Photocopy Frights in Poltergeist

Remakes can be many different things. Despite all the energy spent complaining about them, we wouldn’t probably have what we know as horror if it weren’t for remakes, and we certainly wouldn’t have many of the films that we now consider classics. I’m not as opposed to the idea of horror remakes are many others for this very reason, and just like every other film that has ever existed, there’s so much more that goes into whether a film is good or bad than just being based on a pre-existing property.

Still, if you’re going to remake a film – especially a famous one – you should probably go about having something different to say. Whether that be simply looking at an old text through new eyes that shine something new upon it, revamping it through new technology and advanced filmmaking skills, or contextualising it with the modern world. One of my favourite remakes is Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of 2003 for those very reasons. Whatever you make of the Tobe Hooper undeniably classic original being given the remake treatment, it was ultimately a new take on the material. It exists as its own creature – for better or worse. Likewise Dawn of the Dead (for better) and Halloween (for worse).

Many far less inspired remakes have been made in the years since. Films by makers that seemingly had far less on their mind both thematically or visually than simply rehashing their original products. Films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Carrie, The Fog and The Stepfather that were as uninspiring as recreations can get. Given the riches inherent in a property such as Tobe Hooper’s (or Steven Spielberg’s, let’s be honest) Poltergeist, one would have hoped that something slightly more invigorating than the final product would have wound up in cinemas. Instead of a reboot that takes advances in technology, the ever-expanding suburban sprawl or a clear audience desire for haunted houses, we’re left with little more than a faded photocopy.

In name, structure, even scene-to-scene, director Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist has little of its own identity. It truly is a wonder why they bothered. It does everything the 1982 original did, but just not as good. The visual effects are neither better nor worse than they were 33 years ago. The relationship between Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt is isn’t any more complex than Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, although the film mysteriously doesn’t go into explaining how a family with no discernible income (he confesses to the real estate agent that he’s recently been laid off at home, while she’s a writer with no time to write) consider moving into the three-storey house in a nice neighbourhood with child bedrooms the size of a New York City apartment to be ‘downsizing’. The reworked novelty scares are fairly disappointing, too. Even the cinematography of the original, which had a wonderful juxtaposition between the sunny suburban landscape and the terrors of the night lacks a certain spark apart from one excellent tracking shot following the young Griffin being taken by the tree up a flight of stairs). The appearance of Jared Hess as a supernatural investigator from TV is a big letdown from Zelda Rubenstein’s work in the original, his brute masculinity only shifting momentarily in a brief exchange with the children about a scar on his forehead. The use of television as a connection medium between worlds is left largely alone, allowing 33 years of technology advances to be more or less confined to the wayside (except for a smart use of home-drone camera device). The other world is relegated to a sea of brown CGI corpses that hold no menace. “They’re here”? Don’t even bother.

It makes for quite a disappointing film. Even if a remake goes for broke and fails to impress over its original then at least he might have something interesting to latch a hold of. Not so here. Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire had stuck to the status quo. The lone new addition appears to be a credits sequence that’s played for laughs as if the makers were afraid of sending audiences home without whatever wits they’d somehow managed to scare away. Considering the circumstance, it’s little more than a cheap end to a film that nobody appears to have had any stakes in whatsoever.

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