The old haunted house sub-genre has spawned a few brilliant pictures, and it’s a concept that leaves many creative doors open to filmmakers, which leads to some diversity in the ideas put on film. Genre fans will note that while surprisingly rewarding, Stephen King’s 1408 delivered completely different designs than say, Paranormal Activity. They’re two radically different pictures rooted in the same soil.
That’s part of the appeal offered up by this particular branch of the horror tree. It’s essentially an open floor fit to host a myriad of contrasting dances.
Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 treasure Poltergeist presented a more sinister story than very similar efforts like The Shining. Something evil lived within the walls of the Overlook Hotel. It was a malevolent presence inside the walls of that sprawling property, make no mistake, but it wasn’t an outright poltergeist that resulted in merciless murder.
Jack Torrance was not a poltergeist, and it wasn’t a poltergeist that sent him into a claustrophobic spiral. And what makes the idea behind Poltergeist more frightening (that’s not a claim that Poltergeist is a better film than The Shining, for the record) was the fact that the problems the Freeling family faced couldn’t be resolved by extraction. It wasn’t as simple as saying, ‘Hey, I’m gettin’ while the gettin’ is good.’ There were wronged spirits waiting for an unsuspecting family in Cuesta Verde, and those spirits were not going to be denied. It was, in short, a problem that meant imminent, unavoidable danger the very second Steve Freeling signed on the dotted line.
Jack Torrance always had a chance to alter the course of his future.
That’s a big part of what has always distanced Poltergeist from the bulk of the others, no matter how impressive they may be. The fact that Hooper and Spielberg knew exactly how to maximize the fear of the situation only helped to catapult the film into many a favorite film list and into that elite realm of masterful celluloid. And now relatively green filmmaker Gil Kenan has attempted to recreate that horror through the same design.
The only question that looms: Is it even possible? When you’re done with my opinion, read our Poltergeist review here!
The Freeling family has been living in thee Cuesta Verde housing development for some time. Life has been comfortable and the family’s health and well being are in the green. For Steve Freeling his existence is a smooth rotation on an ideal axis. Until he wakes to find his youngest daughter, Carol Anne, communicating with voices in his television. It’s all downhill from here as Robbie, the lone son, is attacked by an aggressive tree, distracting the family long enough to ensure that supernatural forces are successful in sucking Carol Anne into a completely different realm where troubled spirits dwell in abundance.
A series of morbid assaults follow. Virtually everyone in the family is targeted, but the children seem to be the true focus of these supernatural entities. As Steve’s family is abused by forces that cannot be easily dealt with, a paralyzing fear begins to creep into the hearts of the Freeling family. With no other options they seek help from a group of paranormal investigators who immediately trek to the Freeling residence. It isn’t long before the topic of poltergeists is brought up, and lead investigator Dr. Lesh is forced to welcome a unique individual into the fold: Tangina.
Tangina has an atypical ability to understand, communicate and combat the supernatural. And one sweep through the Freeling home and the mystifying woman understands what they’re dealing with and how to bring the insanity to an end. And that end falls on the shoulders of Steve’s wife, Diane, who shares a strong enough bond with Carol Anne to help lure her back from the darkness in which she’s been taken.
Rescuing Carol Anne is successful, but the question of whether or not the Freelings are, or ever will be, rid of the dangers of the poltergeist remains an unknown factor. It’s hard to outrun the boogeyman, after all.
Carol Anne’s First Contact: Tobe Hooper wastes zero time in establishing the dread that Poltergeist offers. Roughly three minutes into the film we see Carol Anne venturing downstairs, where her passed out father sits in front of a television featuring nothing but fuzz. But there’s more to this tube than fuzz. There’s something lurking… behind that fuzz, and it reaches out and communicates with the vulnerable youngster, which gives way to one of the most iconic images in horror history: the sight of Carol Anne, hands plastered to the television, her back to the home audience… where a level of interaction that we cannot yet understand takes place. It’s a somewhat subtle moment that crawls under the skin while promising some truly paralyzing scares.
Robbie Gets the Wood: The menacing tree outside of Robbie’s room finally comes for the poor kid, and he’s defenseless. The branches tear through the boy’s room, yanking him from what little safety these four walls produce with no remorse and heaps of menace. We know things are only going to get worse for this hapless little gent, as the tree all but swallows him whole. Little did we initially realize that assault was nothing more than a distraction. A distraction that would allow the evil within the home to do far greater damage to other members of the family.
