The closing credits for Gil Kenan’s remake of the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist feature the band Spoon covering the Cramps’ 1980 punk classic “TV Set.” Spoon is a tasteful, studious yet largely anodyne indie-rock outfit that has become an NPR staple; the Cramps were a scuzzy, unhinged psychobilly band whose most famous gig took place in an actual mental hospital.
It’s hard to think of a more fitting postscript for this professionally executed yet bloodless film, itself an act of homage that hews reverently to its source material while missing the essential spirit and vitality that once powered it.
In addition to being one of the most unsettling PG-rated films ever made, the original Poltergeist touched a particularly sensitive nerve thanks to its grasp on the early Reagan-era zeitgeist. Steeped in the consumer comforts of the upwardly mobile middle class, the film ingeniously turned its most innocuous status symbols—the brand-name appliances, the cookie-cutter planned communities built on seemingly virgin territory, the comforting hum of static coming from TV sets in every room—into nexuses of terror.
Now three decades later, Kenan and writer David Lindsay-Abaire have made efforts to contemporize the story’s framework, but these new touches never dig anywhere near as deep. Rather than a successful real estate agent, for example, paterfamilias Eric (Sam Rockwell) has recently been laid off from his job; his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), is no longer simply a homemaker but rather an unsuccessful writer who effectively functions as a homemaker.
Faced with financial pressures, the two have moved their three children to an idyllic yet permanently overcast suburban community. These kids include bratty teenager Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), cherubic 6-year-old Madison (Kennedi Clements) and middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett), who is afflicted with a level of anxiety befitting an early Woody Allen character and is the first to notice strange, ghostly phenomena in their new abode.
Substantially shorter than its predecessor, the new Poltergeist has hardly even established its characters’ names before the kids are being attacked by demonic clown dolls and reanimated corpses, and Madison, magnetically drawn to a malfunctioning TV set, is quickly abducted by the house’s malevolent spirits. From here, Kenan mimics the story beats of the original almost exactly, as the family turns first to a paranormal academic (Jane Adams) and later to a flamboyant medium (Jared Harris) to try to rescue their little one.
Less a steadily escalating thriller than a guided tour through a county fair-style haunted house, Poltergeist offers some quality jump scares, and Kenan has a knack for staging solid individual set pieces. But he proves weirdly incapable of modulation or mood setting here, stringing together loud noises and “right behind you!” jolts without much regard for pacing or buildup. His directorial debut, Monster House, actually offered a far more clever take on traditional haunting tropes.
The cast largely acquit themselves well, even when deprived of much opportunity to really develop their characters.
Indeed, even when one is inclined to admire the cleverness with which the remake revisits and reincorporates Poltergeist’s themes, it’s hard to pinpoint a single moment where it improves on them, and the aura of inessentiality hangs thick over the proceedings. Some franchises die, but they don’t know they’re gone. And then some franchises just get lost on their way to the reboot.
Poltergeist (PG-13): ★★✩✩✩