Sunday, July 17, 2016

To see how outraged I should be

We all complain about remakes and reboots and long-delayed sequels. I mean, everyone. The trend has gotten so ridiculous that even that mythical Dumbest Member of the Viewing Public probably has some sacred cow whose legacy has been just watered down enough through an uninspired remake that it's made him grumpy.

Yet many of us continue to see them anyway. Even when we know better. Even when there are plenty of other options to watch at our fingertips at any given moment of the day.


It's not enough to assume they fucked it up. We want to know how badly they fucked it up.

Which was pretty much my reason for watching the Poltergeist remake last night.

Since I still cite the original Poltergeist as perhaps the scariest movie I've ever seen -- and I'm speaking purely of my capacity to handle it at the age I saw it, not objectively the most disturbing -- I was perhaps even more curious about what kind of sacrilege they put up on screen in the 2015 remake. And part of that curiosity was, of course, a dim hope that it was worthwhile. Some of the basic elements of that film still bother me enough that a smart update of them could have had the same effect.

Gil Kenan's 2015 version of Poltergeist does not have smart updates of anything. As perhaps a single symbol of what grounds a timeless concept thuddingly in our present tense, the paranormal investigators send a drone into that ectoplasmic void in the upstairs closet. I tell you now from having seen it -- nothing I can think of is less scary than a drone. (Unless you're a terrorist or a civilian scampering around on the ground in a Middle Eastern country, of course.)

The new Poltergeist tries to hit the same story beats as the original, but it hits them with such a lethargy that it highlights just how perfunctory the whole affair is. For example, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire decides he has to give a shout out to the clown scene from the original and the tree scene from the original, so he puts them both in the same scene. Both sequences are directed by Kenan with such little flair that what makes a living tree and a living clown so frightening are almost completely lost. Which is a real shame, because Kenan directed the clever and scary animated film Monster House (which my son calls "Spooky House"), making him an obvious candidate for this job, and Lindsay-Abaire wrote a movie I absolutely love, Rabbit Hole ... making him not such an obvious candidate for this job, but also making him someone who should be able to write a better script.

Then there are the very minor alterations of things that happen in the original. The absolutely terrifying scene in the original in which that paranormal investigator sees maggots in his chicken and then starts tearing off his face is handled this time with Sam Rockwell's paterfamilias having the episode instead. But instead of the practical effect biological realism of the face-tearing incident, it's a predictably CG affair where he spews black tar-like liquid into a sink and sees CG worms in it. Bo-ring.

I will grant that even a PG-13 rating today is not what a PG rating was back then, so that accounts for some of the toned-down nature of that incident. Another way this Poltergeist is sanitized for the 21st century is that the parents, played in the original so memorably with such mutual affection and joie de vivre by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, don't of course smoke weed in their bedroom after the kids go to sleep. No one is getting away with that shit in 2015. However, we need to know that Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are cool, so instead they drink wine out of coffee mugs. Bo-ring.

CG really does this movie in, putting too fine a point on things that were scary for their minimalism back in the original. Of course we get Carol Anne at the TV again (she's called Madison this time), but where we thought we heard distant whispering in that static originally, we couldn't really be sure. The thing that was creepy about it was that Carol Anne was talking to the TV, validating those sounds we heard as the sounds of ghostly whispers. This time, however, Kenan thinks it's a good idea to have the girl touch the TV and have a hand come back from the other side. Then the screen fills up with hands. Might I find this scary if I hadn't seen the original? No way to tell, but I don't think so. She also repeats the line "They're here," but without wanting to directly imitate Heather O'Rourke saying "They're heeEEEEeere," she just spits out the words dully. As if everyone involved just knows this is a soulless enterprise, and going through the motions is the best approach they can imagine.

Don't even get me started on all the CGI ghouls they see when they send the drone into the void. I'd say I'd seen it in a thousand films before, but I actually think it's been thousands, plural.

In short, Poltergeist is exactly what a person would expect, and to even enumerate its sins as I've just done suggests I was expecting it to be something else. I shouldn't have been, and if I was, I was a fool.

So maybe I've enumerated its sins just to save you the trouble of watching it yourself in order to determine how badly they fucked it up.


Wendell Ottley said...

You use some perfect words to describe this one: sanitized, bland, soulless. That was my impression. And the delivery of "They're here" is heart-breakingly flat. Great review.

Derek Armstrong said...

"Flat"! That's the word I was looking for.

I gave it 1.5 stars on Letterboxd but honestly, I don't know what the extra half-star was for. I did kind of like that scene where the two lights disconnect from their light sources and travel over to the closet, then summon Maddy's doll as it kind of slowly rolls toward them. But is that alone worth a half-star?

Wendell Ottley said...


Wendell Ottley said...