It is perhaps possible that some full disclosure is in order.
The night before last, I was up so late writing the Annie list that before I knew it, it was 5 a.m. and I had not gone to bed. So I stayed up and wrote more. Sometime around noon I got a couple hours sleep. Then I wrote more because Disney’s doing something dumb with Tinkerbell and I needed to be first to make fun of it.
I’m certain you don’t care, but the point is this – by the time I got to see the new Poltergeist at 6 p.m., I may not have been in my right mind. Or I may have been disproportionately overjoyed that it was the first 3D movie in months to actually screen for press in 3D. On the other hand, the fact that it was one of those radio station promotional screenings where some big fat dude down front with some speakers keeps yelling “Make some NOISE!” and throwing T-shirts into the crowd ought to have been an effective counterbalance. So when I say I enjoyed the movie, you now have a certain amount of ammo you can use to prove I was not in my right mind. That said, I am going to make my case.
1. BOX. OF. CLOWNS.
Let’s just cut to the chase right now:
It has always bothered me in the original movie – why does the kid own such an already terrifying clown doll? For the new version, we’ve been shown a clown that’s even scarier, and wondered what the hell kind of godawful parent would let their child have one.
Here’s the good part: they don’t. The Bowen family moves into their new house, the boy gets given the attic as a bedroom, and late one night, he hears noises from behind a small door that GODDAMMIT he shouldn’t open. But he does.
Inside? A BOX OF CLOWNS. The house just came with it. And like Weeping Angels, they move closer when you’re not looking. This is where I’d have liked to see the reality TV mockery of the new story go further – show up on Pawn Stars with BOX OF CLOWNS, and have Chumlee pay some idiotically high price for them. Ethan Suplee’s probably available to play Chum, so let’s make that the sequel.
2. It’s Kind of a “Requel.”
Poltergeist as a franchise has anyone wishing to continue it in a tough spot, due to the death of original trilogy star Heather O’Rourke while the third film was in post-production. Her character, Carol Anne, never died onscreen, but any attempt at continuing her adventures as an adult would undoubtedly be seen as disrespectful, as would any attempt at recasting the role.
So the new Poltergeist takes the same route as the last Evil Dead – the characters are different, but very familiar things happen to them, and it’s not out of the question that the ghosts involved simply like repeating the same pattern again and again. I mean, with TVs getting bigger and bigger and more high-definition, it must be pretty damn tempting for them to keep trying.
3. Rule 1 of Horror Remakes: Update the Subtext.
Think of all the horror remakes that are actually good: The Thing, The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even The Evil Dead. They work in part because the filmmakers bother to rethink how and why the story would be relevant to today’s audiences. Thus does a movie about emotionless aliens go from being about communism, to self-help selfishness, to the military; and a cautionary tale about science and radiation become an AIDS metaphor.
Poltergeist, the original, had “white guilt” written all over it – the “typical” family onscreen has it all, with their nice house and happy family, but the spirits of the have-nots, in the form of ghosts from an Indian burial ground [UPDATE: or so I remembered – apparently I misheard the dialogue back in the day when they say it isn’t. Still, the privilege point remains], fester like liberal anxieties about privilege, and haunt all the trappings of wealth.
Poltergeist 2015 is more realistic about the middle class of today. Far from being a successful single-income family like 1982’s Freelings, the Bowens consist of Eric (Sam Rockwell), a recently laid-off employee of John Deere; and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s supposed to be working on a book that she never gets around to. They get their nice suburban house not because they’re well off, but because they’re broke and it was a cheap foreclosure buy with water-damage issues. The ghosts come off more like bad versions of them, blatant victims of a company cutting corners – and the danger now represents the guilt of dual working parents that they are neglecting their kids in their never-ending attempts to stay afloat financially.
This also helps explain…
4. Why They Just Don’t Leave the House.
I bring up the Eddie Murphy question time and time again, because it’s one every horror screenwriter needs a good answer for: why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house (he asked years before starring in The Haunted Mansion)?