One Paranormal Investigator Consumed by Evil: Roughly one hour into the film we suddenly focus on one of the feature’s nondescript players. This little brainiac is an afterthought through and through. Until he heads for a bathroom, sees – oddly enough – a piece of writhing, rotting and somehow living beef making its way toward him. Naturally, he freaks, but it’s not the steak he’s got to worry about. The man turns with clearing his mind an obvious goal, when things in the room become far too hot… and the man’s skin begins to melt and peel away from his face. These are some fun practical effects, but it’s actually the shock of it all that keeps the eyes glued to the screen.
Clowning Around with Robbie: Just when the Freelings believe the torture could possibly be over (they’re way off, as we all now know), we get a few more surprises. This one in particular has plagued the dreams of moviegoers for decades, and there’s a damn good reason for that: There’s nothing scarier than an inanimate object that suddenly takes to life. Especially when it’s one fucked up, shit-your-pants clown!
That hideous doll comes to life in the waning portions of the film, wrapping its suddenly elongated arms around the poor boy’s neck, yanking him beneath the bed in the kind of scene that is all but guaranteed to instill life-long nightmares in children and an obvious life-long fear of those creepy bastard, make-up wearing concoctions that, for some reason, people seem to carry an affinity for.
Diane Takes a Dip in the Pool: A moment that will forever remain etched in the minds of viewers, Diane’s trip into the muddy pool is absolutely horrific. Rain pours down with no mercy, the atmosphere is grim, the tension is at fever pitch… and then the poor lass slips and tumbles into the muddy mess of a pool in the making. Skeletons rise to the surface, and the audience can’t help but feel the terror that this typically upbeat mother endures. One must wonder, knowing today that actual skeletons were used in the scene, if JoBeth Williams sensed the true magnitude of the situation.
Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s film was a commercial and critical success. Financially it met, if not surpassed, expectations. Raking in over $76 million at the domestic box office, Poltergeist was the eighth highest earner in 1982. It spawned two sequels, a small screen series and now, of course, an official remake. Fans adored (and still do) the film, and critics called it “One of the 1980s’ most distinctive and important horror movies” (Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy) and “A frightening, supernatural horror film that defined a generation” (Wesley Lovell of Cinema Sight). It is, in short, one of the finest features ever made and a classic in every sense of the word.
Like the Freeling family, Eric Bowen, his wife, Amy, and their three children relocate to a seemingly peaceful suburban neighborhood. But while the neighborhood in general may be peaceful, their new home is anything but. Things begin to go wrong immediately, and their son, Griffin, feels it in his bones. From night one the youngster understands that there’s something different about the house. There’s something wrong about the house.
It starts with a mysterious closet that oozes negative vibes and jams whenever an attempt is made to open it. It progresses as a hardball rolls across the floor, tossed by no one. And before we have the chance to say creepy, a giant willow tree is smashing through Griffin’s window, yanking him from the confines of a cursed house. All the while the youngest of the family, Madison (today’s equivalent to the famed Carol Anne character), is sucked into an otherworldly realm as the eldest child, Kendra, is struggling to escape a patch of murky quicksand that holds ancient skeletal remains. It’s a tough night for the Bowen children and the launch point for a battle between the natural and the supernatural.
It’s a battle that instantly swings into full bloom as Eric and Amy arrive home in the middle of the insanity. A quick cinematic turnaround sees Amy seeking help from a group of paranormal investigators who subsequently enter the property, set up a sizable number of cameras and attempt to connect with Madison, who is somehow able to communicate through the family television.
Attempts to lure Madison back into the real world fail, and celebrity ghost hunter Carrigan Burke is called in to save the youngster. The mission is ultimately successful, as Griffin enters the unknown to retrieve his sister. But things don’t go off without hitch. There are a number of close calls in the final showdown between man and furious spirit, and the evil that dwells on the property isn’t all too eager to let the family go, though the diabolical hold on the Bowens is eventually loosened, allowing them to attempt moving on with their lives.
Meeting Eric: Some of the more memorable moments of the remake come when the armistice – for lack of a better word – is still alive, before the war truly begins. Eric is a likable father. He’s easygoing and he’s got comedy to dole out. His love of family is quite pronounced and the amazing Sam Rockwell really gives everything that he can to the character. Examining the entire ensemble, it’s easy to peg Rockwell’s character as the most endearing of the bunch. The only negative to all of this comes in the fact that we don’t get to see much of Eric as a stable, even if struggling, dad. Enjoy it while it lasts.
A Clown Loses His Nose: We’ve all seen this scene. It’s a prominent hook in the trailer, and an extended clip of the entire scene has also been released online. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the few genuinely eerie moments in the flick. The moment we see that little red ball rolling about the ground, the tension skyrockets. And when it slowly retracts, fitting snug in the position of the clown’s nose, we know the craziness is only beginning. The ensuing assault from the clown sends shivers dripping down our spines, and for a brief moment we’re genuinely concerned for little Griffin’s safety.
