Coming off of the success of the surprisingly popular Evil Dead remake, it’s understandable why producer Sam Raimi would deem it a good idea to take on the challenge of rebooting the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg classic 1982 Poltergeist. A glaringly obvious but equally important difference between these two endeavors is that the original filmmakers of Poltergeist are not overseeing the 2015 remake, unlike its groovy predecessor. In this distinction, it becomes clear that director Gil Kenan, the man behind kid-friendly horror movie Monster House, has created a film sporting the same face of its descendent, but having little in common with Hooper’s paranormal original feature. With its updated additions of the effects of financial straits in a modern, struggling economy, the overabundance of technology, and a darker, harsher tone, the new Poltergeist finds its strength and its weakness in sharing such few themes with its competitor.
Despite what the Bowen family is about to encounter, they’re no strangers to suffering. As a family in this country’s current dwindling economy, they find themselves caught up in the cutbacks, as the father of the family, Eric, is laid off from his job at John Deere as a result of budget restraints. When he and his writer wife Amy decide to downgrade from the city to the suburbs, they drag their three children, Kendra, Griffin, and Madison along with them, kicking and screaming. Kendra remarks sarcastically on the drive over that the telephone lines will give her brain tumors, much to her mother’s dismay, but in this comment, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire subtly touches on the ever-present theme of overstimulation that hangs overheard throughout much of the film. After the family starts setting up in their new, “temporary” abode, they begin experiencing an invasion almost immediately with the presence of rodents. Eric quickly heads to the local grocery store, where he comes face to face with the issue that sent him to the suburbs in the first place: his debt. Nearly all of his credit cards are maxed out, and in an attempt to shake off the embarrassment of having his credit declined, he licks his wounds by spending copious amounts of money on gifts and goodies that he knows he can’t afford. Even after his wife confronts him about his spending, he can’t bear to take the items back and admit what in his mind qualifies as defeat, both as a breadwinner, and as a man.
His son, Griffin, is also feeling like less than himself lately. A constant worrier, Griffin finds terror in common, daily occurrences, shaking like the leaves on the old crooked tree outside his bedroom window at every little disturbance. Timid, shy, and passive, Griffin immerses himself in his video games, lost inside the far away world of his iPad, where he doesn’t have to confronts his fears or overcome his anxieties. However, Griffin’s not the only one delving into the surfaced high of technological advancements. It seems that like most families in today’s world, each Bowen bears signs of addiction to their electronic products. With flat screen TVs decorating almost every room in the house, Griffin’s video games, Kendra’s Skype sessions, and even their mother and father gravitating towards their computers, it appears that the youngest member, Maddy, is the only person in the house that has yet to really be tainted by technology. Her youth and purity act as a homing device, guiding malicious spirits like a light toward her angelic presence, as they slip in through the cracks left in place by this distant, detached family.
In this suburban setting, where a person is never really privy to what goes on inside of the house sitting just a few feet away from theirs, the Bowen family has never had to depend on each other as desperately as they do once the spirits begin to make themselves known. It starts somewhat innocently, calling out to sweet little Maddy just like another lost little girl, whispering secrets and playing games. However, ultimately, this presence is merely casting a spell on this naive child, toying with her strategically, all in the name of seduction. After a vicious attack on the children in the house, the spirits reach out and grab Maddy, pulling her deep into their world; a horrific place where the crowded dead line the walls like victims of a firing squad, keeping her hidden from her family; held hostage behind the plethora of souls blocking the path from this world to the next. Frantic, the Bowens call on a renowned paranormal expert to help them find their daughter, and bring her back to the land of the living. Carrigan Burke is his name, and although he may be the pop culture star of a supernatural reality television program, this man possesses real powers; connections to the other side that can aid him in the journey to finding and retrieving Madison.
The film starts with a mostly stationary camera, objectively capturing the typical working class American family as their teenage daughter curses, their youngest, Maddy, mimics her every bad word, and their son Griffin senses a danger that feels all but invisible to the rest of his clan, but like the power that sparks on with the awakening of the spirits in the house, dancing from lightbulb to lightbulb, the first paranormal events trigger the camera into motion, where it remains in a constant flow, bobbing on the currents as it bounces around, following the characters just like another supernatural presence lurking in their new home. The camera itself switches from an objective viewer to a subjective poltergeist, intruding this family’s lives and recording them in their weakest moments.
Aside from its thematic and cinematic achievements, cracks in the film littered the screen time just as faults plagued the Bowen family. The characters felt far too passive for people who had just lost a member of their family to malevolent forces that they cannot explain, casually explaining why the sprits are angry like they are recalling the events of a baseball game. In a world where people snicker at older films when characters express extreme distress or gut-wrenching despair, it seems that the results of such responses have led to more calm, strangely docile performances in newer pictures. One of the biggest problems, however, lies in the CGI overkill, with the climax of the film suffering greatly from a plethora of fake-looking spirits and special effects that just aren’t quite believable. Mostly, however, this revamped tale owes its greatest debt to its name, which calls for the comparison of one of the greatest horror movies ever made, overlooked by one of the greatest directors to ever work in film. Honestly, this movie doesn’t hold a candle to the 1982 classic, but as a stand alone movie, it’s actually pretty entertaining and frightening. If only it wasn’t called Poltergeist.