With Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Jared Harris, Jane Adams. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Gil Kenan. Rated PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language. 93 minutes.
If you’re old enough to remember the original POLTERGEIST (1982) then you’re not the target audience for this remake. However one has to ask, “Who is the audience for this by-the-numbers haunted house story?”
In the last five years, the haunted house story has become even more popular than vampires or zombies. Besides the never ending series of “Paranormal Activity” movies, there’s been “Insidious,” “The Amityville Haunting,” “Silent House,” “Sinister,” “V/H/S,” “The Conjuring,” “Mama,” “Dream House,” and numerous others that went straight-to-DVD. If now was deemed the time to remake “Poltergeist,” it should have been to reinvent the genre, not simply go through the motions.
This one is so formulaic that some may think it’s ripping off the mediocre “Insidious” when, in fact, that film was a pale copy of the original “Poltergeist.” It begins with the Bowen family buying a suburban house that is being offered, we’re told, below market price. Eric and Amy (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) don’t notice anything odd, but the children do. The youngest, Maddy (Kennedi Clements), immediately starts talking with invisible “friends.” The middle boy Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is easily spooked and soon finds a lot to spook him. The eldest, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), is the self-absorbed teenager who eventually realizes her siblings are onto something.
Then we get through the increasing signs that something is “wrong,” from a bunch of clown dolls hidden in the attic, to lights being switched on and off and boxes being moved around. Finally, Maddy is snatched by whatever or whomever is running this horror show, and the family turns to–wait for it–Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), a quirky investigator into paranormal activities. Is there any other kind? Of course, she brings in some young assistants but eventually they need the help of a true professional, Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), who exorcises haunted houses for his television show.
It’s all very slick and professional. The kids are cute, Rockwell and DeWitt deliver their dialogue with more style than was apparently on the page, and the arrival of Harris bring the moribund proceedings to life. Yet it’s all very predictable. Will they get Maddy back? What is the secret of the Bowen house? (In a nod to the original film we’re told it’s got nothing to do with “an Indian burial ground.”) And will we be dazzled by the special effects?
Let’s not spoil the rest of the story–although if you’ve seen enough of these movies you can probably guess–but as to the last question, the answer is, “No.” It’s not that the effects are bad so much as being lackluster. There’s no moment where you gasp and think you’ve never seen anything like that before, even in your worst nightmares. Instead you’re likely to think you’ve seen it all too many times before, and that’s the problem with the film.
As with most remakes, this “Poltergeist” is a film that didn’t need to be made. Here’s a message for Hollywood: if the only reason you’re remaking a movie is simply because you own the rights, it’s probably not worth doing.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.