Review: ‘Poltergeist’ is what happens when smart people outthink the genre

Director Gil Kenan's work on “Poltergeist” is, like his work on “City Of Ember” and “Monster House,” smart and focused and technically adept. He has done about as good a job as anyone would have done with David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay based on the 1982 film, and the same is true of the cast. Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, and Jane Adams are all very good at what they do. The various visual effects houses and tech departments on the film all did what they were hired to do, and taken as a whole, “Poltergeist” is professional and slick and entirely fine.

It's also unnecessary in every way.

There are a few moments here and there where Kenan pieces together a few images or a few new ideas, and in those moments, we get a glimpse of the potential for doing a new “Poltergeist.” For the most part, though, this is exactly what happens when the impetus for a remake is money and nothing else. One of the things that bothers me about this is that while it's impressive to have David Lindsay-Abaire's name on the film. After all, he won a justifiable boatload of awards for “Rabbit Hole,” a film about parents dealing with the grief and pain of losing a child. Sounds like an interesting fit for a supernatural tale of a family's struggle to find a child who has disappeared, but there's nothing about this script that would indicate it was written by either a world-renowned writer or someone who loves horror. I'd take one or the other, but this feels like he is on auto-pilot, like he doesn't need to bring his A-game to something that is “just” a horror film, like he threw some half-hearted “character work” in to justify the light show that they obviously want to get to. In a way, it's almost offensive because it feels like he's slumming. “Here, I'll just throw some people talking in, and that audience will think it's deep.” If you're going to really do something special, there shouldn't be a wasted word or scene. Go ahead… tell me about these people and who they are, but make sure it pays off.

For example, early in the film, there's some effort made to show that Sam Rockwell's character, Eric Bowen, really likes to drink. At first, it's just celebratory on the night they move in, but then when things get ugly, he starts to lean on it. There's an entire storyline in “Poltergeist II: The Other Side” about Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) drinking too much, culminating in one seriously messed up scene involving a tequila worm. Here, it's like they want to set it up, but after one or two scenes, they do a riff on the “grad student looking in the mirror in the middle of the night” scene from the original, and then Rockwell never drinks again. The whole set-up and payoff takes place in about four beats, and while I can see what it's supposed to do, it feels like this is a placeholder version of the polished, finished version.

Here's the thing about horror… there is so little respect paid to this genre that I want to root for a film with this kind of pedigree. Studios release so few A-list horror films that I want to believe that when they do it, they will get it right. If this is what they consider worth making, then maybe the studios just don't like horror films. There's a part of me that has trouble believing this is Ghost House and Roy Lee producing, because that represents a whole group of people who I think actually like and understand horror. Why would they take a film as iconic as “Poltergeist” and then learn all the wrong lessons from it? And when it comes to Gil Kenan, he's as authentic an Amblin' fan as you're ever likely to meet. When he was in production on “Monster House,” I got a chance to meet him and spend a long afternoon picking his brain. He struck me as someone who has the Amblin' of the '80s imprinted on his very DNA. “Poltergeist” is as much a part of that '80s canon as its weird mutant outer-space brother “E.T.” One of the reasons the original “Poltergeist” worked so well was because it took the smallest of details and used it to make the mundane sinister, where this film tips its hand so early that there's nothing about it that ever feels grounded or real.

Here's another example. In the original, one of the most upsetting and iconic scares involved the clown doll in Robbie's bedroom. One of the reasons that scene worked was because the doll in the original film was a real doll that had ben sold in stores. It wasn't designed to look sinister; it looked sinister, so they used that in the film. For kids all over the country, that added a layer of authenticity to the nightmare, and I would imagine many of those dolls were thrown away as soon as kids got home from seeing it. In the new film, they don't just have one clown doll. Nope. Instead, it's an entire box full of clown dolls, and instead of using real commercially available dolls, these are all art directed carefully to make sure they are super-sinister, making you wonder why anyone who wasn't specifically trying to scare the living shit out of a kid would make or collect these dolls. In almost every way, this new version miscalculates, starting with the set-up itself. In this film, they're moving into this new house because they have to. Things are tough financially, and this place is in foreclosure. From the moment they move in, the house is super-haunted, everything very up front and in your face. Are we supposed to believe it's just starting now as this new family moves in? Did this happen to the previous owners? Is this why people are moving out of this neighborhood and no one's talking about it? There are so many questions these changes suggest that it almost hobbles the film every time they hew to the original film's structure. This never feels like normal suburbia, which was the original film's greatest strength. And beyond that, there's never a single moment between this couple (Rockwell and De Witt) that feels like there's a genuine connection a la that great funny bedroom scene between Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams in the original. I believed in the Frelings, but I never one feel like the Bowens are a genuine family.

The best moments in the film feature new ideas that leap off from the iconography of the original. There's a moment involving shadows and little Madison (Kennedi Clements) that is very clever and visually arresting, and when the film reaches the sequence where they have the rope running into the closet, through the “other side,” and then out of the hole in the living room, Kenan decided he wanted to see that other plane of existence. He has one of the characters pilot a drone with a camera mounted on it into the hole, and we get plunged into it as a result. It's a genuinely creepy and interesting vision, and it's all Kenan's. It's not something from the original, but instead offers an interesting expansion of the original.

But in other key ways, it's almost like they went out of their way to fumble parts of the original. They drop the information about the cemetery at a dinner party early in the film, and right away, they make a joke about how “at least it's not built on an ancient Indian burial ground” and then everyone has a good laugh. It's too winky-winky by a mile, and it sort of nails why this doesn't sit well with me overall. This many smart and talented people working together to basically offer up a weaker karaoke version of something is bad enough, but it feels like they genuinely believe they're better than this. It's hard enough for horror to be treated with all due respect by the studios. As Scott Weinberg pointed out to me, this is only the fourth wide release horror film from a studio this year. That's painful. But when one of those four feels like the people who made it were stooping to do so, like they are slightly embarrassed by the source material, it's sort of a punch in the face.

“Poltergeist” may not be sacred text, but it certainly deserved better than this.

“Poltergeist” is in theaters now.