Film Review: Poltergeist (2015)

Directed by Gil Kenan; Starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt

Review by Billy Lyons

Here in the mountains we have a saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s a saying that Sam Raimi would’ve done well to consider before moving forward with producing his 2015 remake of Poltergeist.

There was a time when I genuinely looked forward to classic horror movie remakes, and couldn’t wait to see how a fresh set of eyes might interpret some of my favorite films. This anticipation very quickly turned to dread, however, after I suffered through one disappointment after another.

It seems that the writers and directors responsible for the vast majority of horror re-boots believe they can achieve success by simply filling their films with tons of gratuitous gore (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are good examples of this) or infusing them with shoddy CG animation (see The Haunting or Fright Night). The remakes got so bad that after I endured the embarrassment that was Evil Dead (2013), I swore off them completely.

I managed to keep my promise until a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself with a rare afternoon off and decided to take in a movie. Nothing at the local cineplex looked vaguely interesting except for the new Poltergeist, so I decided to throw my better judgment to the wind and give it a try. Recent years have seen a welcome return to genuinely scary horror movies (films such as Insidious, Annabelle, The Conjuring, and The Last Exorcism), and I hoped that the new Poltergeist might follow the trend. Sadly, it didn’t.

Poltergeist is the story of a happy suburban family that is thrust into the middle of a supernatural nightmare when a malevolent force invades their home. At first, the manifestations that plague the family are little more than amusing parlor tricks. Chairs stack themselves onto the kitchen table when no one is looking, and the youngest member of the family, Carole Anne, hears voices coming from the television set at night. Things quickly turn serious, however, when Carole Anne is abducted by the same spirits that once seemed so harmless. The beleaguered family seeks help from a team of paranormal investigators (a rare thing in 1982, believe it or not) along with a very eccentric medium, and together they successfully exorcise the spirits and secure Carole Anne’s safe return. The movie ends with familial happiness restored (at least until the sequel).

The original Poltergeist was a welcome relief from the slasher movie craze that characterized the horror movie scene in the 1970s and 80s and became an instant classic, thanks to strong acting (Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams), a great screenplay (penned by Steven Spielberg) and a talented director (Tobe Hooper).

So why did Poltergeist 2015 fall so short of the original?

One major factor is the over use of CGI. One scene, in which the son is dragged through the house by a supposedly menacing tree, is more laughable than scary. And then, of course, there is the obligatory scene in which one of the children is lifted by the leg and pulled away by an invisible hand. This might have been scary when it was first seen ten or fifteen years ago, but now? Not so much.

The latest version of Poltergeist also exhibits very poor character development. This is very much at odds with the original, which took the time to introduce the characters in such a way that the audience got to know them, liked them, and actually worried about them when all hell started breaking loose. In the remake, the family members are little more than stereotypes, and the relationship between them is forced and flat.

Despite the many shortcomings, there are a couple of bright spots. Sam Rockwell does a solid job portraying the head of the family, and provides some good comic relief, especially at the beginning of the film. There are a few scenes that make you jump, and I liked the creepy clown, which could’ve easily become just another tired horror movie cliché, but was actually kind of scary.

I’m sure that Sam Raimi, who has some great horror movies to his credit as both a director and a producer (Drag Me to Hell, 30 Days of Night), had the best of intentions when he set out to oversee a remake of Poltergeist, but in the end, the film is nothing more than the latest example of a horror remake gone awry.

As for me, I’m back on the wagon, and from here on out, no matter how bored I am, or how convincing the movie poster may be, I’m going to just say no to any future horror movie remakes.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Billy Lyons started reading at age three and fell in love with weird tales soon after. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from The Citadel and George Mason University, respectively. His influences include H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Peter Straub, and Stephen King. His first published story, “Cell 334,” is a tale of three inmates who construct a makeshift Ouija Board and the terror that ensues, published in Another Realm magazine’s November 2014 issue. His story “Black-Eyed Children, Blue-Eyed Child” appears in High Strange Horror. He is seeking a publisher for his debut novel, The Junkie Vampires, which he loosely describes as True Blood meets Trainspotting. Billy lives in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia with his brother and their two cats.

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