October Horrorshow: Poltergeist (2015)

I remember being a child in the 1980s, and movies from the 1950s looked old. The people in them wore weird clothes, had strange haircuts, and drove ridiculous-looking cars. Everything was in black and white, too, making me think, probably up until I was in kindergarten, that the world used to be black and white, and sometime during my parents’ childhoods, all of a sudden it snapped into color. I vaguely remember asking them about that. Oh, the conclusions a child’s mind will come to absent any other information.

I bring this up because, back in the ’80s, Hollywood was remaking some movies from the ’50s. The Blob and The Thing, both horror classics from the ’50s, saw remakes in the ’80s, among many others. Thirty years isn’t necessarily the sweet spot for a remake, as remakes and reboots are a constant reality of the movie business, but the three decade mark is the point when generational turnover is complete, and there is a critical mass of potential viewers that are unfamiliar with the material, and who would regard the original as dated, much like I did with movies from the ’50s. It’s odd for me to think that today’s youth look upon movies from the ’80s with the same sense of distance that I did movies from the ’50s. From my perspective, the ’80s were a long time ago, but it has lost none of its familiarity. Were I to wake up Poltergeisttomorrow in my 1980s bed in Akron, Ohio, after I stopped freaking out at such an impossible transition, I would find that I was right at home. The era holds no strangeness for me, as it wouldn’t for any of us who had been there.

But one generation is about all it takes for the language of popular culture to shift. The rules of pace and storytelling change. Audience expectations shift. Attention spans are altered. A distant time is akin to being in a foreign country. Yet the stories from the past are still good. They can still be told. Thus, we get something like this year’s remake of Poltergeist.

When I saw that this film was available for rent, I was surprised. Not because I hadn’t heard that a remake was being produced, but because I thought it had yet to hit theaters. It turns out that the film was released way back in May, and I, and many others, didn’t even notice. The film was not a flop, just about tripling its 35 million dollar budget, but a studio film that rakes in almost a hundred million bucks shouldn’t be so anonymous that it comes and goes from theaters like a thief in the night.

Such a result does speak to the quality of the film. It was good enough to make money, but not good enough to be a standout film. In many ways it’s a competent and entertaining movie, but it’s also a rehash of a much better film. The difference in years is erased by the varying quality of the product. Why bother with this mediocre film when there is a much better alternative with the exact same plot? Because there are cellphones now and there weren’t in 1982, the year the original was released? This new film adds nothing new to the story, instead operating from the Jan de Bont school of remakes, where nuance and subtlety is replaced by CGI, à la his 1999 remake of The Haunting. This is a serious problem for the Poltergeist remake. It’s a ghost film, and ghost films live and die on their ability to create tension. But CGI-heavy films like Poltergeist are overdone, relying on spectacle rather than storytelling. That means that this film commits a cardinal sin in regards to ghost films — it’s not scary.

It’s flashy and showy, and wastes little time on trivial things like plot development. It lifts all of its notes, and much of its dialogue, from the original, but rushes through these moments as if they needed to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible so the film can get to...what, exactly? So we can see a few minutes of what’s on the other side of the closet? It’s not worth it.

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