To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, too many filmmakers are so preoccupied with whether or not they could remake a film that they don't stop to think if they should. The Ghost House Pictures remake of Poltergeist is a perfect example. Sure, the original is over 30 years old and the urge to start a new franchise with "brand" recognition must be tempting. But the end results show that no one involved in the production bothered to wonder whether remaking such a classic was a good idea. Much like a park loaded with dinosaurs, this production showed the hubris of filmmakers attempting to revive something from the past.
The story starts out the same as the Hooper/Spielberg original. The Burke family moves into a new home, only this time, the father, Eric (Sam Rockwell) is unemployed. The mother, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a writer (at least so we are told, but we never see her in front of a computer), and Eric doesn't want her to find a job and give up working on, I don't know, the Great American Novel or something.
As expected, the house is the center of some supernatural activity and the youngest daughter, Madison (Kennedi Clements) is pulled into the spirit realm. Her brother Griffin (Kyle Catlett) feels guilty for abandoning her just before the ghosts get her, and the oldest daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) does very little other than react to the ghostly events and introduce us to Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) a YouTube ghost hunter brought in by a paranormal research team to find Madison and help the spirits find the light.
And, as expected, mayhem ensues.
Well, maybe not real mayhem,
but we've got lots of puzzled looks and lackluster effects.
The story isn't deep, but to be fair, neither was the original. As expected, this version hits all the expected notes, including a scary clown doll, a evil tree and a closet portal to the spirit world. It's mentioned the housing development is located on a graveyard that was moved, someone mentions an ancient Indian burial ground, and we get ghosts communicating with Madison via a big screen television.
But the script runs into problems almost immediately. How the family can buy a new home without an income and maxed out credit cards is hard to fathom, even if you go with shady mortgage practices employed in recent decades. I'm certain this plot point was an attempt to update the characters and make them more relatable to modern audiences, but any theme of Eric's financial despair and powerlessness as a provider are dropped early one.
Additionally, the script spends very little time developing the family before the haunting starts. Unlike the Freelings in the Hooper/Spielberg version, the Burkes just seem like dull stereotypes used to move the story to the action scenes. And we don't get any interactions with their neighbors, a major part of the original's first act. Sure, the couple does attend an awkward dinner party as part of Eric's attempt to find employment, but it seems the Burkes are the only family living on the block. Even at the conclusion, the neighborhood is surprisingly deserted while the home is torn apart. While the isolation set up by their financial situation could bring the characters to life, David Lindsay-Abaire's script doesn't seem interested in moving any further than the next effects scene.
Yet even those moments fall flat. The first film was an amazing roller coaster ride, full of practical effects that hold up today. But here, the CGI effects look painfully cheap, even by television standards. The tree attacking Griffin is more funny than scary and the scary clown doll, so effective in the original, isn't given enough of a build up to make it effective. And though the film brings us into the spirit realm, it's about as eerie as a Resident Evil game on the PS2.
Oh, come on!
Adding to the problem with the effects are the lack of quiet moments of the supernatural activities. Sure, the Hooper/Spielberg film is full of scary moments, but the filmmakers also include scenes that are quiet and full of wonder. These breaks, missing from the remake, allow the audience a moment to relax while builds expectations on what is coming later.
The remake has no time to develop tension, instead trying to hammer the audience into being scared. In the original, the creepy clown doll is introduced in a way that unnerves the audience, before the figure dials up the evil past eleven in the climax. In the remake, it attacks early on with no payoff, no character moment of attacking one's fears. Maybe the filmmakers felt the scary clown cliche is overplayed, but I suspect waiting a bit before it attacks would have worked better by playing on audience expectations.
No need for any build up, I'm a scary clown doll!!
What, why is everyone yawning?
Okay, time to address the CGI issue. I have no problem with horror films using such effects. If done right, it can bring amazing creatures to life and create settings that are truly otherworldly. But in this case, the filmmakers relied too much on computer artists to deliver thrilling effects on a very limited budget.
Again, it goes back to the characters. In the original, we got to know, and like, the Freelings before the ghostly happenings. In the remake, the family and ghost investigators are little more than pawns to be maneuvered into a position that the scary moments can happen. But if a script treats its characters with such apathy, so will the audience and that will lessen any sense of tension or dread, regardless of the antagonist.
It's always a tall order when one tries to remake a beloved film. But I suspect had the filmmakers spent more time thinking if they should, they might have realized what made the original Poltergeist so special and possibly spent a bit more time on a script that would do justice to the story. Or decided it wasn't worth trying and abandoned the remake. Either way, the audience would be the winner.
Next time, listen to Malcolm.
He knows what he's talking about.