If there’s anything that seems to be universally agreed on by critics and fans alike, it’s the vitriol towards remakes. This hatred seems to particularly goes toward re-toolings of horror films, with only a few receiving any sort of praise. I on the other hand find myself looking forward to remakes more often than not. Sure, lots of them simply re-hash what we’ve seen before, but every so often one will come along that manages to stand right along side the original as a nice companion piece. Sam Rami’s Ghost House productions certainly achieved this with their fabulously grisly new version of evil dead, and now they hope to work the same magic on perhaps the most popular family horror film, 1982’s Poltergeist.
This version opens with the Bowen family heading for a new start. Eric (Sam Rockwell) has just gotten laid off and is looking for work, while his wife Amy (Rosemarie Dewitt) works on a book and attends to their three children. It might be hard, but things are starting to look up a little, with the exception for the angry spirits who start haunting them. These guys start out as “imaginary friends” to Madison (Kennedi Clements), the youngest child, and ultimately end up taking her into their world, causing the rest of the family to desperately turn to paranormal investigators, lead by TV personality Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) to get her back.
One challenge that a modern day Poltergeist faces is how to differentiate itself from not only the original, but the Insidious series, which is basically it’s current equivalent. Fortunately, Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) finds the answer through a great deal of humanity and humor. From the moment this movie starts, this family feels completely authentic, not weighed down by the contrived problems that many horror movie families have. Sure, they fight, but they also apologize and work together just as much, and that makes all the difference. Rockwell and Dewitt anchor these interactions beautifully, interacting with their children in a sardonic and fun manner while still very much conveying how much these two care about the people they love most.
Since we like these people so much, it provides ample opportunity for some wickedly funny moments. It ranges from the family interactions, to slight moments of levity within the suspense, but it gives the proceedings a much more natural feeling than they would otherwise. Harris is also a hoot here, giving us a perfect balance between a cocky ratings jockey, and a headstrong leader who genuinely cares about getting Madison back.
Where the film starts to weaken a bit is in the actual horror itself. While there’s certainly a solid dose of atmosphere, often times it is done a disservice by hokey looking visual effects that seem straight out of a cartoon. The Bowens never seem to be threatened by anything Danny Phantom couldn’t handle and as such, the fear never really connects. It dosen’t help that Griffin (Kyle Catlett) has an extreme fear of just about everything in the world, and his constant cattle wailing just isn’t supported by enough creepiness to feel earned. Fortunately, the film is constantly so much fun, that it’s hard to get mad at the fact that it isn’t quite as scary as it perhaps thinks it is.
Poltergeist does not possess the chops that made the original such a delightfully creepy slice of vintage horror. However, it does serve as a nice counterpart to that film by injecting a little more humor and naturalism into the story, which in itself creates a nice new take on the story. It may not rattle horror buffs, but if there is a child out there who finally wants to check out his first horror film in the theater, they could do a hell of a lot worse than this.