Back in 1982, Steven Spielberg gave us what he called “his dream, and his nightmare”: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (which he directed), and “Poltergeist” (which he wrote). Released within a week of each other and arriving on the heels of his spectacular “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, it was a heady and emotional cinematic time, and for months on end, all anyone could talk about was Spielberg.
Perhaps because it was the third and nerves were jangling, or perhaps because Spielberg just has the touch when it comes to storytelling, his “Poltergeist” remains one my starkest moviegoing experiences. It resounds in memory for the sheer intensity of its effects, enormity of its foe, and disparity of its poles (daytime amusement to nighttime terror, eerie silence to deafening fury, affectionate teasing to willing self-sacrifice). Iconic in dialogue and imagery and helmed by acclaimed horror director Tobe Hooper, “Poltergeist” spent a decade making us shudder at the recall.
The casting is excellent, with Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt displaying an easy chemistry and Kennedi Clements bringing the best of the coveted tot without stepping on Heather O’Rourke’s iconic portrayal. Teenaged Dana (now Kendra) is an active member of the family rather than an observer, and best of all is the transformation of Robbie (now Griffin), who himself seems to shine, and through whose perspective we primarily experience the story this time.
Even those who love the original ‘Poltergeist’ have to admit that the movie loses a bit of its mojo when it gets into the paranormal scientific mumbo-jumbo section that Spielberg wrote with much more conviction in ‘Close Encounters’. Kenan keeps the pacing from sagging at this point in his version, but there’s no denying that the movie loses much of its charm, intensity and effectiveness while racing to a CGI-fest finale. Seeing Jane Adams (as the lead scientist) and Jared Harris (as a Reality TV ghost hunter) reunite is amusing for ‘Happiness’ fans, but neither of them can hold a candle to Zelda Rubinstein’s iconic house-cleaner from the original film.
Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt star as the parents in this trip down Spielbergian memory lane. In a nice contemporary twist that’s never hammered home too hard, they buy their haunted house as a result of struggling finances in this nutty recession. They’re a loving and believable parental team, but with their share of flaws and plenty of quipy wit. Their kids are equally well cast and credibly neurotic, from Saxon Sharbino’s sarcastic teen to Kyle Catlett’s troubled middle child and Kennedi Clements’ vaguely psychic youngster.
Kenan slowly introduces us to the family while also dialing up the haunted potential of their new suburban surroundings. All of the iconic household scares that Spielberg and Hooper (I don’t subscribe the authorship controversy; the 1982 film has both of their authorial stamps) dreamed up long ago appear – including self-stacking objects, creepy clown dolls, and a kiddie closet portal to the other side. Yet Kenan wisely never repeats any scares or set-pieces slavishly. He plays around with the formula for fans of the original (even tipping the cemetery back story early and offhandedly), while still giving new audiences the classic beats.
For the first hour, Kenan really delivers one hell of a ride. He plays with Spielberg’s sense of wonder (especially in a beautiful light-ball sequence), Hooper’s harshness (within PG-13 reason), and even producer Sam Raimi’s relentless scarehouse tactics in various sequences while still making the world his own. The performances are sharp and on-point to keep everything grounded, while also slipping in a gently comedic tone to lull the audience in.
The elements that matter – closet, staircase, screen, tree, clown – all remain but with their own fresh identities, and the entire production has been updated in a relaxed, natural fashion (the home is a foreclosure, names have been changed to current generational trends, people wear GPS devices during the proceedings, etc.).
Poltergeist’ 2015 might not top the original, but it’s still far better than the sequels and most of the knockoffs. That’s really all we ever could have asked for.
Rating: 3 out of 5