Poltergeist (2015)

Poltergeist-2015-poster

It really seems like Hollywood has run out of ideas and has turned to mining the back catalogue of old movies and remaking them. But the truth is Hollywood has been doing it for years, only these days people are much more aware of it.

And remakes are a funny thing: there is no guarantee that new version is going to be any better or, in fact, any worse than the original. For example, The Thing is a fantastic remake of a 1950s science fiction B movie, Thing From Another World. And the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is suitably terrifying.

But for every time that the remake is better, there are just as many, if not more, examples where the result is worse, e.g. The Italian Job, Total Recall and The Day The Earth Stood Still.

I’m not sure that the horror genre has any more remakes than any other genre but it certainly seems that way to me. Carrie, Children of the Corn, Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Fright Night, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example.

Worse, I am not a fan of the horror genre but there are a few horror movies dear to me: the aforementioned The Thing, An American Werewolf In London, The Descent, Paranormal Activity and, my absolute favourite, Poltergeist.

Poltergeist just received the remake treatment this year, 33 years after the original was released. The world has changed a lot since the first version was made and consequently, I can see there is scope to make a new, more relevant version of a classic suburban horror story.

So yes, curiosity got the better of me and I watched the new version. And then the original, immediately after, as I wanted to review the new version in context of the old (but mostly because it is awesome).

Inevitably, this is going to be more of a “compare and contrast essay” than a review, so rather than bore the people who just want to know whether the remake is worth watching, let me lay that spirit to rest: the original is better, in spite of its age. The remake isn’t a bad film per se, it just doesn’t improve on anything and actually does a lot of things worse.

Right, that’s the verdict, let me go into a bit more detail about why…

Warning: there are spoilers below!

Both films follow the exploits of a nuclear family moving into a new home in the suburbs. There is a father, a mother, an older daughter, a boy in the middle and a young girl.

POLTERGEIST 01

In the original, the father is a successful estate agent who works for a development company selling the homes in the suburban estate his family have just moved to. In the remake, the father is out of work and the family have moved into cheap housing out in the sticks.

The key differences here are that the original family are an ordinary, fairly happy family: the kids are typical kids who play and fight. The parents are ordinary parents, Dad watches football with his mates, has problems with the next door neighbour, Mom smokes weed in the bedroom once the kids are in bed and big sister is secretly on the phone to a friend.

Whereas the remake family are struggling with financial worries, mother is a writer (who doesn’t write and considers herself a crap mother), the eldest daughter is (stereotypically) horrid to her family for forcing her to move and the boy is somewhat neurotic, after a traumatic experience being lost in the mall by his mother for a couple of hours.

I don’t think modern families are suffering any more than they were 30 years ago. Has society changed so much that we don’t want to see happy families anymore? Do we only empathise with down on their luck Joes or families that worry about sending their children to psychiatrists?

Here, the original does a much better job of simply making the family look like a family. The phrase “show not tell” comes to mind as they let the family just get on with being a family. In the remake, the characterisation is so bland you can easily imagine the two sentence paragraphs that were written to describe the characters of the remake family.

Worse, there is real chemistry between the original cast members and a real sense of them living in a suburban community (but then I suppose that is Steven Spielberg’s influence there). Conversely, there’s little chemistry between the cast members of the remake, especially between Sam Rockwell (Remake Dad) and Rosemary DeWitt (Remake Mom). I guess Rockwell can only play off-beat characters with any conviction?

There are further, more subtle but quite important differences between the two films. To start with, 1982 Poltergeist has the family already living in their home where as 2015 Poltergeist has the family viewing the house and then moving in. The original has a lot of humour in the first act, which goes a long way to disarming the audience.

This to me changes the subtext of the film from an ordinary suburban family being terrorised by ghosts to a troubled family moving into a haunted house. Subtle but important.

Poltergeist 02

Then the spooky things start happening. Carol Anne (youngest daughter in the original) starts talking to people in the TV, then the ghosts fly out of the goggle box and into the walls of the house, Carol Anne giving the viewers the creepy line, “They’re here!” It is all very downplayed at the beginning, again, lulling you into a false sense of security.

Maddy (youngest daughter in the remake) starts talking to people in the TV, a nice modern LCD TV, then there is a closet they cannot open in her room (but touching the handle makes the kids hair stand on end), there is a collection of creepy clown toys in the attic… there are a lot more jump scares and attempts to ramp up the tension. Completely opposite to the original. Even to the classic “They’re here!”… Maddy announces “They’re coming…” and then “They’re here!”

