It seems like every time we turn around, some horror movie is being remade for whatever reason. But are the remakes ever any good? I decided to start Remake Double Take, a series that pits tried and true classics against their remakes. For my first edition, I thought I would review a perfect example of how modern remakes can get it horribly wrong. You may feel differently about the 2015 remake, but personally I think it doesn’t hold a candle to 1982’s Poltergeist.
Poltergeist is one of my favorite movies. I’ll just put that out there. So with the recent and tragic passing of director Tobe Hooper, now seemed like the perfect time to revisit one of his classics. And full disclosure, I hate the remake. I think it’s sloppy, it’s stupid, and frankly it tries way too hard. Now, again, this is all my own opinion, so bear with me here while I explain my arguments.
1982’s Poltergeist opens with a close-up of the TV playing the Star Spangled Banner before cutting to harsh static. The camera follows the family dog to carry us through the quiet house, passing through rooms where everyone is peacefully asleep. It sets up an intimacy with the audience; we feel like we’re an observer in the lives of the family on screen.
Young Carol Anne gets up from bed and creeps downstairs. She is drawn to the TV, having a loud conversation with an unknown entity, which wakes up the family to all come and observe this odd behavior. This is great for two reasons. It shows the family as a unit, presenting a united front, and it allows all characters to see this preliminary interaction so that everyone is an informed participant in the strange events to follow.
Now, let’s compare with the 2015 remake. We open on a close-up of a violent horror video game, then pan out to see that it’s played by the son while in the car with his family. There’s some banter that’s meant to communicate that they’re a fun, normal family, but it’s just awkward. They arrive at the new house where the kids run off to – I don’t know, be kids I guess – while the parents meet with the real estate agent.
The agent asks the father, Eric (Sam Rockwell, who can do better than this), what he does for a living, he says that he works at (a shameless product placement for) John Deere. The agent praises their tractors (again it’s super awkward) and Eric responds that he “would be very flattered right now if he hadn’t got laid off”.
I’m sorry, but what? That’s not how conversations work. You can’t say “I’m dating John, but he dumped me”. See how dumb that sounds? This writer can’t dialogue. The scene is designed to provide the information that this is a move out of necessity due to their economic position, but there’s a much better way to write that.
Anyways, the son, Griffin, wanders through the house and finds the youngest daughter, Madison, talking to her closed closet door. And at 6 minutes and 28 seconds in, we have our first attempted jump scare. Because nothing sets up a scary movie like premature jump scares. Of course, Griffin is the only one who observes this strange exchange, and it’s easily attributed to kids just being weird.
Which does the film a huge disservice. I understand that they’re trying to slowly sink into the waters of “horror” here, but by wasting so much time with needless exposition and awkward character moments, it completely misses the opportunity to build atmosphere. It just kind of underhand tosses in this “creepy” scene, then does nothing with it until the situation full on explodes several scenes later.
One of the greatest things about the 1982 film is the portrayal of the family. The parents have a wonderful chemistry with each other and with their kids. Steve (Craig T Nelson) and Joanne (JoBeth Williams) end the day be retiring to their bedroom to unwind as a unit, and when shit hits the fan they completely support each other. Total relationship goals.
In contrast, 2015’s Poltergeist shows a shallow connection between Eric and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and they don’t actually have any strong bond with their children. Eric tries to buy their affection with lavish gifts – using money they don’t have – and plays a passive role in the actual parenting. When young Madison is taken by the entities, the family gathers and attempts to contact her with help from Dr. Powell (Jane Adams). Once they finally hear her voice, their reaction is… not convincing at all. I mean, overall the acting in the remake is really, really weak, so it’s very hard to actually give a shit about any of the terrible characters.
The same scene from the original shows true skill from JoBeth Williams. You can feel her relief, mixed with devastating horror. It’s beautiful.
When it comes time to rescue their young daughter from the other side, 1982’s Poltergeist sends Joanne to cross over and save her. It’s a heartwarming statement on the power of a mother’s love; Joanne is a strong, capable character who would do anything for her children. The whole team bands together to physically hold the rope that connects Joanne to the safety of home.
In the remake, the rescue is performed by the son – Griffin – which… is stupid. Now, there’s a whole storyline about how Griffin is afraid of the dark and he’s anxious about life in general, so, sure, let’s empower the kid. But frankly, that whole bit is completely unnecessary, and it undermines the role of the parents in a big way. Also, they trust a wall anchor with the safety of their children, so…
Speaking of the children (won’t somebody please think of the children), there’s the clown doll. The doll in the original Poltergeist is mostly normal, so when he transforms, it’s terrifying. The remake tries way too goddamn hard to make it scary.
On that note, everyone knows that clowns can be pretty damn creepy, so when your already skittish child finds a box full of clown dolls in a crawlspace in their attic/bedroom, maybe – and this is just a thought – get rid of them?
Also, just to note this, when the possessed tree bursts in through the window in Poltergeist, it’s genuinely scary. In the remake, the tree impossibly snakes through the house – through a room and down the hall – to grab young Griffin and drag him out the window. It’s absurd and it just looks silly.
Once the family escapes, the original Poltergeist ends with the iconic implosion of the house. It’s tidy, it’s final, and it shows that they just narrowly avoided the same fate. In the remake, just as the family loads into the van, convinced that their nightmare is over, the house pulls the van in through the wall of the house like a goddamn mechanical Kool-Aid man.
The big reveal that they “left the bodies but only moved the headstones” is dropped casually mid-conversation in the remake. The whole power of that scene is not even on the radar. And there’s CGI skeletons. Lord help me.
Lastly, Zelda fucking Rubinstein is way better than some bullshit romantic subplot. And that stupid #thishouseisclean reality show. Ugh.
Basically, I feel like the writer and director of the remake didn’t know anything about the original Poltergeist. I’m pretty sure they just saw some screenshots and read the plot description. It may have the skeleton of the original film, but it has none of the heart.
While the original has themes about family and the lack of morality from the housing developers, the remake crams in a bunch of cheap jump scares and updated technology (drones are so hip, you guys).
In conclusion, I hate it, and the original is untouchable in my books. Now, I need a drink.
Stay tuned for more ramblings about movies that deserved better, here on Remake Double Take.
Featured image by Chris Fischer