Movie Review: “Poltergeist”

Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Kennedi Clements
Gil Kenan

“Poltergeist” is the worst kind of remake. Director Gil Kenan’s film is neither terrible nor good, but rather flat-out uninspired. This is a remake that brings nothing new to the table. Instead of updating the classic 1982 film, it’s a stale and safe retread. The story is almost exactly the same, and although most horror remakes don’t usually stray too far from the source material, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) hardly ever makes this version feel fresh. Beat by beat, “Poltergeist” is a lame cover song.

After falling on hard times, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) has to move his family – his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their three children – to a cheap neighborhood. The neighborhood is actually quite nice from the looks of it, but there’s a catch: the house they bought is built on an old graveyard, and the bodies in the ground rise up to terrorize the Bowen family. After the abduction of the Bowens’ youngest daughter, it’s obvious why the family has to stay in their haunted house – they can’t call the cops or just leave her there – but this is still a horror movie where characters make incredibly stupid mistakes, and these decisions never come across as believable character traits or flaws, but instead, cheap tricks to achieve scares or move the plot along.

The film mostly consists of expected jump scares. Kenan and his DP, Javier Aguierresarobe, try to build an unnerving atmosphere with roaming camerawork, but they never build any real tension. Technically speaking, their work is more than competent, but none of their aesthetic choices ever add up to more than a few pretty frames, all serving a lifeless purpose. The third act comes close to conjuring up some scares, but by that point, it’s impossible to get invested in anything that’s happening on screen.

A movie with such an appealing cast shouldn’t be this stiff, especially since most of the actors involved turn in fine performances. Nobody is phoning it in here, and that’s a part of the reason why this remake is disappointing. At the end of the day, however, it’s the actors that save “Poltergeist” from being a truly awful film. The excellent Sam Rockwell is believable as the frightened father; he has the only role that goes beyond reacting to the supernatural, but he’s even able to make Eric’s dull and redundant financial struggles somewhat watchable. Jared Harris also appears as an expert on the paranormal, continuing his streak of elevating otherwise tepid horror movies. Harris makes plenty of exposition go down smoothly with genuine charm, adding some much needed levity to the proceedings.

The horror is never scary because we’re mainly watching characters run through a plot we’ve already seen done much better. Kenan directed a far funnier, moodier and entertaining horror movie with his kid’s film, “Monster House”. This is Kenan’s second live-action movie, following the creative but box office bomb, “City of Ember,” and though he’s an imaginative filmmaker, his imagination is mostly underutilized here. There are no new avenues explored with the material, and no new vision brought to the story. This is the kind of movie that gives remakes a bad name.