Kendra’s Brush with a Ghoul: Another one of the few scares that pays off comes in the moments in which Kendra first tangles with the beings living in her home. She enters the garage, the lights go out, the cement shifts and suddenly she’s being pulled below the surface. Trapped in thick mud and panicked beyond belief, she looks up to see a ghastly figure occupying the garage with her, and it’s unsettling to see. The young Saxon Sharbino sells her character’s fear quite well, as she completely flips her lid, and that conviction lends a slight sense of claustrophobia to the entire shot. It’s certainly a strong point of the film.
Beware the Power Tool: One of the few original scares of the remake features a naive and sarcastic paranormal investigator named Boyd, a power drill and a closet made of (or should I say housing) nightmares. For the sake of those who haven’t yet seen the movie, I’ll refrain from dropping too many details. I will, however, tell you that it’s an awesome scene stuffed with taut atmosphere and edge of your seat chills. It’s also impacting enough to make the viewer wish Kenan had been daring enough to inject a few more new scares.
Poltergeist hasn’t been out for a week yet. It’s an extremely fresh release and as a result we don’t have an abundance of viewer input just yet. Critics however seem to generally share a similar voice: Poltergeist is an okay remake that isn’t nearly as frightening as the original film and doesn’t offer much in the way of refreshing material, but isn’t an outright dud either. Of course there are those who lean one way or the other. Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice notes that “the remake grows less interesting as it goes, with final scares dipping into surprising lameness.” While Tirdad Derakhshani of The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the flick “good fun.”
This is just one of those movies that isn’t necessarily going to leave moviegoers feeling ripped off, but it isn’t going to leave moviegoers feeling particularly enlightened… or terrified.
As of the time of this particular piece (May 25, 2015), the movie has earned approximately $27 million. That’s not an obviously dreadful figure for a genre piece that’s been available to the masses for one single weekend. Personal experience (the Cinemark I visited seated nine individuals – including my wife and me – for Friday’s first showing) tells me the film won’t be the tremendous commercial success that Fox was no doubt hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it is destined to tank. Picking up a near $30 million after just one weekend is a fair haul for a genre piece. But it’s not an overly impressive haul for a movie with tremendous buzz and one of the beefiest promotional campaigns of the year. Going toe-to-toe with the universally loved Mad Max: Fury Road and the Disney blockbuster Tomorrowland may not do much for Poltergeist’s success, but that competition doesn’t look as though it’s going to sink the film. We’ll see soon enough.
The Ultimate Verdict
Tobe Hooper’s rendition of this story was perfectly paced and featured an ensemble to die for. Craig T. Nelson was excellent, JoBeth Williams made the character of Diane insanely lovable, Heather O’Rourke stole our hearts as Carol Anne and Oliver Robins was as sympathetic as it gets. There isn’t an underwhelming performance in the film, as even the supporting cast slays. The special effects felt far ahead of their time and the story as a whole was nurtured in a manner that siphoned maximum terror from a PG-rated film. It’s a masterpiece through and through.
Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist on the other hand is a rushed production with a talented cast that isn’t given very much to work with. Sam Rockwell does everything possible (including throwing in some good early comedy) to make the production shine, and the children (Saxon Sharbino as Kendra; Kyle Catlett as Griffin; Kennedi Clements as Madison) are all extremely well cast. But Rosemarie DeWitt’s character Amy has been butchered. She’s not the attentive, caring mother that Diane Freeling was. In fact, she’s dismissive, distracted and from time to time downright cruel. As a result DeWitt’s performance feels entirely out of place. That’s no fault of DeWitt’s; that falls on screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, who took the liberty to completely destroy an excellent personality.
The film also moves too fast. While Hooper’s film gave us the chance to feel as though we knew (and cared) about the Freeling family, Kenan’s functions at break-neck speed, stealing from any hopes of personal connection. We never become fully invested in these characters, and a lot is lost in the acceleration of Eric’s mental spiral (because there isn’t any spiral; the man looks and acts fine, but the moment he vomits in the sink he completely transforms). The special effects don’t feel as rushed as the rest of the film, but they’re not strong enough to save the film from itself.
Ultimately, the 2015 version of Poltergeist makes for a decent watch. It’s a quick 90 minutes of entertainment, but it’s a very, very far cry from the pitch-perfect pic introduced to the world in 1982. There’s no competition here: Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist outshines Gil Kenan’s in every way imaginable.
Legendary filmmaker Sam Raimi (producer) reimagines and contemporizes the classic tale about a family whose suburban home is invaded by angry spirits. When the terrifying apparitions escalate their attacks and take the youngest daughter, the family must come together to rescue her.