best of the Eighties movie magic. It was fantastical, mysterious, dark and foreboding, but with great heart. The family mattered, their problems were real, and the threat against them was more confused than feral. Kenan steers us admirably through his own interpretation of the classic, and when he sticks close to the bones of its predecessor, Poltergeist excels against its cookie-cutter horror brethren. Paradoxically, this is the crux of the film’s problem. It’s not confident enough to be truly original, and is hit and miss when it does deviate. Kenan’s nightmarish vision of the spirit world within the house is a fun CGI interpretation of 1982's suggestive, hungering orifice, but by the same degree a jump scare with a faceless ghostly apparition has no place in a film about unseen spirits that imbue safe, everyday objects with the potential to go supernatural.

In the end, it begs the question “is there any point?” With the original still as effective as ever, can CGI or re-contextualisation add more meaning to an already effective story? There is perhaps something to be said for the new subtext. Gone is the original’s fleshy tunnel to the afterlife, replaced by an all-consuming void at the centre of the house - a keen reflection of modern anxieties? Unfortunately, there’s just no time to cover that in a 90 minute film. This remake isn’t a disaster or a travesty, but it shows that re-animating a property that has little issue staying relevant is a pointless exercise. With such a tantalising feast of ideas to build upon, more deviation would have been a treat. Instead this is very much carbohydrate cinema: it fills a gap but lacks substance, and it left me pining for a more memorable experience.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2015
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A family's suburban idyll is shattered after they youngest daughter is taken captive by evil forces.
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