Film Review: “Poltergeist”

Conventional and irritating, “Poltergeist” is a horror remake as unwelcome as its paranormal invaders.

Rating 2.0/5.0
Directed by Gil Kenan
Starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams
Rated PG-13
Release Date: May 22

All a fan can ask for is one great horror film per year. Just one! After the middling “It Follows,” “Poltergeist” was your best shot, 2015. But like the characters in this movie, you screwed up.

Based on the 1982 horror classic of the same name, “Poltergeist” follows a family of five in which the mom is an unemployed writer, the dad just lost his job and they’re so low on cash that their credit cards are getting declined. How do they solve these problems? A new house! To make up for this logic, or lack thereof, the filmmakers try to characterize their new house and neighborhood as undesirable. But come on. This ain’t the projects. The building is three stories tall and located in what looks quite like the suburbs.

Anyway, the family’s luck grows even worse when their lights start flickering, some clown dolls attack their son and a closet swallows their little girl. The movie is actually quite strong up to this point. The characters and relationships are set up well. The atmosphere is properly sinister and creepy. And Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, charmingly injects the film with a perfect dose of cool-dad humor. Then it all falls apart.

“They’re here.” The film recycles this iconic line from the original “Poltergeist” to instill dread within the audience. However, this time, one might interpret “they” as not referring to the house’s haunting spirits. “They” instead are a team of so-called “academic researchers” in the field of paranormal activity that the family enlists to help them get their daughter back. Rather than depicting the terror that the family experiences, the filmmakers instead decided to focus on three insanely incompetent “ghosthunters” who contribute virtually nothing to the film except — unintentionally — characters to point and to laugh at. Oh, the dread.

Photo used with permission from Twentieth Century Fox.
Photo used with permission from Twentieth Century Fox.

This group provides the laziest, hokiest explanations about what exactly a poltergeist is (“It’s not a haunting; it’s angrier and it could stop at any time” — what?) and where their daughter is (“She’s here, but not here” — okay, so where is she?). Pulling two circle-drawings apart to demonstrate dual existence didn’t help either. They then proceed to fail miserably at everything that the family recruited them to do. Thankfully, the family later brings in an actual poltergeist expert (Jared Harris), who happens to have his own television show about paranormal occurrences. How ironic is it that the only one who actually knows what he’s doing is the television-ghosthunter-star?

Besides this, the film’s naturalistic comedy that made the beginning so balanced and enjoyable descends into childlike farce. Director Gil Kenan fails to differentiate the humor of “Poltergeist” from his previous feature “Monster House,” an animated PG horror-comedy.

Ultimately, “Poltergeist” is irritating, which seems to be the quintessential feature of contemporary horror films. It doesn’t make sense and it possesses annoying characters that it neither needs nor benefits from. And as a remake, it lacks the elements necessary to significantly differentiate it from the original. Yes, visually, it’s updated. But the improvements start and end there.

For those wondering if “Poltergeist” is at least scary — using the film’s exposition techniques — it is, but it isn’t. You see how that works?