Sunday, January 31, 2016

Suburban Ghosts Revisited

Poltergeist (2015)

If you ever want an object lesson in the things that make a good movie vs. the things that make a bad movie, you could do worse than make a study of the remake of Poltergeist (2015, directed by Gil Keanan). In its broad outlines, the remake is essentially the same damned movie, but where the original was a film that was fun and scary and inhabited by real people in a palpably real place, the remake is just...tired. I never really thought of the original Poltergeist as a foundational horror film, but damned if the remake doesn't wind up putting the original into perspective as one of the most influential films of its era. Any comparison is likely to favor the original film if the original is good enough to inspire a remake, but the fact that the remake completely craps the bed all on its own doesn't help things.

The plot is familiar-ish. The Bowens, Eric and Amy and their three kids, move into a new house. Eric has recently been downsized, so the suspiciously cheap price of the house is attractive to them. From the outset, from the very first day in the new digs, weird things begin to happen. When the youngest daughter is kidnapped by the ghosts, the Bowens engage a team of paranormal investigators to get her back. Cue the special effects.

Sam Rockwell and Rosemary Dewitt in Poltergeist (2015)

The current vogue for family-in-peril horror movies--your Insidiouses and your Conjurings and your Possessions--all owe Poltergeist a huge debt. Poltergeist provides the template for most such films. Revisiting Poltergeist within this idiom, and slavishly following the strictures that have evolved over time, turns out to be a bad idea. This is yet another film in which a family coming apart at the seams finds in its supernatural crucible a kind of couples' therapy. This film values the rigid norms of the nuclear family, including a vague discomfort with the idea that the mother rather than the father is the breadwinner. Certainly, the economic emasculation of the film's father is a driving engine of its plot. All of this is filmed in a glum, autumnal palette in houses that look far more ostentatious than is credible for the economic crisis in which our characters find themselves. This film takes its economic horror from The Amityville Horror: when it becomes obvious that their new house is haunted, the Bowens don't move because they simply can't afford it. This is the smartest change the filmmakers make to the original item, but it's also at second hand.

A comparison to the lot of Freelings in the first film is instructive. The Freelings live in an upscale tract house in the suburbs, the last place you would expect to find a haunted house. Indeed, their house is modern (in 1982) and exactly like every house around it. It's a lot like the house where I lived in 1982, as it so happens, and a lot like the houses of all of my friends. The original film took the ghosts out of the Gothic and turned them loose on the consumerism of the 1980s. It's as much a satire as it is a horror movie, and parts of it are funny. It's a playful movie. Consequently, even its ghosts are playful at the beginning. Scenes like the remote control war between the Freelings and their neighbors during a football game have a strong feeling of verisimilitude. People lived like this. Spielberg and Hooper had a fine eye for the details of vapid suburban life. In comparison, the new film is more closely aligned with the Gothic, is almost never funny, and threatens its characters almost from the get go. Moreover, it doesn't give its family any personality traits beyond their role in the plot and their essential dysfunction. This, in spite of the fact that it has two quirky, talented actors in Sam Rockwell and Rosemary DeWitt in the lead. The film's biggest sin is squandering the talents of its cast.

Sam Rockwell, Rosemary Dewitt, Jane Adams, Susan Hewward in Poltergeist (2015)

The parapsychologists are less colorful in the remake, too. Jared Harris is a gruff cable tv ghost hunter, and the movie gives him a pointless relationship with Jane Adams's paranormal academic. The other members of the team leave no impression. Indeed, Harris and Adams don't leave much impression themselves. In comparison, Zelda Rubenstein's psychic investigator was a weird, Tod Browning-ish inclusion in the original. You don't forget her once you've seen the movie. Casting is everything.

The film's best moments are retreads of the best moments in the first film: the clown doll; the tree; the ghostly emanations from a television screen. The film's new scenes--the tunnel into the afterlife, for instance, and its substitute for the chair game--plod. Given that one justification for remaking classic films is to lavish new special effects technologies upon them, the special effects in this film seem mundane where the ones in the original--even the goofy ones--were touched with sinister wonderment. In spite of the playful quality of the original, that film had an instinct for the jugular (possibly Tobe Hooper's main contribution to the flm). There is nothing in the new film as grotesque as the parapsychologist who tears apart his own face, or Diane Freling's dunk into the pool full of muddy corpses. You could chalk this up to the new film carrying the marketing-friendly PG-13 rating, but it's worth noting that the original had a marketing-friendly PG rating back in the day. To be fair, the original Poltergeist is one of the films responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating in the first place. In any case, this film just doesn't seem to be trying very hard. It's cinematic comfort food, which is something a horror movie should never, ever be.

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