Murphy was talking about movies like the original Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, in which families well-off enough to afford nice houses stick around mainly because they’re overly attached to their possessions. But the modern era, again, tells a different story, and I know this firsthand – twice, within the span of three months, my apartment flooded and many things I owned were ruined, including a nice leather jacket. So why don’t I just move out? Well, moving is expensive, and I don’t need more credit card debt; plus the way the market is right now, I’d never get as good a deal on the rent. So I stay here putting things in waterproof plastic tubs, waiting for the next deluge my landlords will fail to prevent. The new Poltergeist makes it clear that the Bowens feel a similar pinch, and it’ll take way more than a BOX OF MOTHERFUCKING CLOWNS to motivate their asses outta there.
5. If Ya Smell What the Rockwell’s Cookin’.
Craig T. Nelson was the epitome of all-American dad in the ’80s, but now we get Sam Rockwell, and it feels like he’s subverting the whole thing. Drinking room temperature whiskey with no ice, and making Louis CK-style jokes about how his kids are jerks, he’s the modern man as demasculated by a system that no longer offers any opportunities. Pointedly, he’s a former athlete who got injured before turning pro, and he wants to coach but knows it won’t pay the bills.
The only way left to prove his manliness? Kick the shit out of some ghosts. Which he tries his best to do.
6. The Legend of Zelda: No Link to the Past.
Heather O’Rourke isn’t the only dead cast member you simply cannot replace in a Poltergeist movie – the unusual-voiced little person Zelda Rubinstein is the face and sound of the original movie to most everyone who saw it. You could try to get Peter Dinklage to do old-woman drag, but you shouldn’t.
So instead we get Jared Harris as Carrigan Burke, a heavily scarred Irishman who hosts a terrible ghost-hunting reality show. The twist is that he’s genuinely good at what he does, and every scar has a story. While Rubinstein looked like she could out-weird the spirits, Harris looks ready to make them kiss his arse. Just one problem: it’s not a fistfight.
7. “Antidote.” “To What?” “To the Poison. You Just Drank!”
When I first heard about the Poltergeist remake, and then saw the trailer, I thought I knew what to expect – yet another “gritty reboot,” this time in 3D just because. And Joe Dante basically already did that with The Hole, clown doll and all.
But there’s a difference between a Ghost House remake and a Blumhouse remake. The latter are becoming tiresomely formulaic, with their ultra-low budgets so often forcing the nerve-jangling evil thing to stay hidden until the very end. Sam Raimi’s Ghost House, however, has money to throw around, and after seeing so many Paranormal Activity movies that ration out their thrills so carefully, it’s fun to just gorge on Halloween candy every once in a while. We get giant monster trees, basement-dwelling sludge zombies, a trip to the afterlife, BOX OF CLOWNS, a possessed evil squirrel (yes, evil squirrel), houses of cards built with comics and more…all in 3D, and they’re just fun. If Jason Blum’s cultural touchstone is the modern, full-contact Blackout haunted houses, Raimi’s is the old-fashioned funhouse still. And in Monster House director Gil Kenan, he has found a guy who clearly idolized the first film, as this is essentially the helmer’s second pass at remaking it.
The original didn’t skimp on crazy-ass monsters, and neither does this. Though unfortunately we don’t get a separation this time around between the ghosts and the Beast, so the spirits seem a tad unnecessarily malevolent. Like, if I’m a dead guy pissed off and sad that my grave was desecrated, I might want to fuck with the person who actually desecrated it, but being made so furiously nuts that I’m sending BOX OF CLOWNS to a random little boy scared of everything is a bit much. Unless there’s an evil puppet-master from beyond; then I get it.
Now, with all this said, is the remake up to the original? I’d have to say no, because it doesn’t depart quite enough. The new kids are better actors, and the 3D adds a level of fun if you aren’t a hater of 3D (a bit involving a drill near somebody’s face particularly sticks out, if you know what I mean). The key difference, I think, is that Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper were trying to make a movie to stand the test of time. Kenan and Raimi just want to make something that’s fun right now. And that’s okay.
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist