Greg, we just saw Poltergeist, a remake of the classic film from the early 1980s.
While I don’t think it was intentional, it was a splendid comedy. Let’s recap:
We meet the Bowen family. The father is Eric (Sam Rockwell), the mother is Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the three children are teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), 10-year-old Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and 6-year-old Maddy (Kennedi Clements). The Bowens move into a house that has the oldest tree in the neighborhood in the front yard. Almost immediately, the kids are noticing strange noises and objects moving by themselves. Griffin is scared to death sleeping in the attic bedroom with a skylight showing the old tree’s branches swaying wildly in the wind. He’s alarmed to see Maddy talking to imaginary people in her bedroom closet and in the living room television.
Then something really strange happens. While mom and dad are at a party, Kendra’s cell phone leads her to the garage where the floor splits open and a skeleton pops up. Hilarious. The clown on the shelf starts running around and the tree breaks through a skylight and Griffin is held upside-down by his ankles. Guffaw. And finally, Maddie is enticed into a portal in her closet when spirits drag her teddy bear (well, actually it’s a unicorn pig stuffed animal) into the void. Are we scared yet, Scott?
Not really, Greg. As you point out, it’s unclear whether this version of Poltergeist belongs in the horror genre or the comedy genre. The casting of Sam Rockwell makes sense only if the film was intended to be a comedy. Rockwell is a wonderful actor, but he tends to play characters who don’t take the things that go on around them seriously. He doesn’t seem to be taking anything seriously in this film – not his marriage, not his kids, nor the hundreds of evil spirits that have set up shop in his youngest daughter’s closet. He’s an immature goofball caught in a movie that I think is trying to be a serious thriller.
Movies like this can only work if all the characters, at the beginning, under-react to events that would send ordinary people running for the hills. It would be a very short movie if people in Poltergeist behaved rationally. So the family sticks around for a few days despite the fact that electronic equipment goes on and off at random intervals, and objects are moving by themselves. Even paranormal scientist Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) has an assistant, Boyd (Nicholas Braun), who isn’t convinced that anything is amiss even after seeing a chair float in the air by itself and smash into a wall.
The movie continues with the comedy baseline when the Bowens learn that their subdivision was built on a cemetery. Everyone laughs nervously when Bowens’ boss’s wife blurts out “at least it wasn’t built on an indian burial ground.” This is a line from the original movie and also a common movie trope. I suppose it was supposed to be a tension breaker, but instead played out as a wink to the audience. It broke the tension all right, permanently.
I can’t say I enjoyed Poltergeist very much. I pretty much knew the plot from the original movie and wasn’t surprised by much of anything. Suspenseful moments in the film were filled with silence and seemed more dragged out than tense. The only enjoyable bits were scenes that were supposed to be super scary, and instead looked spoofy. The problem with this remake is that the original Poltergeist created a series of horror elements that have been reused horror movies ever since. So much so that they become cliches. This new Poltergeist, then can do no better than be a 90 minute cliche-fest.
Let’s examine the hero story. We have a family ensemble with a goofball dad, a rather dull mother, a stereotypical teenage girl, a 10-year-old (Griffin) who is a lightening rod for everything bad that can possibly happen to a kid, and little Maddy who possesses the gift of being able to easily connect with the hordes of demons invading the home.
Griffin turns out to be the one member of the hero ensemble who transforms. He starts out a scaredy-cat whom no one believes every time something horrible happens to him in his bedroom. By the end of the movie, he develops some serious cajones and basically saves the family from total destruction. It’s nice to see one person change as a result of this ghastly, ghostly story. The villains are the poltergeists, of course. Like all ghosts in scary movies, they seem to have anger management issues. And as in all scary movies, the ghosts know to scare people just a little at first and then gradually build up their scary tactics to a crescendo. It’s as if the ghosts know that to start out too strong would make for a very short movie.
Poltergeist was a breakthrough movie in 1982 which had the likes of Steven Spielberg writing the script. It was a taut thriller that used the abduction of an innocent little girl to create fear in the audience. That film frightened us more because of the fear of the unknown – we never really saw the ghosts. 2015’s version took us inside “the other realm” of ghosts and gave us a detailed view of the ghostly world. And I think this was a mistake. Our imaginations are much scarier than anything on-screen. I give Poltergeist just 3 out of 5 Reels.
Scott, you put the nail in the proverbial coffin when you point out that young Griffin is the only transformed character in this movie. It’s a side-dish when the hero story should be the main course. Griffin’s transformation is due to his guilt at leaving his sister alone when she was in danger. He then feels he must redeem himself by going into the nether regions after her. It was a nice touch, but was too little too late. I give Griffin 3 out of 5 Heroes.
When looking at the cast of secondary characters, we find quite a few delights. There’s the academician who plays the Mentor character to the family. Then, she calls in the pinch hitter in the form of Carrigan Blake (Jared Harris) who reminded both me and Scott of Father Merrin from The Exorcist. This is an interesting side character – the Ultimate Authority. There was also the Skeptic in the form of the graduate student Boyd. I give this secondary cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.
Poltergeist was a predictable, unintentionally funny remake of a movie that didn’t need to be remade, unless audiences needed to see a small girl get trapped inside a flat-screen TV instead of a big, bulky one. There’s really nothing to see here, and I agree with you, Greg, that the movie sabotages itself by showing the demons when all good filmmakers should know that less is more. I can only give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.
The heroic family had to overcome its poor judgment in staying in a home that was obviously haunted from the minute they entered its doors. Poor Griffin was the ghosts’ favorite battering ram and he was my pick to be the one member of the family most destined to need decades of intensive psychotherapy. But Griffin rises to the challenge and saves Maddy in the end. I give this silly family and redeemed Griffin 3 Heroes out of 5.
I found the supporting cast to be just as humorous as the family. Boyd accuses the family of making up the ghost story just moments after seeing a chair flying into a wall by itself. Do you remember the character of Quint from the movie Jaws? Carrigan Blake is Quint, right down to the shark-bite scars all over his body. I half-expected Carrigan to blurt out, “We’re going to need a bigger rope” but he never did. I give this unintentionally funny cast a rating of 2 out of 5.