‘Poltergeist’: This House Is a Mess

“Reboot” has become an ugly word in cinema, often with just cause. The precise equation that results in a film, especially one that becomes a classic of its genre, is something so impossible to accurately reproduce that it’s often not even worth trying. In the rare case where the reboot outshines and outpaces the original, as in Mad Max: Fury Road, it can be an exhilarating experience. But more often than not it is…well…it’s not that. Disappointing when it isn’t mind-numbingly dull, the reboot of Poltergeist is a tedious, cynical failure of cinematic science.

In the 30-plus years since the original 1982 film, the elements of the story have firmly cemented themselves in pop culture. We all know the setup: family moves into a new house, youngest daughter gets abducted by ghosts, plus cemeteries, evil trees and (altogether now) “This house is clean!” Even beyond that, the film itself knows that you know all of that, even if you’ve never seen the original film. If it had half a brain in its assembly-line head, it could be a meta-textual, Wes Craven-style examination of the tropes codified by the original. Instead, it’s content to trot those same tropes out without comment, dropping narrative beats as it rushes to hit all the plot points and set pieces.

The new film is over 20 minutes shorter than the original, and virtually all of that time was taken from the first act. We barely get to know the family before the supernatural terrorism starts, and unlike the first film, it’s obviously malicious from the start. We barely get to know any of the characters before the first ghostly nastiness shows up, and it’s impossible to care about them when the film obviously doesn’t. Instead of a sympathetic, solidly Spielbergian family unit overturned by forces beyond their control, we get a pack of anonymous victims sadistically tormented by their own story.

It’s a shame, since the film starts off with relative promise that it quickly squanders. Director Gil Kenan and writer David Lindsay-Abaire seem like a perfect combination to produce a rich, modern haunted house story. Kenan directed the well-received family-friendly haunted house film Monster House, while Lindsay-Abaire wrote the play and film adaptation of Rabbit Hole, which features the loss of a child at its center. Certainly, there are hints in the opening scenes of what could have been, with a busy, bouncing kind of energy reminiscent of the best films of the 80s and some character beats that seem like set-ups for juicy pay-offs in the final act. However, everything comes to a screeching halt once the haunting starts in earnest.

Nothing destroys that momentum more than the shoddy, sub-par CGI effects. Even for a mid-budget horror film with no real stars that coasts on name recognition, this is lazy, outdated work. Part of the power of the original film came from its practicality and its mystery. We never found out what was really on the other side of that closet, and that’s what made it frightening. Here, however, we are treated to a lengthy tour of that limbo, courtesy of a ridiculously powerful drone-mounted camera. While the design is striking—a nightmare version of the house whose walls are literally covered in a Giger-esque mass of writhing corpses—giving relative solidity to the world beyond robs it of its agency. A clever film would have made that sequence a mockery of the walkthrough that the realtor gives the family in the first act. This is not a clever film.

That drone-mounted camera is just one of the many things present that doesn’t make sense and shouldn’t work, but it’s symptomatic of the film’s desperate need to feel relevant to modern audiences. Even the kids’ names bear the mark of the millennial. Kendra, Griffin and Madison replace Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne. The iconic TV is now a giant flat-screen, and an iPhone 5c plays a prominent role. The ghostbuster called in to save the day is no longer Zelda Rubinstein’s unassuming Tangina Barrons but is instead Carrigan Burke, the sarcastic host of a supernaturally-themed reality TV show. Like Tangina, Carrigan is easily the film’s most interesting character, and Jared Harris seems like he’s the only person here who isn’t in it solely for the money.

It might be unfair to compare this Poltergeist against the towering legacy of the film it’s trying to reproduce, but it’s a comparison that can’t be avoided. Even taken on its own, it fails at so many of the things that constitute a genuinely frightening, enjoyable horror film. Compared to its predecessor, it’s purely irrelevant. Virtually no one was asking for a new version of this film, and certainly no one wanted the inert, lackadaisical mess that made it onto the screen. Even Tangina Barrons couldn’t clean this house.

FBOTU Score: 3 out of 10 / D