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“POLTERGEIST” (2015; Movie Review)

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This year’s POLTERGEIST is a fairly solid, well-directed supernatural thriller whose most serious problem is being based on a past classic, one whose key elements have already been replicated in numerous other films.

The 1982 POLTERGEIST, long the subject of debate over its authorship (Tobe Hooper directed, though writer/producer Steven Spielberg’s influence is conspicuous), nonetheless stands to this day as a model of how to combine major-studio FX-infused slickness with gut-punch horror, and do it all while achieving a PG rating. Its focus on a family under paranormal pressure has inspired many screen shriekers since (including INSIDIOUS, whose own second sequel hits theaters in two weeks), rendering the idea of a direct reboot superfluous. Not to mention that the original holds up just fine to this day, and has lost little of its spectacle and scare power.

Thus, it’s a happy surprise that the first half of the new edition is good enough to make the idea of revisiting this material worthwhile. The basic premise remains the same, though there are a number of updated touches, most notably the circumstances of its central brood, here known as the Bowens. As opposed to the first movie, which saw the horrors plague the well-off upper-middle-class Freelings, turning the comforts of their home against them, this one has the Bowens seeking a more affordable place to live after dad Eric (Sam Rockwell) loses his job. Though it’s not stated explicitly, it’s likely they get a good deal on the new house they move into, in the area where mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) went to college, because it’s next door to a plot that once housed a cemetery, which (so they’re told…) has been moved to another area.

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The early revelation of this key third-act story point from the ’82 film reveals director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire’s willingness to play fast and loose with the specifics of their source, which pays dividends as the Bowens settle in and odd things begin to happen. Most sensitive to them is preteen son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), who is already a fearful child and less than thrilled when his room turns out to feature a skylight view of a spooky-looking tree. Teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino, who appeared as a child in RED WHITE & BLUE and the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake and is big sister to THE WALKING DEAD’s Brighton Sharbino) is too distracted by her video chats with a much-missed friend, while little Maddie (Kennedi Clements) simply considers the voices talking to her through the TV and her closet to be new friends.

Griffin’s suspicions about the place aren’t taken seriously at first, though this doesn’t play as insensitivity on his parents’ parts; Eric is kind of a goofball and prone to undue optimism (he buys his kids gifts even as all his credit cards are maxing out), while Amy just thinks she’s seen all this before from her hypersensitive son. Then comes the night when they leave the children home alone to attend a dinner party, that tree becomes preternaturally active, a clutch of clown dolls discovered behind a wall start looking at Griffin funny and the closet spirits beckon to Maddie…

This lengthy sequence, while comprised of familiar ingredients, has been reconceived into a thrilling series of setpieces that stands as this POLTERGEIST’s highlight. Up to and during this inhuman home invasion, Kenan (whose CG-animated MONSTER HOUSE tackled similar material in a more kid-friendly but still fairly intense manner) demonstrates an unerring sense of how to use composition and a prowling camera to maximize suspense. He also exploits the technically proficient 3D to both enhance the atmosphere and provide some fun in-your-face gotcha moments.

It’s in the follow-through that the movie runs into trouble. Just as before, the Bowens seek help from a group of parapsychologists who move in with a ton of electronic detection equipment, and further assistance is solicited from an eccentric “housecleaner.” Evidently, and wisely, realizing that Zelda Rubinstein’s marvelous Tangina from the previous picture was an impossible act to follow, the filmmakers have replaced her with Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), host of a TV ghost-hunting show. Harris has the right spirit for the part, but we’ve seen his type too often before both in fictional movies and “real-life” small-screen investigations.

Most crucially, the second half of POLTERGEIST is less an adaptation of its predecessor than a condensation. The new movie is a full 20 minutes shorter than the old, and the loss is felt largely once the hunt for the vanished Maddie begins. As much of the human grace notes in between the exposition and confrontation with the resident specters are lost, it feels as if the filmmakers are too anxious to get the audience across the finish line without any distractions. And what is there in terms of human interaction doesn’t always help, as when an unnecessary, superfluous connection between Carrigan and parapsychological leader Brooke (Jane Adams) comes up, and there are moments when both Eric’s and Kendra’s behavior feels a tad too cavalier given that the fate of their little daughter/sister is hanging in the balance.

For the most part, though, it’s the likable and empathetic bond between the Bowens that carries POLTERGEIST through to its inevitable apocalyptic end, even as it loses some of its scary hold at the point when the stakes are at their highest. Acknowledgement should be paid that what seemed at first like Exhibit A for unnecessary remakes has turned out quite a bit better than expected, albeit tempered with the disappointment that the more its title character(s) come to the fore, the more the movie gives up the ghost.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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