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Gil Kenan may have brought Poltergeist into the 21st century (ditching the spooky CRT television for a glitchy iPhone), but much like the film’s desecrated graveyard, it should probably have been left alone. Vacant sarcasm and narrative banality prevail over fresh ideas, ensuring Poltergeist‘s spot among the myriad of needlessly “updated” horror films remade only as a means of box office revenue.
A boilerplate horror family, the Bowens offer little more than a means for the plot to progress. Developing only minutely after their introduction inside the family minivan, Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) are relocating their family in the face of a recession. Luckily, the Bowens find a quaintly terrifying home in a neighborhood surrounded by power lines and next to the oldest, spookiest tree on Earth. The nervous Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is predictably placed in the dusty attic, while his impressionable little sister, Madison (Kennedi Clements), gets the room with the stubborn closet and the eldest, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), gets whatever will shut her up. As Madison’s conversations with inanimate objects become more frequent, and Griffin becomes increasingly nervous, the house begins to act out against the oblivious Bowens. Culminating with the capture of Madison by ethereal beings, the family is forced to bring in a group of parapsychologists and a “gifted” medium (a hokey yet awesome Jared Harris) to get their daughter back.
Other than flattening screens and cashing-in on an uptick in drones, Kenan and his writer David Lindsay-Abaire have done little to “reboot” the story, and even less to improve it. A camera slowly following the trepidatious Griffin as he investigates the house seems to be the only real means of building tension throughout this tedious haunted-house “thriller.” Jump scares marked with a building score and silence are the only tricks Kenan has up his sleeves, leading to an overall level of fear similar to that of taking out the trash after dark. Lindsay-Abaire’s script relies heavily on Spielberg’s original for major plot points, and has dialogue about as snappy as a Disney Channel sitcom. The entire film plays like something aimed at tweens. A good easily-digested fright that kids can enjoy with their friends before their moms pick them up at 8:30.
Oddly inhuman and coldly ignorant, the actual people who inhabit Poltergeist are far more lifeless than the clearly-motivated ghosts out to get them. Madison and Griffin are the innocent core that must always remain cute and terrified. Amy is the token writer in the family with an unfinished (un-started) novel, and the cares of the world evident in every stunted line and one-dimensional pep-talk. Taking the trope of “angsty teen” to the next level, Kendra is reduced to a bit character whose only job is to teach Madison swear words. Perhaps he only read his own lines, or decided to hope for the best, but Sam Rockwell was not aware of his role in the film. With some punchy improvisational lines, and heartfelt moments of grief, Rockwell is off in a world of his own. Providing an early point of hope, Rockwell’s Eric eschews himself from a conversation with the self-aware, “Sorry honey, I’m busy having an awkward exchange with the realtor.” Unfortunately, Eric’s wit only declines from this initial high point to a standard more befitting of the film.
A horror classic made mediocre in order to peak the interest of a new generation of young viewers, Poltergeist is disappointing to fans new and old. Nowhere near revolutionary enough to stand on its own, the reboot’s reliance on base material and refusal to innovate underscore a lackluster movie that pacifies more than it paralyzes.