“Who would have a box full of clowns?” That’s the question young Griffin Bowen (Kyle Catlett) asks his father, Eric (Sam Rockwell), upon discovering said box while exploring his new attic bedroom. That question begs infinitely more while watching Poltergeist, the remake of the classic 1982 horror film of the same name. By the end, only one question ultimately mattered: Why re-do such a popular and well-regarded movie if you’re going to do it with absolutely no style? I’m relatively sure no filmmaker goes into a project with that intention, but that’s the end result with this version of Poltergeist. The movie is as bland as baby food.
This iteration sticks to the plot of the original, with a few notable exceptions. The Bowen family (it was the Freelings in the first go-round) must downsize to a cheaper house, because Eric has lost his job due to cutbacks. I got the feeling that screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (who co-wrote the forgettable Oz the Great and Powerful) wanted to address something about people living in hard economic times, but didn’t really have much to say. Ditto the idea of our ever growing dependence on technological gadgets. Poltergeist makes big shows of things like the oldest daughter, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), needing a new cell phone, but that theme, like families being down on their luck, is left floating out there never to be incorporated into the larger story.
Immediately after moving into their new house, strange things begin to happen – electronic devices go on and off by themselves, chairs move of their own volition. These unexplainable events culminate when the house itself attacks the children while parents Eric and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) are at a dinner party. It’s at this dinner party that the two discover a possible explanation for the paranormal happenings in their house. There’s a nod to the original Poltergeist, when displaced graveyards are discussed. There’s an incongruous meta element during the scene, when one of the guests humorously suggests there’s no reason to worry because it was just a regular graveyard, and not an ancient sacred burial ground. If the movie was some sort of deconstructionist horror film, a line like that might work. Poltergeist is decidedly not that kind of movie, though, so the exchange just becomes another questionable element.
If you’ve seen Tobe Hooper’s and Steven Spielberg’s movie, then it should come as no surprise that the ghoulish forces in the house abduct the youngest daughter, Madison (Kennedi Clements), through a portal in her closet. Desperate for help to find their daughter, Eric and Amy turn to the paranormal research department at the local college. The head of the department, Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), quickly realizes this is no normal haunting, but a poltergeist. She tells the Bowens that the only person who can get their daughter back is Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), the host of a popular haunted house reality show. In an egregious example of plot contrivance and poor execution, we find out Burke and Powell were once married, but are now divorced.
The rest of the film plays out essentially like the 1982 version. That’s the biggest problem with this Poltergeist – it’s almost devoid of originality. Despite Sam Rockwell’s best efforts to bring his brand of snark to the role of Eric, the dialog just lies there. None of the characters feel like flesh and blood people. They are merely collections of archetypes: the father who is struggling to provide for his family, the rebellious teenage daughter, the brash expert who is called when all else fails. Conversations between Eric and Amy try to convey a realistic relationship with the ups and downs of parenthood, but they come off as cliché and unbelievable. Jared Harris – probably best known for his television roles in Mad Men and Fringe – as ghost hunter extraordinaire Burke, brings as much appropriate hammy-ness as he can, but the screenplay does him no favors.
Credit where it’s due, though: Despite falling back on early Resident Evil-style CGI for the malevolent spirits invading the house, Poltergeist does produce a few genuinely frightening moments. These fleeting seconds of trepidation are the lowest tech of the entire movie. One involves a drill and a man’s head. It’s nothing graphic – the movie is rated PG-13, after all – and the fright comes out of the suspense the scene generates. I was captivated for that few minutes because I had no idea what was going to happen next. If Poltergeist created more moments like that, it would be a success. Instead, it’s content to aggressively work the middle ground. It’s one of the countless remakes that’s like the box of clowns from the beginning of the film – both should be put away and forgotten.