With Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Kennedi Clements
The original Poltergeist of 1982 (helmed by Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper) was, and still remain a fantastic movie. Instinctively when a re-imagining for any classic (or cult favourite) of the past come up, I'm skeptical… So, setting prejudice aside, with the vivid imagery of the first movie burnt into my memory, I decided this time round I'll do a bit of comparative review (without dissing the one or the other too much).
So, first off I may stand accused of being an old fart clinging to nostalgia. Nope. I love cinema as a whole, not any specific time period or genre preference (although the off-centre certainly appeals more) - and I'm not that old yet(!)
Poltergeist refer to spirit activity that does more than just make itself visible, it actively interacts with the environment and objects.
Recent movies like Paranormal Activity and Insidious effectively revived the ghost story, and definitely owe a lot to '80s productions like Poltergeist (Insidious also having a family member forced to enter another dimension to save a child with the assistance of eccentric paranormal investigators). On its release in the early-'80s, this kind of special effects-heavy scary movie was becoming more commonplace (with great flicks like An American Werewolf in London and The Thing changing the game for the better). Modern audiences are so used to special FX that filmmakers need to employ the classic suspense scares. Poltergeist 2015 makes use of both, but will inadvertently have the audience compare it to the aforementioned new breed of scary movie.
Small aspects like names, professions, personal issues and events of the past get changed (but is of little consequence to the whole).
With Steven Spielberg as a writer / producer of the original, that '70s / '80s family dynamic and characterization he perfected so well in movies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. - The Extraterrestrial (with great casting playing a big role), that definitely filtered into Hooper's Poltergeist.
The characters in the remake are not unlikeable, but that quirkiness (and humour) is less prominent. Rockwell's modern dad is not as enjoyable as Craig T. Nelson's father figure, with all family members' individual arcs containing very cool (seemingly mundane, everyday) moments, but add so much in fleshing out these characters as real people.
Understandably the new psychic couldn't be a repeat of the diminutive, squeaky voiced actress Zelda Rubinstein, as this would be too much of a caricature for a modern audience - in stead Jared Harris plays a psychic Brit with a paranormal TV show.
The family name is changed (from the Freelings to the Bowens), and the cute blonde Carol Anne from the first (played by Heather O'Rourke who sadly died at age 12 shortly after the sequel), is now converted to an (also cute) dark haired Madison (Kennedi Clements).
The new characters do draw you into their world, but often come across as over-baked.
(Some scenes are mentioned here that may skirt the edge of "spoiler", so jump this sextion if you don't want that, but if you've seen the original, no need)
With the basics in tact, it would be pointless for the remake to simply replicate all the gems from its predecessor, but catchphrases like tagline of "They're heeere!" and "This house is clean" are retained, but get another slant.
Spielberg & Hooper's Poltergeist utilized an arsenal of ILM special effects, all practical, highly memorable pre-digital accomplishments. As I so often say, real elements like these are quite simply more believable and effective. While they did make use of non-digital effects in the reboot, it unavoidably has a good dose of CGI to visualize these supernatural scenes.
The reboot obviously needs to make the point that this is updated, mainly with tech, like flat screen TVs, smart phones, tablets and domestic drone toys incorporated into the story (and notions like one of the investigators prodding the boy if they may be faking it in order to score a reality TV show).
The white noise TV snow in the original was a huge focal point (also on the iconic poster), as this is where the spirits communicate with the girl. In the USA at that time, after transmission ended the TV would simply shut off into static after the national anthem concluded (as opposed to today's non-stop 24 hour channels). That seemingly benign glow illuminating a dark room took on an ominous, hypnotic new threat, with images and sounds hiding in the pulsing black & white speckles and hiss.
For some reason many people have a dire fear of clowns, so the creepy clown doll that freaks out the boy and pounces him remain (only jacked up to include a whole box full of them).
In the first Poltergeist the boy felt uneasy about the creepy tree outside his window and the thunder frightened him. A great device was having the dad teach him to count between the flash and its delayed sound, and be assured with the fact that the longer the spaces in between, the further it has moved away - But then as he does so lying in his bed with the rain and thunder storm raging, the spaces shrink between counts, suspense crawling closer as on the last count the flash and bang happen at once, the tree smashing through the window (coming to life, grabbing and wanting to devour him!). Brilliant.
An amazing single shot scene (done in real time) had original mom JoBeth Williams in the kitchen moving to one side, and on the camera panning back with her, have her shocked at all the chairs stacked onto the kitchen table (crew members jumping in to set this up out of shot). So simple yet so effective.
The 2015 movie has many objects moving, like balls and dolls rolling (towards the cupboard from where the activity stems). The first film had the family dumbfounded and amused at discovering an isolated spot where a force drags the girl across the kitchen floor like a magnetic field (unaware it stems from the upset spirits below the house). The kids in the reboot discover on touching the cupboard door handle that it makes the hair on their heads stand on end like static electricity.
With the porch light of the original acting up, the new movie expands this for a cool sequence where various lights glow by itself, drawing the viewer from the outside with the porch light going on and off, to various bedrooms lighting flaring up and down, moving into the house with lamps and electronic devices getting bursts of life.
There is no new pool installation like the original movie (leading to some cool Argento-style cemetery corpse reveals), or pet bird dying and receiving a garden funeral (accidentally exhumed by the pool workers). In fact, there are no pets at all (which has become a staple in having them react to paranormal forces, or getting hurt / killed - a stale cheap device I'm quite tired of, so I'm glad they didn't go that route).
Some of the cool bits missing include hallucinations like a paranormal team member seeing maggots on a chicken leg and undulating raw steak walking across the counter, and tearing the flesh off his face in the mirror (although Rockwell gets a reflective freak-out looking like he's melting, and puking worms); The mom doesn't roll up the wall; Objects don't swirl around the affected room like a tornado; The tongue in cheek punchline of the dad wheeling the TV set out of the hotel room after the ordeal couldn't be repeated, etc.
Whether it was a politically correct decision, the ancient Native American burial ground beneath the suburb in the first film is just a regular cemetery in the new one.
Having (Evil Dead creator) Sam Raimi as a producer on this remake can relay a greater sense of ease for those who hold the original dear, but then may have others more wary with the chosen director for this version, whose previous two films being (mainly) children's fare (Monster House and City Of Embers), however enjoyable or accomplished these may have been (a moment in Poltergeist of objects in the lawn is reminiscent to Monster House).
Spielberg-linked movies do have a certain timeless sense (except for being dated by elements like fashion and car models), so in a sense it is unfair to weigh these up against each other.
As is so often the case, if the new Poltergeist was a standalone movie, it is hardly terrible and can pull you into this family's terrifying ordeal. If you haven't seen the original yet, do yourself a favour and check it out now.
Then, nothing is perfect, as the Quaker-laden Poltergeist sequels of 1986 and 1988 were less than stellar.
Oh yeah, the remake is in 3D, but while there are some enhanced sequences, it is not essential to view in this format.
4 / C
5 - Blistering
4 - Hot
3 - Smolder
2 - Room Temperature
1 - Fizzled
0 - Extinguished