93 min., rated PG-13.
In the summer of 1982, the Steven Spielberg-created, Tobe Hooper-directed "Poltergeist" was a box-office success and a splendidly ooky fright film, the gold standard of haunted-house spookers. Today, its PG rating is questionable, and anyone seeking to go to the kitchen for a midnight snack will have their pants spooked right off of them. How can one forget that disturbing "face peeling" hallucination moment? Or, little Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) signaling the presence of "The TV People" with "They're here!" while sitting thisclose to a screen of white noise? Or, that mangled tree snatching up a screaming child? Or JoBeth Williams falling into her inground pool full of mud, skeletons and headstones? They're hard to beat, and frankly, the 2015 re-imagining of "Poltergeist" has nothing on the original. Yes, horror remakes are rarely a good idea and tend to be lazy, milquetoast carbon copies. But, as unnecessary as it is to reheat a classic like "Poltergeist," this umpteenth remake is more functional and shruggable than outright bad. When a cover of an already-pristine hit comes with baggage for being a cover, the fact that it surpasses fearfully low expectations more than expected isn't so bad.
This time, it's the Bowen family moving into a development in Illinois where their home was built above a cemetery, and it's no spoiler to say that the headstones were moved but not the bodies. A victim of recent cutbacks at John Deere, unemployed, in-debt-up-to-his-eyeballs Eric (Sam Rockwell) and wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), a stay-at-home mom who's put her writing career on hold, try to make the best of their new suburban home with their three kids. The eldest, cell-obsessed Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), couldn't be less enthused; Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is scared of the dark, making matters hairier when his bedroom happens to be the attic with a creepy tree in plain view from his skylight; and 6-year-old Madison (Kennedi Clements) wastes no time making imaginary friends in her closet and talking to them through the staticky TV in the middle of the night. When the parents go to a dinner hosted by Eric's new boss, Kendra gets stuck babysitting her siblings, only to encounter electrical wiring issues and have her little sister taken into the purgatory of her closet by some pissed-off spirits. Eric and Amy turn to the local college's Department of Paranormal Research, headed by Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and her two assistants, Boyd (Nicholas Braun) and Sophie (Susan Heyward), and later on, reality TV's "Haunted House Cleaners" ghostbuster Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris). Maddy is still in the house, but she's trapped by the poltergeists who need her to lead them out of purgatory and into the light and they're not about to just let her leave.
In heading up this new incarnation, director Gil Kenan (he of the 2006 animated kiddie-horror gem "Monster House") and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful") adhere quite closely to the beats of the original picture, probably taking the "if it ain't broke…" expression to heart, despite the additional updates of iPhones and drones and a climactic tweak that beefs up the middle child's redemptive arc. Judged on its own merits, this "Poltergeist" does have its compensations. Before the Bowen family moves in, the title of the film is niftily imprinted in the grass, and Kenan enlists cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe to give the film a respectable polish and some stylish fluidity in his camera movements around the house. Only does the film does seem a little rushed, nicely developing the family but then anxious to get to the key moments rather than building more tension. There's something off about the house much too soon. Not to worry, the film still has its share of solid payoffs in the frights department, particularly a bag of ugly clowns attacking Griffin (one of the clowns' red string nose is an admittedly creepy small touch, to boot) and Kendra's encounter with a black ooze in the garage. Griffin being yanked out of the house by the hulking old tree above his window is also shot on a grander scale, despite some ropy CGI. Another sequence mines the foolish "don't stick your arm in there" trope but ratchets up the tension with a power drill. Finally, a view into "the other side" in the depths of Maddy's closet is neatly and ghoulishly rendered. With those out of the way, there are several predictably timed scares of the "boo" variety that mostly feel like money shots for the film's trailer. The unforgettable "face peeling" moment is even treated as a throwaway here and not the show-stopper it was.
If it weren't for appealing actors like Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt, who can make a potentially hokey story seem authentic, there would be even less validation for retelling a tale that wasn't broken to begin with. Rockwell, playing one of the cooler movie dads, excels with loose, sharp-witted delivery (his reaction to Brooke getting shocked by his stair banister is priceless) and DeWitt actualizes confusion and sadness as a mother losing her child. In the "Carol Anne" role, Kennedi Clements is cute as a button and precocious, repeating every bad word her big sister blurts out, as the endangered Madison, even if no one can replace the late Heather O'Rourke. While Saxon Sharbino gets to be more involved as teenager Kendra than the original's Dominique Dunne and sells some amusingly bratty moments, Kyle Catlett's Griffin leaves the most lasting impression out of the three Bowen children. He has a genuine arc, beginning as a fraidy cat who regrets not looking after Maddy and in the end bravely finds it in himself to be his mommy's "super boy." Since no one else could be a match for the uniquely eccentric Zelda Rubinstein's Tangina, Jared Harris lends some personality as Carrigan, whose rehashed "This house is clean" line gets its own joke and has a story for each of his scars, and Jane Adams brings some quirkiness and compassion to the role of Dr. Brooke Powell.
One can't shake the question that if this new "Poltergeist" didn't go by that iconic name, would it be more effective? As a stand-alone film, it moves briskly and there is a sense of fun, but when certain sequences are recreated, it's hard not to compare. Indirectly, the 1982 original has already been remade before—"Paranormal Activity," "Insidious" and "The Conjuring"—without reclaiming the title, but those other, better films carved out their own identities. 2015's "Poltergeist" doesn't do much wrong; it just doesn't do much that stands out or distinguishes itself beyond the competent, nor is it particularly scary. There's no need to crucify it, but there's also no reason not to re-visit the superior version from thirty-three years ago instead.
Grade: C +