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Poltergeist (2015)

Fox // PG-13 // September 29, 2015
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 8, 2015 | E-mail the Author
If there has to be a remake of a movie as revered as Poltergeist, this one -- on paper, anyway -- sure looks like a best case scenario. In much the same way that Steven Spielberg shepherded the original film, this modernized version was developed and produced by genre legend Sam Raimi. Director Gil Kenan is no stranger to suburban spookhouses, having previously helmed Monster House to a good bit of acclaim. Such towering talents as Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris score top-billing. However promising this remake may look to be at first glance, though, the most terrifying thing about it is how forgettable it all is.

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It makes sense that this remake of Poltergeist changes up the names of its central characters; as it turns out, the Bowens are a profoundly different family. The Freelings in the original movie were a happy lot with a great deal to celebrate, moving into a newly-constructed home as part of Steve's career as a real estate developer. The Bowens, meanwhile, look wistfully at those heights they once enjoyed. Eric (Sam Rockwell) had his executive paychecks and corner office snatched from him during a round of layoffs, while housewife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) calls herself a writer but never seems to find the time to live up to that. They're retreating from their formerly lavish digs into a hopelessly remote ghost town of a neighborhood. It's not the house anyone wants, but they grudgingly sign on the bottom line anyway.

Eric can't stomach the unfamiliar stench of failure, of the mind that a man provides for his family. Amy's efforts to try to rebuild are shot down by her husband's patriarchal mindset, his irresponsible spending, and growing exasperation with their children. Eldest daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) can barely be bothered to look up from her phone, and when she does, it's invariably to groan and roll her eyes. Griffin (Kyle Catlett) has long suffered from severe anxiety, and his incessant cries that there's something unnatural about this house quickly drive his mother off the deep end. ...and then there's sweet, little Maddie (Kennedi Clements) who whiles away the days chatting with her imaginary friends, although seeing as how this is a review of a movie called "Poltergeist", I'll let you venture a guess as to how imaginary they really are.

I appreciate this attempt at bringing Poltergeist kicking and screaming into the present, but nothing about this works in practice. Part of the allure of the original film is that it portrays the American dream gone wrong: a successful, loving family whose idyllic home turns against them. While it's made clear that the Bowens' new house is a marked step down from their previous lifestyle, and the community it's in has all but collapsed, it's still a perfectly respectable home. We're not talking about something that's soul-crushingly hideous or crumbling into ruin, but from the family's disgusted reactions, you'd think they were turning tricks down at the docks. If the family is flat broke with zero money coming in -- Eric can't even buy a mop from the store without cycling through three different credit cards -- why are they buying a house at all? The kids have been uprooted anyway, and no one's working, so why relocate to an area devoid of any job prospects or...well, anything at all? Practically every home in this subdivision is under foreclosure, and even the nearby malls are completely shuttered. Why not rent a place where they're within a comfortable drive of actually having a shot at rebuilding their lives?

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Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are far and away the greatest assets that Poltergeist has to offer. They're wonderfully convincing as husband and wife, infusing their roles with such life and such color. I can't imagine anyone but Rockwell being able to so effortlessly nail Eric's dry sense of humor that never wavers even throughout the most challenging ordeals, and DeWitt's portrayal of Amy as she realizes how dismissive she's been of her young son -- a recognition introduced in this extended cut of Poltergeist -- is equally terrific. Puzzlingly, I adore them as a couple but can't deal with them as parents. From the way Eric and Amy speak to one another, it's hard not to get the sense that if they could roll back the clock, they wouldn't have bothered with children at all. To their part, the kids generally seem to keep to themselves. It's a dramatic shift away from the tightknit Freeling family in the original film, and that diminished sympathy and emotional investment throttle much of the intensity.

If I don't care much about this family, why would I care what happens to them? It's a crack in the dam worsened by Poltergeist's desperate rush to fast-forward to the scares. The original film is a rather slow burn, one that admittedly is out of step with modern horror. I'll admit that even as a lifelong admirer of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist -- someone who has memories associated with it that will stay with me till the day I die -- its deliberate pace felt like a bit of a chore my last time through. Still, the original does a brilliant job establishing the Freelings as characters, I love that the initial brushes with the supernatural inspire awe and wonder rather than immediate, abject horror, and the scares that follow are heightened because of it. The remake dives in too quickly for any of its terrifying-in-theory sequences to resonate in that same way. Most of these moments are nicked from the original film, amping up the visual effects budget but sapping away most of the intensity. The peeling face effect from the first Poltergeist makes way for some boring, black liquid oozing from Eric's eyes and nose. The tree that breaks through Griffin's window no longer looks like some sort of knotted, malformed creature. Nothing in the remake's climax can hold a candle to the original's skeletons bobbing around in the swimming pool. You've seen how much a single creepy clown doll could terrify audiences decades ago, so just imagine what an entire closetful of them could do! Quite a bit less, as it turns out.

