Class, Critique, Feminism, Movies, Technology

This House is Boring: Poltergeist 2015 Reviewed

Poltergeist 2015Poltergeist (2015)

Director: Gil Kenan
Writers: David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), Steven Spielberg (story)
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements

Remakes are hard. Especially when you tackle a classic. But when I saw that Sam Raimi was a producer for the Poltergeist remake, I had, at least, a little hope that maybe, just maybe the remake would not be a complete and total destruction of my favorite childhood horror movie. That hope quickly evaporated when the son Griffin found the clown closet, and I thought “wow, those are some not-scary clown dolls.” Yeah, not-scary clowns, it’s possible.

Okay, fine, I am being dramatic because the above implies that the movie was horrifically bad, and horrifically bad can be quite good as it often veers into camp territory, but this, this was just…dull, mediocre, and utterly uninspired.

See, Poltergeist was the first horror movie I just got, where I found the uncanny space of the horror fan: that delightful mix of terror and “fuck yeah.” It ending up spawning a fascination with the paranormal that stretched all the way into my tween years. Considering the critique of suburbia and colonialism in the original, as well as the skeptical stance towards television, it would seem a Poltergeist remake would be thematically ripe for 2015 — what with economic recessions, the NSA poking and probing around, and the slew of civil rights issues at the forefront of the American media once again. But Poltergeist 2015 misses this potential altogether.

Poltergeist 2015 follows the Bowen family, a stand-in for the original Freeling family. The family make-up is still the same: matriarch Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), patriarch Eric (Sam Rockwell), eldest sister Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), middle son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and youngest daughter Maddy (Kennedi Clements), who attracts unfriendly spirits. Eric has recently been laid off from his job with John Deere, and Amy is working on a book that she never actually works on. They end up having to buy “the least sucky house” in their price range which is still a pretty big and comfortable middle-class suburban home. The house is hooked up with state of the art technology and wiring with surround sound, even in the bathroom.

It doesn’t take long before the movie jumps right into the intended-to-be-scary stuff, something the original took it’s time building up to (and in doing so, created tension that resulted in good scares). The Bowens quickly learn the suburb was built atop a graveyard, but the developers moved the bodies. (Of course, this turns out to be not true.) Everything spirals downhill from there. The paranormal team is quickly called in, and there is none of the simultaneous skepticism and wonder towards the supernatural that was in the original. The female roles are largely relegated to supplemental, and the lone woman-of-color spends most of her screen time communicating via side-eye.

This is particularly disappointing, because Poltergeist 2015 starts out with an eye towards what made the original so inspired: sprawling shots of suburban life neatly bordered by power lines, echoes of economic struggle, and the ubiquitousness of contemporary technology. But ultimately these concepts end up being bystanders to a movie that largely reenacts the plot of a 33 year old film without any of the heft that made the original so good, like:

  1. The feminist bent of the original where JoBeth (the matriarch) goes to the Other Side to rescue her ghost-napped daughter.
  2. Zelda Rubinstein as the psychic. (I love Jared Harris, he broke my heart as Lane Pryce on Mad Men, but “this house is clean” just doesn’t work coming from him.)
  3. That fucking clown doll.
  4. The creepiness of a literal Whomping Willow.
  5. The real human skeletons in the swimming pool. (Yes, they used real human skeletons.)

Instead, the remake:

  1. Replaces JoBeth’s act of feminist agency with Griffin’s storyline of redemption. This isn’t all bad. Griffin is interesting in that he is a very anxious child, and his family does not belittle or emasculate him for his anxiety. Instead, they affirm anxiety as perfectly normal and not gendered. Unfortunately, Amy, stand in for JoBeth, lacks the streak of rebellion of hippie-turned-yuppie JoBeth. In fact, Amy seems largely supplemental to the entire film while JoBeth was integral to the original.
  2. Replaces a single scary clown doll with several clown dolls in scenes that fall completely flat.
  3. Eradicates the colonialist critique so integral to the original. What makes the critique in the first film so strong is how suburbia is shown to be built upon colonialism. The original is largely about white guilt. The only person-of-color shows up in Poltergeist II as the token, mystical Indian dude; but the pointed critique of colonialism and suburbia remains.
  4. Glosses over the critique of consumption from the original. What made the original Poltergeist so disturbing was that typical domestic items become terrifying: bedroom closets, dolls, garden tools, pools, landscaping. From the get-go, the house in the remake possesses typical haunted home cliches like an attic room with a secret room filled with clown dolls.

Additionally, while the Other Side is shown to be a twisting, moving mass of decaying bodies, the CGI looks like…CGI, and the lighting makes these scenes feel like swimming in a pond with your eyes open. Consequently, the potential for the grotesque here just falls flat. Some reviewers have praised the special effects in the 3-D version. Unfortunately, I get motion sickness and can’t attend 3-D. But even with the improved effects, Poltergeist 2015 in 3-D would still be a phoned-in film.