Monday 1 June 2015

Poltergeist | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Rockwell’s performance shines in otherwise blasé remake

Advertisements for the Poltergeist remake feature a malicious-looking clown, a black background, and the hashtag #WhatAreYouAfraidOf. It looks scary, and it’s a smart way to link one of the most enduring images from the 1982 original with contemporary lingo. Too bad strong ads aren’t predictors of strong films.

The first Poltergeist was a big deal. The supernatural extravaganza struck fear into the hearts of kids and paved the way for many horror films. The 2015 rehash offers a similar storyline embellished with a few technological adornments (to show it’s contemporary): a teen texting, iPads, a video drumming game, and even a droid.

Sadly, Poltergeist’s resurrection, despite its respect for the original and a competent performance by male lead Sam Rockwell, comes up a bit flimsy. This one isn’t going to make it onto many people’s #WhatAreYouAfraidOf list, especially when it’s compared to recent haunted house films like Paranormal Activity (2007), Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and The Babadook (2014). Even the hyped up clown plays a minuscule role and the preview gives away its chief scare.

After getting laid off, Eric Bowen moves his family to a more affordable Illinois suburb. Unfortunately, the foreclosure-ridden neighborhood sits atop a former Indian burial ground. As the family attempts to settle in, strange things start happening… with toys, trees, electricity, and appliances. Then, you know the words. Come on… sing along! The supernatural entities get angrier, the threats increase, the paranormal investigators show, the family members undertake heroic efforts to save their loved ones. There’s the weird little boy, the ball moving on its own, and the stay-at-home mom who has it in her to be a great artist (in this case it’s a writer) if only she wasn’t tied down by her kids.

The only novel technique this film employs involves flying a drone through the house and into the transdimensional portal. However, it doesn’t really add anything to the film.

Most of the film’s attempts at humour fall short. I hoped that Jared Harris’s take on TV celebrity/spiritual medium Carrigan Burke would transcend the norm. Alas, plopping an Irish accent on what has become a cookie cutter paranormal investigator doesn’t do the trick. One relationship that could have been played up was that between Burke and his nerdy but endearing ex-wife Dr Brooke Powell. The film’s funniest scene involves a minor character: a young investigator who loses his drill on the other side of the closet wall as he tries to install a monitoring device. When the spirits on the other side use the young man’s drill to “screw” with him, it’s hard to keep from laughing.

All’s Well with Rockwell
Sam Rockwell all but carries this film. In a genre in which the male lead is often unmemorable at best, Rockwell injects verve and individuality into a character who would be easily forgotten in less capable hands. Eric Bowen, victim of the corporate juggernaut, is down-to-earth and humorous, yet flawed… the kind of guy you’d like as your next-door neighbour. Bowen gives his kids high fives, plays with his wife, eats chicken nugget covered pizza, talks while chewing, and pretends he’s getting attacked by a killer squirrel. When the tears well as Bowen says all he wants is for his daughter’s safe return, Rockwell is, despite the absurdity of the situation, believable. That’s the sign of a good actor.

It’s entertaining to watch Bowen’s spendthrift leanings exacerbate the guilt he feels for his inability to be a provider. One night, he comes home with gifts for each family member. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Bowen tries to make light of the situation when his credit cards don’t work at a home improvement store.

One could argue that this film would have been much more interesting if all the supernatural hocus pocus were stripped away and instead it tightened the focus on the familial and financial challenges of this character.  

Frightening Doesn’t Strike Twice
Ultimately, this movie suffers from the requirement that it must pay homage to a film that made an impact thirty years ago. As time passes, social norms change. What was scary thirty years ago isn’t scary today.

One need look no further than the film’s most recognized line (“They’re here…”) to see the degradation that has occurred. The original Carol Anne’s utterance is cautionary, yet playful. Carol Anne’s 21st century reincarnation Madison treats the line in a way that’s best described as dispassionate.

Maybe, for this one, the spirit of the original is best left at rest. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

1 comment:

  1. I still don't understand why this film was selected for remake, and it sounds from this review as if the new one goes through the motions without any real thought given to what's being remade. One of the key aspects of the original was cultural anxiety around television, and that type of anxiety is all but extinct. I couldn't imagine the filmmakers trying to put a kid inside an iPad, or something. Entertainment devices are so diffuse now, and without the centralized CRT monitor that ends its broadcast day at midnight, you've got no Poltergeist. In my opinion.