Everything is more contrived to scare you in the 2015 version. The original wanted you to feel like you were watching a family movie, when ghosts turn up, the horror being that this could happen to your family… The remake, realising the audience expects certain horror tropes, just plays it as a straight horror film.

Once the ghosts arrive, there are major differences between the original and the remake. The latter is more about Griffin, the son, exploring the house and catching Maddy talking to nothing. The former is more about the mother experiencing really strange occurrences, like the chairs rearranging themselves and objects sliding across the floor, as if moved by an unseen hand.

I really feel like the remake missed a trick here. They talk about the son needing therapy and if they had given him medication, they could have played up the family not believing him and really done something interesting.

In fact, the film does focus on the son a lot more whereas the original was more about the mother in general but we will get to that later.

POLTERGEIST 03

The mother experiences lots of supernatural occurrences which they simply cannot explain. The father is suitably disturbed by it and seeks to come up with a solution. In the remake, all the supernatural weirdness happens to the son and Maddy.

Just a quick ‘sidebar’, in the original, when the mother shows the father the supernatural happenings in the kitchen, she gets excited, doing a star jump and a high kick, clearly indicating that she was probably a former cheerleader. It’s the little “show, not tell” details of the first film which demonstrate just how much better made it is.

Anyway, so when Carol-Ann and Maddy both get ghost-napped, it makes sense that the 1982 family go straight to parapsychologists whereas in the 2015, it is a bit of leap of logic when the family ignore the Police or any other explanation for the disappearance of their daughter and go straight to parapsychologists…

The ghost-nappings themselves are similar. Unsurprisingly, the original uses a lot of practical effects (some more ropey than others) while the remake uses more digital effects. Both feature a tree coming to life and trying to eat the son. I can’t objectively judge which version did it better because the original has terrorised me for 33 years… though looking at it now, the original is an impressive feat of practical effects that, while looking fairly good despite the age, you can see how it was done. The new version looks great but doesn’t impress me, given how much easier it is to do SFX these days.

Poltergeist 04

Then there is the youngest daughter actually being kidnapped. In the earlier version, the closet sucks her into a ghostly purgatory. This clearly involves a mocked up bedroom on a rotating spindle, to give the effect of the furniture being drawn in. That’s a big practical effect and looks really good (though I had to smile when it became clearly obvious that the “Carol-Ann” in this scene is a doll). In the modern version, the ghosts just kind of trick her into walking into the portal. It’s a stylistic choice I guess. I really liked the original though, so the new version just seems a bit underwhelming.

The next act plays out pretty similarly between the two films: a team of parapsychologists arrive at the house to investigate the supernatural activity. Both a led by a strong woman, have a cynical white guy thinking the family are trying to fool them (though interestingly, in the new version, he thinks it is to get their own reality show) and an African American (which is pretty important for 1980s film but a bit sad that there is only one person of colour in a 2015 film).

In the original, it feels like the family have been living under the threat of supernatural craziness for a while before the parapsychologists arrive. In the remake, the parapsychologists are right there when everything happens, so the family feels less important to the narrative.

For example, the mother has clearly been experimenting and tells the parapsychologists about the best way to contact Carol-Ann. In the remake, it is the parapsychologists that tell them to call out Maddy’s name and so on. Again, subtle but important differences.

poltergeist 05

This act of the film is mostly the family and the parapsychologists investigating the supernatural occurrences. Both result in failure, resulting in a specialist being called in. In the original, it is “Tangina” (Zelda Rubinstein), a very unusual individual who you could imagine as a psychic, and in the remake, it is “Carrigan Burke” (Jared Harris of Fringe and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), a TV psychic, complete with famous catchphrase “This house is clean!” (which is also a call back to the last line uttered by Tangina in the original).

With the focus on the parapsychology team in the remake and Carrigan Burke being a TV supernatural investigator, it becomes clear that someone was thinking about potential sequels, which is why I think they changed the emphasis of the narrative: I can really see a series of films following the exploits of Carrigan Burke investigating various supernatural haunting and that being quite good! Maybe I am just being cynical but the changes seem deliberate and I think they weaken the remake.

Indeed, the original has powerful performances from the various cast members, from the sense of wonder, joy and the pain and sorrow (there is one bit where the mother clearly distrusts Tangina’s instructions but reluctantly obeys, hissing “I will hate you for this”), it just makes for a believable experience, whereas the only the character of interest is Carrigan Burke in the remake. The most cynical part of that being when the 2015 father has a moment to witness Carrigan Burke seemingly-sacrifice himself to lead the ghosts out of purgatory.

