Poltergeist’s passionate mediocrity

This past week has been all over the place, as far as quality of watched films. I’ve seen bland sequels, offensive sequels, dull remakes, and impressive originals, but Poltergeist was a strange one. It wasn’t screened early for critics, which usually means it is relying on ignorance to bolster opening weekend numbers. It didn’t do well as far as earning. It didn’t do well as far as critics. But I wanted to see it because I was curious as to how they could remake the first film.

The original Poltergeist is bizarre by today’s standards. The entire first act is a family friendly fantasy. It has this crackle of discovery and magic, more than suspense, and is closer to Batteries Not Included than anything else. The house is strange, but also fun. It’s like discovering that you moved into the Mystery Spot but it’s real magic. Even when the daughter is taken, it’s done because the spirits are playful and view her as a mix between a companion and a toy. Then the angry entity shows up and the movie turns to horror.

That sort of change in tone doesn’t happen anymore in horror films. Part of the ride wasn’t just a ramping up of suspense, it was actually being surprised by the tone of a film. Today, instead of that you get your tone set early on, and tension builds from there. It’s a straight, 45 degree line to frights, rather than a roller coaster’s ups and downs. So how did the remake deal with this? It jumps straight into the horror tone, rather than saving that for the latter part of the movie.

What’s odd is that the family seems to all hate each other from the onset. It’s not a result of living in this heightened level of stress from the house; they all just begin with disdain. The father is unemployed and periodically lets slip how desperate he is for work. The mother is guilty over not writing her novel as well as not earning any income. They both refer to their middle child, their son, as a problem. Their oldest daughter is an awful caricature of a teenager, whom no one want around. And their youngest daughter, while inoffensive, is generally ignored and ignorable. All of these interpersonal relationships may have worked had the first third of the film been done as a family drama, but it’s not. The movie jump straight to lingering camera shots and tries to make everything scary while they are moving in. There are quick nods to the original movie, like the baseball rolling around and the odd clown doll, but these are done with sinister tones and heavy bass acting as the soundtrack, so things like the appearance of a baseball is clearly supposed to be a terrible portent rather than a playful gesture.

So when a movie that is supposed to have two phases starts at horror, how does it shift gears while trying to remain a family film? The answer, apparently, is that it doesn’t. The tone stays exactly the same, but since it’s a PG-13 remake of a PG movie, the scares simply don’t happen. Poltergeist goes through the motions of what would be horror scene setups (a drill coming through a wall, a set of clown dolls scampering through the darkness) but just repeatedly turns them into hallucinations that stop just in time to not trigger that R rating. It’s constant setup without any follow through, and the movie is left spinning its tires and getting nowhere.

Jared Harris replaces Zelda Rubinstein as the house psychic, and his role did spark another discussion in the Chaotic Neutral household when Allison made a great point about gender in this movie. They also tone down the mother’s role. The youngest daughter is just a hostage/prop. The father gets nearly 100% of the domestic plot, with money trouble and the job hunt. The son is the one that gets the only character arc in the movie. By the end, it really just did seem like women were constantly just sitting down in the back of the room so the guys could have their moments. Even with the university paranormal investigators, this holds. The lead investigator is played by Jane Adams, but ends up calling in Jared Harris (playing the character’s ex-husband, by the way) to really help. Jane Adams’ team is made up of two students, played by Susan Heyward and Nicholas Braun. Heyward has nothing at all to do, other than berate Nicholas Braun at one point. Braun’s slacker investigator is the only one shown to actually investigate, both half assed and then whole assed after a run-in with the entity. It’s not enough to be outright offensive, but it is enough to take a floundering movie and make it seem even more awkward.

In the end, I felt nothing for this movie. I wasn’t too disappointed as I wasn’t expecting anything. It didn’t quite deliver on nothing, leaving a barely noticeable but unpleasant aftertaste on my cinematic palette, but it didn’t make me throw my hands up in disgust. It neutered itself by trying to take a very specific and tonally strong film from the 80s and pressing it into a generic contemporary horror mold. Is it a sign of everything wrong with horror today? No, there have been some great horror films in the past few years. But it does show what happens when a movie doesn’t need to bother with writing and simply settles, like dust, on the most common horror tropes of today. Without being, you know, scary.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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