A certain American politician has been talking a lot lately about people coming to destroy the suburbs, but really, would that be so bad? A lot of movies have eluded to the seedy underbelly of suburbia, and some authors and filmmakers have made it an article of faith that the suburbs are a horror show waiting to happen. Poltergeist was maybe the first film to sell that point in the most direct way, but over the years it’s notoriety as a “cursed” production has outpaced any textual readings of the film. Did the 2015 remake ever stand a chance?
The answer to that question is yes, if only because producers of the remake, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, wisely employed Gil Kenan, who showed that he could handle well both haunted house drama and the Spielbergian aesthetic in Monster House. In terms of marrying filmmaker and material, Poltergeist (2015) was smart matchmaking, but this may be one of those times in Remake Redemption where the quality of the parts do not necessarily add up to the whole.
“Poltergeist (2015) was smart matchmaking, but this may be one of those times in Remake Redemption where the quality of the parts do not necessarily add up to the whole.”
First, let’s look back at the 1982 original, which is “haunted”, in a number of ways, by behind the scenes drama. On the one hand, there’s the question of who really directed Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg or Tobe Hooper? It’s a game of who do you believe, but it seemed like Mick Garris got the last word in 2017 after Hooper’s death when he told the Post Mortem podcast that while Spielberg was gravitational force on set with a lot of enthusiasm, Poltergeist was, in the end, a Tobe Hooper movie.
The other haunting is the so-called curse of Poltergeist, one that took two out of three of the young actors that played the kids in the original film before their time; Dominque Dunne was killed by her ex-boyfriend weeks after Poltergeist came out, and Heather O’Rourke died in 1988 at the age of 12 from complications involving intestinal stenosis. Those deaths, plus a series of other incidents on-set (which was all recently covered in the Shudder series Cursed Films), have given Poltergeist a reputation on par with notorious sites like the Winchester House or Roanoke Island.
The off-screen notoriety has perhaps enhanced Poltergeist’s place in the culture beyond where it otherwise might have ended up, but it’s still a very solid haunted house movie and its one that tested the limits of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. Could a movie rated PG, or now PG-13, get away with a scene where someone has a vision of themselves tearing their face-off at the bathroom sink? It’s doubtful, but on the other hand, that’s Poltergeist’s one gross-out moment. So much of the rest of the film depends on finding the frightening in the ordinary.
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The single greatest eerie effect of Poltergeist is the snow on the TV screen that young Carol Anne (O’Rourke) communicates with the spirits through. People of a certain age will remember the days when TV stations would sign off at the end of the day around 1 or 2 am, and you would flip around the dial, which was a physical knob on the TV itself, and find channels where there were no stations. If you were drunk enough, or tired enough, or imaginative enough, you just might hear voices in that snow, the flickering black and white void where no TV signal was received.
If there’s a fault to the idea of making a Poltergeist remake in the mid-2010s, it’s that snow on the TV is a foreign concept. Can you remember the last time you saw snow on a TV, or any kind of distortion; either your flat scree TV is getting a signal, or it’s not. Seeing Madison Bowen (Kennedi Clements) sit in front of snow on a plasma TV wasn’t terribly believable given the times, and being so dogmatic to the text of the original film stopped Kenan from exploiting an obvious modern touch: how can you escape the ghosts communicating through a screen when you’re utterly surrounded by screens?
Having said that, there are a lot of interesting updates make to Poltergeist for the remake. Recasting Zelda Rubinstein’s southern psychic Tangina Barrons as Jared Harris’ ghost chaser Carrigan Burke is one example. The proliferation of cable shows about ghost hunters, and their weekly walks through dark hallways filmed in night vision, are great fodder for satire, and so is turning Rubinstein’s signature line from the original film into the tacky hashtag #ThisHouseisCleansed.
The remake also does a good job of making sure the whole family is victimized by the supernatural attack, from ooze monsters in the basement to ghostly games of misdirection in the closest porthole to the other side. Griffin Bowen (Kyle Catlett), the middle child, nearly ties his sister Madison for being the main target of the ghosts, and he was the first one to understand there’s something wrong in the family’s new house. There’s also the harrowing scene where the trees drags him through the house and out the window, which was a more flamboyant take on a similar scene in the original.
Griffin also gets to be the hero that goes to the ghostly plain to rescue his sister, which is a good arc for him as the older brother that feels bad because he couldn’t protect his little sister. In the original, it’s mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) that goes to save Carol Anne from the other side, but we get the sense in the remake that parents Eric and Amy (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) might be a little self-involved to be useful.
It’s understandable given the fact that the family is down on its luck, but you have to wonder why the spirits decided to pick on this family. In the original, it was because the Freelings started digging up their yard for a pool, but did the ghost sense a lack of familial cohesion in the Bowmans and decided to exploit it? This may be the most interesting distinction between both versions of Poltergeist, suburbia for the Freelings was a sign of success, middle-class prosperity, and the American Dream, while the Bowmans are downsizing into a neighbourhood people are abandoning due to foreclosure because the American Dream is dead.
The haunting of the Freelings is meant to invert the expectations of suburban living, but for the Bowmans buying a haunted house is just part of their run of bad luck. Even the revelation that the neighbourhood was built on a former graveyard, where the headstones were removed but the bodies weren’t, which was a scandal in the original film, is treated like old, uninteresting news in the remake. Obviously, the developer would take a short cut and not move the bodies; that’s America in the 21st century!
“…suburbia for the Freelings was a sign of success […] while the Bowmans are downsizing into a neighborhood people are abandoning due to foreclosure because the American Dream is dead.”
Perhaps there was no real pressing need to remake Poltergeist, all things considered, but perhaps there was the broader cultural consideration. How can there be a curse when the cast from this movie are all alive and well five years later? How can there be a curse when the remake was a modest hit making $95 million on a $35 million budget? How can there be a curse when Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo signed on last year to make yet another Poltergeist remake? This franchise is cleansed.
Is your favourite remake in need of redemption? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and be sure to let us know how you think Poltergeist (2015) stacks up against Tobe Hooper’s 1982 haunted house classic!