‘Poltergeist’: Film Review

A solid remake 

Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt co-star in Fox and MGM's reboot of the '80s haunted-house classic.

It’s infrequent and particularly satisfying when the remake of an especially memorable film equals or exceeds the experience of the original. In 1982, Poltergeist saw the brilliant pairing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s low-budget horror director Tobe Hooper with far more mainstream screenwriter and producer Steven Spielberg for an effects-laden event movie that earned its place as a contemporary benchmark among supernatural thrillers.

Leaving behind the youth-skewing perspectives of Monster House and City of Ember, director Gil Kenan not only delivers on the promise of Hooper’s Poltergeist, but significantly raises the stakes for similar PG-13 fare. With strong brand identity and two generations of moviegoers to cultivate, MGM and Fox’s Memorial Day weekend release should help boost the summer box office to a promising start with a solid opening frame, although prospects for franchise-building (the original was followed by two sequels) look somewhat mixed. 

In setting the scene, Kenan and the filmmakers take their cue from the first film in the trilogy, as Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) and his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), crippled by the financial impacts of the Great Recession, look to downsize so that they can continue adequately providing for their three kids. They find what they’re looking for in a distressed but affordable home for sale that’s located in a nondescript development full of vacant properties on the outskirts of an Illinois town where Amy attended university. Youngest daughter Maddy (Kennedi Clements) is excited to move in following the initial tour after conversing with some new invisible friends who speak to her from a mysterious bedroom closet. Anxiety-prone middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) isn’t thrilled to be settling into an attic bedroom, however, where an ominous willow tree looms over the house through a rooftop skylight. Teenage Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) displays visible disaffection with her new situation, preferring to remain in touch with her old life and friends via phone, text and video chat.

On the first night in their new home, while everyone else is asleep, Griffin discovers Maddy talking to the big-screen living room TV as it flashes and emits strange noises. “They’re here,” she says, referring to her friends, “the lost people.” Now Griffin has some solid reasons to feel worried, especially after noticing objects moving around the house of their own accord and discovering a box full of scary clown dolls stashed in a storage space. His parents just attribute these trepidations to his chronic anxiety, and it isn’t until the next night when they’re out to dinner at a neighbor’s house that they discover some disturbing information regarding their new home that sends them rushing back to check on the kids.

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By the time they arrive, Griffin and Kendra have suffered supernatural attacks and Maddy has vanished completely. At their wit’s end, Amy and Eric decide to seek guidance from Dr. Claire Powell (Jane Adams) from the Department of Paranormal Research at Amy’s former university. Powell agrees to assist, bringing in her staff to wire the Bowen’s home with video cameras and monitoring equipment in their search for the missing child. They soon determine that Maddy is able to speak to them through the TV set, but can’t provide any clues to her whereabouts. Powell concludes that the house is under the influence of a malevolent poltergeist that has abducted Maddy, holding her in a shadowy, in-between realm that they will have to access in order to rescue her before she disappears completely.

As the film reaches its midpoint, all of the essential elements of the original are in place and in part this satisfying continuity is attributable to a screen story again written by Spielberg. In scripting the remake, David Lindsay-Abaire hews closely to the earlier template, replicating some key scenes with more contemporary flair while ratcheting up the pacing by cutting 20 minutes off the running time. Updating the spiritual medium character with hardbitten reality TV host Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), an Indiana Jones-style ghostbuster, provides a recognizable pop-culture reference, blowing away the musty cobwebs of stereotypically aloof psychics.

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Although Rockwell appears capable of holding the Bowens together in the face of financial and personal peril, it’s a rather under-written part that lacks the frequent character tics he’s exploited more memorably in smaller-scale films. DeWitt is the predictably supportive emotional core of the family, eventually driven to extremes by her daughter’s predicament. In a substantial role for a young actor, Catlett favorably impresses with his comprehensive grasp of Griffin’s neuroses and his determination to face them head-on in several pivotal scenes.

The integration of notably naturalistic visual effects with the digital filmmaking is frequently almost seamless, until the setting shifts into an entirely supernatural realm during the final attempt to retrieve Maddy. Kenan’s overall improvements to the movie’s visual style aren’t only attributable to advances in technology and a 3D update, however. While Hooper favored shock value and jump scares, Kenan and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe construct far more fluid sequences as the camera glides and hovers over its subjects, reserving the most impactful shots for a concluding sequence that’s particularly thrilling.

Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Ghost House Pictures, Vertigo Entertainment
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire
Producers: Sam Raimi, Nathan Kahane, Roy Lee, Robert G. Tapert
Executive producers: J.R. Young, John Powers Middleton, Becki Cross Trujillo, Audrey Chon
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov
Costume designer: Delphine White
Editors: Jeff Betancourt, Bob Murawski
Music: Marc Streitenfeld 
Casting directors: Scot Boland, Victoria Burrows

Rated PG-13, 93 minutes

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