A large part of the new film is about the son’s guilt at leaving Maddy alone. As stated earlier, the ghosts seem to torment him and no one believes him. I think the film does focus on him more as a character, less on the family and has the parapsychologists calling all the shots, rather than investigating something the family has had to suffer through.

It makes for a different movie but I prefer the mother-daughter relationship of the earlier one (largely because JoBeth Williams who plays the mother is a really good actress).

The remake then seems to focus a lot more on the supernatural plane of existence, from sending an aerial drone through the gate (which for some reason can transmit camera footage through to our reality) and an extended sequence as the son goes into purgatory to rescue his sister. I mean, it looks good, particularly all the lost souls tied to the house reaching toward the light, but they forgot the other maxim of “less is more”.

Once they get the youngest daughter back, there is a final act where the restless dead make one last attempt to get her back.

In the original, the father has to take care of something but insists that they will leave the house forever when he gets home. The mother is assaulted by the ghosts, in another practical effect where she is dragged up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling. Then she attempts to get into the children’s bedroom but is barred by a weird ghost creature (which I think looks pretty good, given it is 30 years old!).

One of the best bits is when the father returns home, caskets bursting out of the ground, and he screams in his former boss’ face, “You moved the headstones but you left the bodies!” (sidebar: in the remake, Carrigan Burke arrives and just tells them that he thinks they just told people they moved the bodies… against, placing the emphasis on Carrigan and the parapsychologists).

Poltergeist 06

In the remake, the family fully get into a car and are about to drive away when the oldest daughter gets Carrigan Burke to say his catchphrase, “The house is clean”. And then Maddy goes “It isn’t though”. I liked that, it was quite chilling… then ghosts grab the car and flip it.  They are dragged into the house and have to effect an escape as it starts to collapse, complete with Carrigan Burke going in after them.

The original finale deliberately lulls you into a false sense of security once more with the mother taking a relaxing bath, the kids are in bed (and the daughter lies there with her brother’s Luke Skywalker action figure in her mouth) and then all hell breaks loose again.

The remake literally has them leaving the house and then all hell breaks loose again (and I still have no idea where the pristine Mini Cooper they escape in comes from, despite watching the end sequence twice… the power of product placement compels you!).

I think the stylistic choice of the remake is just an example of the differences between what modern cinemagoers expect (or what Hollywood thinks we expect) and what the 1982 filmmakers decided on.

The original isn’t slow paced but just more deliberate. The remake is pretty much breakneck speed by comparison however, assuming that the modern audience needs constant stimulation to hold its interest. In fact, the only time there is a break in the action is when they are building up for a jump scare, a technique now so common in horror that it only serves to telegraph the scare.

Where I think the original wins hands down is the destruction of the house. The original has the house collapse in on itself as it is sucked into the gate in a really cool effect. The remake has the house explode in a beam of light as the ghosts are led toward final release.

Both films end on a similar joke. The original has the family in a hotel room whereupon they put the TV outside. The remake has the family viewing a new property and the estate agent talks a lot about closet space and the age of the house, whereupon the family just leaves.

So there you have it. A fairly faithful, fairly decent remake of a classic horror movie for a modern audience. Mostly the changes are stylistic alterations (though I did raise an eyebrow at the GPS and aerial drone working through a portal to purgatory and why they had an aerial drone in the first place), complete with very pretty special effects.

I don’t think the remake really adds anything, to be completely frank. The original is just better paced, better made and has a stronger theme of normal folks brushing shoulders with the supernatural. And that is where the horror comes from. The remake seems to have missed that and focused on SFX set pieces and jump scares.

I think it also highlights the difference between modern computer generated SFX and the practical SFX. When creating special effects, they didn’t have computers and so they either hand animated it or used real effects to do things. And good practical effects will always trump CG effects.

I mean, compare the gate between worlds in the closet in both films. In the original, they used lighting and fans to create the effects and although it seems obvious to us modern viewers how they did it, it still feels more ‘real’. The remake is all CG, all the time. And while it looks better, it doesn’t feel as solid. I really want Holllywood to understand that practical effects touched up with CG would yield far more impressive effects.

This is why films like Alien, the original Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind etc still look damn good, despite 30 years having elapsed.

TL:DR; “While I can’t say it was an unnecessary remake, I can say that it fails to really trump the original. Worth a watch, if only to satisfy curiosity.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s