"Poltergeist" Remake A 90-Minute Flatline

Summer 1982 might have belonged to Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” if not for a little jam that opened just a week later – “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” It was a wild bit of scheduling that pitted Steven Spielberg the producer (“Poltergeist”) against Steven Spielberg the director (“E.T.”), leaving just enough room for audiences to get hip to the former’s ghoulish delights before the latter crash landed in theaters and took the world by storm.

Hooper’s film – one with a rare Spielberg writing credit, not to mention decades of debate over who actually directed it – was a hit, but not a smash, leaving it especially susceptible to remake-itis. Throw in some wonderful but hopelessly dated story elements – TV stations signing off at night with The Star-Spangled Banner – and a redo was preordained.

Gil Kenan – director of the 2006 animated sleeper hit “Monster House” – seems a logical fit for a reinterpretation, but it was the original’s defiance of logic that made it so lovable.

An ostensibly family-friendly film in which a man tears the flesh off his own face? Yes. Parents of three children smoking pot in their bedroom like a couple of high schoolers? Indeed. A diminutive, high-talking, middle-aged heroine that doesn’t show up until the third act? Absolutely.

It’s no surprise that all of these elements are absent from Kenan’s version or that the film is neither a straight remake nor its own thing, leaving it to decay in the same purgatory as its ghostly antagonists. What is surprising is that it’s such a bad misread of Hooper’s charming, fun original.

Not only were Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams terrific as parents Steve and Diane Freeling – an ideal that Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie Dewitt couldn’t hope to live up to – “Poltergeist” 1982 was clever and funny and its special effects were special. Its scares were mild but never of the “jump” variety and its mix of animation and in-camera work – including real skeletons! – remains unmatched in complexity and execution.

It’s silly to blame a movie in 2015 for its lazy CGI work, but that doesn’t make the work in Kenan’s update any less lazy. A single practical effect employed by the director near the picture’s climax – a likely tip of the cap to its predecessor – only serves to remind us of what the rest of the picture is missing. And the techno-centric storyline does little to separate it from the last decade of subpar horror.

Perhaps most upsetting still is that Rockwell is too good of an actor to be slumming it in something so flavorless. He and DeWitt are both fine, the kids are mostly tolerable, and Jared Harris predictably steals the film as the host of a fictional reality show, “Haunted House Cleaners.” The screenplay’s hints at his character’s past relationship with a co-worker are a highlight, but most of the movie plays like a case of everyone going through the motions – too afraid to do something different, too self-aware to riff on the best moments from the source material.

The silver lining is that it does make a strong case for said source material, likely to turn countless viewers on to the pleasures of what Hooper and Spielberg did more than three decades ago.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: May 22, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox, MGM
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements, Saxon Sharbino
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language)