The beats of the plot are awfully similar between the two films, even if they each dole out those moments at a very different rate: a gateway in the youngest daughter's closet pulls her into another realm, the desperate family enlists the help of a group of parapsychologists from a nearby university, a professional spiritualist is brought in to cleanse the home, and just when they think they can safely breathe a sigh of relief...well, no, not so much. There was something magnetic about Carol Anne in the original Poltergeist that Kennedi Clements -- as charming and capable an actress as she is -- just doesn't possess. Madison's grooming by the undead isn't nearly as unnerving as a result, and neither is her inevitable kidnapping all that impactful. The spiritual medium portrayed by Zelda Rubenstein easily ranks among the most iconic elements of the original Poltergeist, and there's just no out-Zelda Rubenstein-ing Zelda Rubenstein. Instead, Jared Harris stars as TV's Carrigan Burke, who purges spirits from haunted locales on basic cable every Friday night. Thankfully, Poltergeist resists the temptation to heap on a reality show crew or indulge in any found footage dreck. Instead, Harris plays Carrigan as basically Quint from Jaws, complete with a scene where he shows off his war wounds from previous cleansings.

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My kneejerk reaction to this remake of Poltergeist was that it's watchable but instantly forgettable. Looking at the length of this critique so far, I guess that's not entirely true. Just to be clear, though, I'm not one of those people who's always frothing at the mouth against horror remakes. The original Poltergeist means a lot to me, but in no way is it beyond criticism, and I recognize that a case for an update could be made. This isn't it, though. When this take on Poltergeist tears off in its own direction, it's too often mishandled and uninvolving. The throwbacks to the first film -- encompassing nearly all of its scares -- are lavished with spectacular digital wizardry but to less effect than what ILM and company delivered more than thirty years ago. The remake's tour of the spirit realm is kind of like seeing the interior of the ship in Close Encounters; better left to the imagination.

Poltergeist was built atop the remains of a much stronger film, and no matter how this remake moves around the headstones or polishes them to a glossy sheen, I just found myself wishing I were watching the original instead. As its own movie, Poltergeist is fine, and maybe that's a triumph in its own right, with as spotty a track record as horror remakes have. Still, with so much else out there to choose from, that's not enough. Rent It.

This Blu-ray disc includes both the PG-13 theatrical version of Poltergeist as well as an unrated cut. One of the chief criticisms of the film when it was making the rounds in theaters is that it didn't spend nearly enough time with the Bowens before all hell broke loose. This extended cut addresses that to some extent, including Eric trying (and failing) to play catch with Griffin as well as having a bedside chat with Amy while fiddling with a squirrel trap. An early scare with Amy losing an earring behind a washer that oozes ectoplasm has also been added. The scene selection menu makes note of other sequences that have been revised -- the initial siege on the Bowen children while their parents are off at a dinner party, the dinner party itself, Carrigan's arrival, and the family making their escape -- but whatever changes were made there didn't stand out to me in quite the same way. The extended version runs seven minutes longer in all.

As expected for a glossy remake storming out of theaters, Poltergeist looks supernaturally gorgeous on Blu-ray. The digital photography is dazzlingly crisp and detailed, benefitting immensely from cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe's seasoned eye. It's appreciated that its palette is lush and vibrant rather draining away most every trace of saturation the way so many other genre films do.

Rather than cram on separate, feature-length encodes of the different versions of Poltergeist on this disc, Fox instead takes advantage of seamless branching. This allows for a considerably higher bitrate than would've been possible otherwise, and the AVC encode is -- with a single notable exception -- immaculate. One shot late in the film, however, is so riddled with digital noise that I bet it'd even be distracting to someone who's not a videophile in the least:

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Otherwise, though, this presentation of Poltergeist is flawless.

Even though there are still several months on the calendar to go, I'm dead certain that Poltergeist will get my vote as the best sounding Blu-ray disc of 2015. Every element in this 24-bit, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is startlingly clean, clear, and distinct. The dynamics on display here are brilliant, with Poltergeist equally adept at eking out tension from complete silence as it is with a full-on sonic blitzkrieg. Dialogue is rendered masterfully, never once getting buried in the mix or suffering from the slightest flicker of distortion. Far and away leaving the greatest impression, though, is Poltergeist's thirst for immersion. This lossless soundtrack ensures that viewers feel as if they're trapped in this haunted hell alongside the Bowen family. Boasting aggressive use of the surrounds, remarkably smooth pans from speaker to speaker, and an ear for directionality, Poltergeist skillfully seizes hold of every available channel. The audio does a spectacular job heightening the scares, from the very ordinary sounds of a settling house and the trees outside that unnerve Griffin at night all the way to a legion of clown dolls skittering across the floor.

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Poltergeist's audio is in every way exceptional, and that extends to the sprawling list of other options available here. There are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs (448kbps) in Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and Québécois French. Half-bitrate DTS 5.1 soundtracks are delivered in French, Castilian Spanish, German, and Italian. An English descriptive audio track is limited to the theatrical cut exclusively. Both versions of the movie feature subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish (Castilian and traditional), French (Québécois and traditional), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Tamil, Telugu, and Turkish.

Multiple cuts of the movie aside, there's borderline-nothing in the way of extras.
  • Alternate Ending (2 min.; HD): Just a lame gag with a phone getting chucked out a window instead of the realtor coda.

  • Gallery (HD): Thrill to a dozen or so promotional stills.

  • Trailers (4 min.; HD): ...and a pair of high-def trailers later, you're finished.

Poltergeist comes packaged with a slipcover and includes a digital copy code.

The Final Word
This remake of Poltergeist never manages to escape the specter of the original, with its mishandled modernization ravaging nearly everything that made Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's film so extraordinary. The end result is a perfectly adequate remake, but why settle for okay when the original Poltergeist is right there on the shelf? Rent It.
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