IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 91 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Eric Bowen, who has just been laid off, and his wife are looking to buy a new house with their three children Kendra, Griffin and Maddy. They are shown a house that has recently come on the market in a quiet neighbourhood that fits in their price range. After moving in they begin to hear strange noises in the walls on the first night, along with Griffin finding a box of clowns that were left at the house. The next night, lights and electronic devices start turning on and off as some unseen force seems to move through the home, and Maddy is found talking to the TV that is filled with static. The following night Eric and Amy have dinner round a friend’s house, but back at home as assortment of scary happenings climax with Maddy being pulled into the closet….
I tend to think I’m a little weird with remakes, but after some thought on the matter earlier I actually think a lot of others could be like me. I groan when I hear about the latest movie classic that is about to be remade, and assume a negative opinion especially if I love the original greatly. There are times after when I think about not seeing the remake at all and consider myself to be a better person with some dignity if I refuse to see it. Then of course the movie is about to come out and curiosity compels me to make that trip to the cinema, even if I know the result isn’t going to be that good. Then, as the film is about to start, some strange hope often fills me [something about the atmosphere of a cinema I guess, an atmosphere that to me exists even in the tackiest multiplex and always beats seeing a film at home even with the best picture and sound quality in the world]. Of course this hope is often dashed when the film is underway and of poor quality, but something began to surprise me with Poltergeist, a movie which is a remake of the 1982 chiller of the same name which if you’ve read my look back at the original movie trilogy you’ll know is a film I am a big fan of. I was quite enjoying this new version. I think that even if you’re not very fond of the Tobe Hooper [or was it Steven Spielberg?!] flick, this new remake [well reboot seems to be the phrase everybody uses these days] won’t seem as good a film, though it’s far better than the rather lame Poltergeist 3 and probably flows better than Poltergeist 2 which for me is the scariest of the original trilogy but is also something of a mess [come on, release that 130 min version!].
The major problem with this version is more to do with the nature of much screen horror these days, where the jump scare, usually with a loud musical sting, is king, and subtlety takes a back seat, let alone other types of fear that supernatural stories can also bring to the table. To take two of the best examples, both from the same filmmaker, Insidious terrified the hell out of me when I first saw it and The Conjuring worked almost as well, but neither picture succeeded nearly as much when viewed a second time, because most of the jump scares failed to come off as effectively or at all [which is why the final section of Insidious became more frightening by comparison] and I remembered many of them, and without the jump scares there’s not much else, the only real attempt at atmosphere being the uneasiness that you’re building up to another jump scare. Of course there are exceptions like the hand out of the grave in Carrie which hardly ever fails to work, even after successive viewings, but by and large this kind of thing diminishes in effect very quickly. On the other hand, films which don’t rely heavily on this are more likely to remain scary. Take one moment which never fails to work me up, the sighting of the woman across the river in the still spine-chilling The Innocents [to me the greatest ghost film ever]. There’s no jump cut or “Boo”! moment or sudden musical note, just an almost casual cut to the woman and after a couple of seconds a cut back, so, at least upon a first viewing, you’re unsure if you’ve even seen anything. And I wish more modern horror films would employ other techniques to give the viewer the jitters that older filmmakers used, like having someone or something just walk into the frame.
I could write an essay on how limited the genre seems to be at the moment, despite every now and again turning out a really impressive work like It Follows or Oculus, but that’s not within the scope of this review. Within the mostly restrictive approach it has set itself, this new Poltergeist works pretty well. On first viewing, some of the jump scares really do work a treat – watch out for one of the children spotting a corpse resembling that horrid one from Ghost Story – and the film does have some atmosphere. This version is much shorter than the original so it proceeds at a pretty relentless pace which both benefits it and weakens it. The film is constantly exciting without a dull moment, but it also lacks things that the original contained like wonder and beauty. Some of the original’s best bits for me were when everyone sits around at night time waiting for stuff to happen and talk in whispers. You saw nothing, and much of what we were hearing was actually exposition, but you could almost feel the amazing sense of awe and fear. On a related note, the scenes introducing the family, who are now introduced Amityville Horror-style moving into the haunted house rather than already shown to be living there, are cut to the bone and consist largely of bickering, unlike the many great moments in the original such as the battle with the neighbours with the TV remote or the burying of the dead bird.
The story progresses much the same as the original, with some of its iconic scenes repeated, though sometimes with quite effective twists. Instead of one toy clown there’s now a whole load of clowns and dolls [I find both scary, so this part certainly worked for me], though not enough is really done with them. Still, there’s quite a creepy feel to the proceedings, until things really break loose and we get to a recreation of the tree attack. Sadly it’s actually less frightening here, partly because this tree doesn’t try to eat the boy as before, and the CGI isn’t very good and compares unfavourably to how the tree was done in the original. In another example of how lazy many films like this seem today, too much is done by CGI – take the moment shown in the trailer where the closet doors open. It’s obviously CGI, but for God’s sake couldn’t the producers have afforded two people to simply open the doors from inside the closet? The realness of the events would have been spookier. I don’t agree with the criticism of when we see where Carol-Anne has been taken to though. The hundreds of writhing corpses, if still obviously CGI, are profoundly uncomfortable to look at.
The plot ends up being somewhat ‘smaller’ than the original’s, with no Beast for a start, and most disappointingly the hair-raising climax with those disturbing apparitions is replaced by something far simpler, but a few alterations do work, like the older brother and sister remaining in the house all the time rather than being conveniently whisked away. This device increases the sense of danger and raises the stakes in human terms. There are nice nods to moments in the sequels, and a few memorable new bits, most notably a really intense Lucio Fulci-style moment where somebody is held against a wall and is almost drilled to bits by the ghost wielding the device on the other side. The family isn’t as likeable especially the lazy, selfish teenage daughter who quickly becomes the one you want to taken by spooks, but the straight-talking TV exorcist Carrigan Burke, entertainingly played by Jared Harris, who comes round to help is an interesting character who I’d like to see again. A romantic subplot involving him initially seems very awkwardly shoe-horned in but ends up being rather pleasing.
The cast generally do a decent job and little Kennedi Clements is appropriately cute though she doesn’t have the presence of the wonderful Heather O’Rourke. Monster House’s Gil Kenan does a strong job of direction, certainly knowing how to time a scare and aided by some superb cinematography by Javier Agguresarobe with the camera gracefully going all over the place and certainly helping the movie to work reasonably well in 3D. Despite my disliking of the format, I saw Poltergeist in 3D as I had little time to see a later showing, and the experience wasn’t altogether unpleasant. Its sound effects are also well put together and sometimes quite unnerving, though Marc Streitenfeld’s score is thoroughly bland compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing work on the original. That is to be expected considering the great days of film music seem to be well and truly over and many filmmakers seem to want music to be more like sound design. Overall though this Poltergeist comes off fairly well, a typical example of the kind of horror film general audiences seem to want at the moment, though it has such a different feel to the 1982 movie that I would imagine it comes across as more a rip-off of Insidious and others to someone who isn’t aware that it is a remake. It isn’t that good really, and I reckon that it in a few year’s time it may be almost forgotten while the original will still last, but I came out of the cinema pleasantly surprised. It could have been a hell of a lot worse. This doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to the remake of Don’t Look Now though. And if you’re reading this producers, for the inevitable sequel, why don’t you remake Poltergeist 3, which had considerable potential and blew it, rather than try to find someone to play Kane who is as creepy as Julian Beck [which isn’t possible].