For a lot of folks, 1982’s Poltergeist was their first movie scary enough to force them to watch from behind their hands. Despite its PG rating, Tobe Hooper’s horror flick delivered some of the most memorable scares and one-liners in the history of the genre. However, the tricks that made the film so powerful are old hat now, thanks in large part to its success. Arriving 33 years later, the reboot of the Poltergeist franchise—directed by Gil Kenan and written by David Lindsay-Abaire—is a disappointment that sadly fails at being a creative reimagining of the original classic.
Recently laid-off Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) and his wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) pack up their life and downsized living arrangements, moving into an older house in a neighborhood full of foreclosures. Their three children—teenage Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), meek youngster Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and imaginative tot Madison (Kennedi Clements)—each have their reservations about their new home, but the family’s financial state overrides any of their concerns.
Unbeknownst to Eric and Amy, the house they purchased was built atop a cemetery, which was “moved” a few miles away to facilitate the construction of their development. Maddy is immediately contacted by the sprits dwelling in their new residence, and instances of paranormal activity begin to occur. As the ghosts grow angrier, Maddy is captured and taken to their hellish dimension. With few options available to them, the family turn to Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), a paranormal investigator at a local college, and her team of researchers. Later, a reality-TV ghost hunter named Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) is called in to help save Madison from the vengeful spirits.
The original Poltergeist (which was co-written by Steven Spielberg) owed its success to the gradual progression of its creepiness—the family slowly realize they’re living on sacred land and must fight tooth and nail to get out, while at the same time they attempt to hold on to their sanity. This version drags the setup out, and the main struggle to retrieve Maddy from the netherworld doesn’t build nearly enough tension; even worse, the constant snide remarks from oldest sibling Kendra take viewers out of the action. And yes, 1982 was several lifetimes ago in terms of technology, but the film’s attempts at modernization are haphazard and ineffective: Kendra follows her malfunctioning iPhone toward danger, and the whole flying-toy-drone bit is plainly cringe-worthy.
The end result is an uneventful buildup with little payoff, positioning this remake as a lifeless imitation of the original despite the best efforts of Rockwell and DeWitt. Both of their performances are commendable, portraying the depth of emotion needed for this story. Newcomer Kennedi Clements gives an impassioned turn as Maddy, but she’s serviceable at best compared to the brilliance of Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne. Overall, there isn’t a single moment in this reboot that can hold its own against the Marty-in-the-mirror scene (although this movie tries to do something similar) or the swimming-pool bit from the original. Hasn’t Hollywood realized that, regardless of the cash-grab opportunity, there’s almost no way to reimagine a classic?