The fundamental problem in remaking a movie like Poltergeist is that the original film, even by today’s standards, still holds up. Its not like it was a great concept done poorly, or a mess of poor special effects that could use a modern sheen, no – it’s truly timeless. Heck, the first time I saw it was a good decade and change after release (more than enough time to age this type of film to the point of blah) and it rocked my world. This type of film defies an update, yet somehow Gil Kenan’s remake works.
Yes, it has a few problems, but most are garden variety for any horror remake (How much fan service is too much? Which classic sequences must be included? Which should be cut?) And if you can categorize these issues as unavoidable, and you should, there is a ton of fun to be had.
That’s the key: fun. To watch the original Poltergeist is to ride a perfectly designed haunted hayride. It’s not scary per se, but it charges the viewer up with constant escalation and snowballing imagination. It’s why so many elements of the film have been borrowed and repurposed in the 30 years of haunted house movies since. A prime example of this is the kiddie fright flick Monster House, also directed by Gil Kenan. While his take on Poltergeist isn’t as kid friendly (although it’s not not kid friendly) it is very similar in construction and tone. The story and the effects service each other equally, neither risking to eclipse the other at any point.
Story-wise, Kenan’s Poltergeist is both helped and hampered by the original. On the one hand, it can’t possibly escape the shadow of its predecessor, on the other it has primo source material with which to work. Not much is changed. It’s still about a family – father, mother, two daughters, and a son – getting comfortable in a new home. The youngest daughter gets pulled into the Further (damn you, Insidious*), and they elect the help of a paranormal team to get her back. But while the original is rooted in the classic mother-daughter bond, this version focuses on that of a brother and sister (and in making the son our audience surrogate, ends up being a pretty cool subversion). There’s not a ton of new ground being broken here, but it’s not an empty re-telling either, and the performances service the story very well across the board.
The special effects are what impressed me most. Despite being made with modern tools, a lot of the spooktacular elements (totally just said that) have the same feel as the original. There’s a quality to them that is distinctly Poltergeist, but should also serve to please modern audiences (for whom that utterly ridiculous clown poster was no doubt designed. Ugh). I can’t find any information on whether or not the film was shot in 3D or post converted, but it’s very clear that it was shot with 3D in mind, and it looks very, very good. Given Kenan’s history with the format, it’s no surprise. I’m never one to advocate for or against 3D, since so many factors can affect the quality, but in this case I’d say spring for it.
I’m positive that a lot of people are going to treat Poltergeist as some sort of cinematic sin against God, but those people wouldn’t even like it even if it were objectively perfect. It’s ok. I get it. If you’re one of those people, you’re probably not going to see it anyway. Otherwise, as far as horror remakes go, this ranks amongst Evil Dead and The Hills Have Eyes as one of the better ones.
There’s even a small reference to Coach. And if you can’t get behind that, I don’t wanna know you.
*For the record, I love Insidious.
Poltergeist opens in Philly area theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.