The new remake of Poltergeist was a modest box office success in its opening weekend, and it’s pretty much already made back its production budget. But it’s not a good movie, even if you divorce it from the 1982 movie. It’s not horrible, either. But its best feature is that it’s mercifully short.
Full disclosure: I went into Poltergeist with no knowledge of the 1982 film, other than the ubiquitous references in media since then. Basically, I knew “They’re here” and that’s it. I judged the movie on its own merits, with low expectations, especially since the film was not screened in advance for critics. With the bar thus lowered, I can report that Poltergeist (2015) is basically another lackluster horror movie.
Minor spoilers ahead.
At an hour and thirty-three minutes, Poltergeist manages to both drag and rush. The beginning of the movie spends interminably long with the family just living in their new house. Some films might take that time to flesh the characters out beyond “dad who just lost his job,” “bratty teenage daughter who is glued to her cellphone” “son who is very nervous,” “daughter who talks to ghosts,” and “mother who ... is the mother.” Not Poltergeist. Not a single surprise is unearthed in the time you spend just praying that a ghost will show up and do something.
Sam Rockwell tries his very best to entertain, and he has some pretty funny lines. But even he cannot carry thirty minutes of “it’s just a squirrel, not anything supernatural!” This is an actual plot point. And, completely unrelated to anything, it leads to a scene where Rockwell goes to buy squirrel traps, that is uncomfortable, has nothing to do with the plot, and goes on for so long there’s a chance I’m still sitting in the theater watching it right now.
After a third of the movie meanders to the point — poltergeists! They’re here! WE ALL KNOW IT, PLEASE GET TO THEM — the second act rushes through the action. Everything awful happens all at once, in a single night. There are a few instances of weirdness in the first act, but they don’t build up, or create any tension. We only know everything’s about to kick off because the parents make a big deal of leaving the kids home alone.
On the plus side, the practical effects — the flickering lights. the creepy clown doll, and so on — look pretty good. On the minus side, the CGI effects look awful. So awful, that whatever fear the practical effects managed to conjure is immediately banished by the laughter induced by the half-rendered evil tree and goopy skeletons.
And then, instead of capitalizing on the momentum of all that action, Poltergeist.... grinds to a halt once again. Just days of trying to find help and figure out what happened. It takes forever for the paranormal experts to get everything lined up for the final action sequence. And then, we’re off again — sprinting to the finish line.
The pacing here is most like learning to drive stick shift in the hills: Stalling repeatedly on the trip up, followed by an uncontrolled tumble back down. Only learning to drive stick is much scarier than this movie.
It’s not just the pace that is uneven. The movie’s tone also whipsaws between jump scares and comedy. And this movie is much better at being funny than it is at being scary. One of the first scenes, between a too-perky real estate agent and Rockwell’s character, is among the most entertaining in the movie. The reality TV show host’s descriptions of the paranormal and of the injuries he gathered over the years is likewise quite funny. But none of that flows naturally to, or from, the horror elements.
There’s also the slight problem that the paranormal investigators, who only show up in the second half of the film, are much more interesting than the family. You’d much rather follow the professor (Jane Adams) and her ex-husband (Jared Harris), a ghost hunter with his own reality show. God bless both of these actors for handling comedy and exposition so well. Especially Harris, who has the campiest role and embraces it with relish.
The obvious pitch for this movie was that they were “updating” the original for the digital age. So a neon pink cell phone gets a lot of screen time as the teenager waves it around listening for the static generated by the poltergeists. A drone plays a fairly large role in the climax. But these things don’t add anything to the plot, other than to be different from the original in some way.
At the end of the day, the film’s just bland and forgettable, which is the worst sin a horror movie can commit. If it was longer than an hour and a half, it would be maddening. But at just over 90 minutes, and with low expectations, it’s inoffensive. If, for some reason, you cannot find two hours or more, and you have to see a movie in the theaters, you could do worse than Poltergeist. Although not much worse.
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