Remakes eh? Who would want to be involved in one as they always seem to get bad press. Whether it’s the intention of a cheap cash-in of an established property, hoping for lightening to strike twice from years and decades ago, to the hint of bankruptcy of new ideas in movie making, they are a hard pill to swallow for hardcore fans & casual viewers alike and are often considered one of the many red headed stepchildren that modern cinema feels the need to grace us with in this cinema-going family picnic we’re all a part of.
And yet, there’s a thought process that remakes do offer an opportunity – an opportunity to touch up on the original’s failings and make a total package, an opportunity to fully realise a vision for a movie with newer effects and technology or even an opportunity to take a missed opportunity and turn it into a definitive article. An artistic pipe dream? Maybe, but there has been some genuine attempts to do so and the intention can never be dissuaded.
So this weekend, I took it upon myself to have a look at both the 1982 original (for the first time ever) and the recently released 2015 remake of seminal 80’s horror classic Poltergeist and will offer my thoughts on which movie surpasses the other in aspects it’s famous for and also which one walks out as an overall victor.
Needless to say, there are some minor reveals so Spoilers Alert!
At it’s core, Poltergeist is a film about family. A pretty strange family film when it has to deal with a violent bunch of ghosts invading their lives but a family nonetheless. So we have the Freelings from the 1982 version and they’re settled down into their new build suburban California home. Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Parenthood) is a successful real estate agent and Mum Diane (JoBeth Williams, Private Practice) stays at home and looks after the three kids. Eldest Dana (the late Dominique Dunne) gets out and about dating as the teenage daughter but Diane looks after the two youngest Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (the also late Heather O’Rourke, Happy Days). Their gimmick is that they are your stereotypical nuclear family. Dana stays up on the phone at night. Steve is looked over for promotion. Diane waits for nighttime to escape to adult activities away from the kids. All pretty normal, so when we get the various spooky activities it’s a stark contrast and it’s super effective as see how they deal with these horrific elements. Whilst there is a taste of vanilla, for the 80’s they are a fine, normal family.
And that’s why I can’t help but identify with the faults and tribulations of the Bowens of the 2015 remake. Dad Eric (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) has recently been let go from his John Deere suit role because of cut backs and Mum Amy(Rosemarie Dewitt, Olive Kitteridge) is trying to work on her book but the kids keep getting in the way and the two are jokingly regretful for having three themselves. Teenage Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) is not happy at the family having to move to a faulty, less nice house next to the power lines, whilst the two youngster are Griffin (Kyle Catlett) who is a cowardly little shit and Madison (Kennedi Clements) is a cute innocent girl who just wants to play with her Pigicorn teddy and repeat swear words she learns from the older family members. They’re not perfect at all and that’s what makes them so endearing and watchable. There’s character here. Although the film doesn’t quite make that connection in making the Bowens realise the plunge they’re on in terms of dire straights, there are more related elements to this family with the escalation of events making them more sorry subjects. Whilst the Freelings serve as a borderline parody in how straightly played they are, the Bowens have the fallible, real-life qualities which you can sympathise with.
I’ll say one thing about the original – I did not quite realise it’s importance until I finally sat down to watch it. I mean, I knew it was a fairly iconic movie but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be the innovator or archtype that it is. From here, we have the horror movie tropes of scary clown dolls, “They’re heeeeeeeerrrrrreeeeeee!” and, of course, the house being built on top of an ancient burial ground or cemetery. For years I’ve seen all these honoured and parodied in other media and it went completely over my head that it was this movie that started all these iconic cogs of the horror machine. The real horror at it’s heart is the normalcy being totally blown away by these violent spirits taking away the youngest and most purest heart of the Freelings (same goes for the Bowens) and the extraordinary levels they go to get her back. That is endearing and shows terrific character development as the family has seen shocking & unnatural events to the point of thinking outside the box and asking people on the fringes for help. Whilst this is done very well and engrosses you for two hours, I couldn’t help but feel that Poltergeist 1982 was a victim of it’s own originality and creative success, as I have become so numb to what it brought to the table and whilst I have respect for the chef, I’m not so keen to trying it’s recipe for the umpteenth time. I do realise that it’s a problem of my own making rather than the film itself so more fool me.
What does work in the original’s favour is that, despite it’s near 35 year timespan between the two, it still manages to feel fresher than the remake. That offers generic stereotypical tropes of the horror genre today which dilutes the uniqueness of the name Poltergeist. Invisible forces dragging people around out of nowhere. A crying figure in the corner with their back turned to you which turns out not to be the little girl and has a screwed up face. You’ve seen these all before and it’s tiresome. Sure, there’s a negative feeling surrounding the family already with their downtrodden luck but that is not translated into the beginning steps of escalation of events. Worst of all, when whoever goes in to save the little girl and has to enter the other dimension/plane of existence/limbo, the remake goes all out to show a frankly unfrightening CG corpse version of the Bowen’s house with moving shapes, heads and arms which offers every dark shade of grey available to the computer generated images program used. Needless to say, this scene does absolutely zilch to instil any terror beyond the void light our heroes go through.
What the original did was nothing. That’s right, nothing. Your imagination about what horrors lurked beyond the vortex of light cupboard are way more powerful when you see the pair emerge covered in gunk and smouldering unconscious back in our world. What did they go through? Who or what was there? Those dark unanswered questions easily award this aspect to the original
With Poltergeist being a horror movie (and an iconic one with a reputation at that), it’s the individual scares and shocks that are what make these movies work. The original was an innovator at the time with murky cloudy portals sunk into the kids’ bedrooms into a unknown plane of existence and various horrific images like a giant skull coming out of the closet, a ghostly see through beast blocking the dimensional doorway and a tree thrusting it’s claw branches to grab the son. The stunning realisation over what Steve’s bosses have done in building their fancy new housing estate over the corpses of history and only moving the headstones to the new “cemetery” is pretty dark, even today still. Of course, the highlight is THAT clown coming alive seen. Whilst that has become a stereotype, seeing the original was cool as and downright terrifying.
The usage of modern horror movie tropes affects Poltergeist 2015 something chronic. I endorse what the original does unique because those jumps and horror moments still feel untouched in this time period – when was the last time you saw an inanimate tree come alive and bash it’s way into your room through the window? – it’s the cruxes of what it thinks it needs to rely on to be a creative success in 2015 serve to irritate. Whilst I will ultimately give this to the original, there is merit in the remake. I quite liked the shadows used to represent Madison in the otherworld through ghostly tripped over lights and whilst the shock of the clown scene is not quite as good, the build to the reveal is far better with tonnes of other creepy clown dolls moving about off camera and you only just see them settling down as Griffin shines his torchlight about. Ace stuff.
Of course, you don’t really think about the acting chops on offer when you sit down to watch a horror movie, but the original Poltergeist has a reputation of launching a cult actor/actress’ career and the remake has done very well to attract someone with the calibre of Rockwell to proceedings. It’s his weight to the stressed dad who breaks down that earn him a tick in the win column. He and Dewitt have the entire modern family weight on their shoulders throughout and their interactions over the family maxing out their credit cards to get into a new house but he decided to give them a treat are meaningful, even if they’re not fully explored. Famed career actor Jared Harris (The Boxtrolls) is more miss than hit putting on a dodgy Oirish accent and Sharbino struggles to get out of first gear with a teenager “Oh no my life is over” dilemma. The younger kids are far better with Catlett going from a rage inducing cowardly and annoying shitheel to manning up in an euphoric moment of badassery and Clements is just too damn cute as Madison.
That’s not to say that the original’s cast doesn’t shine – in places. Nelson’s dad is extremely gung ho and his physical acting is a real highlight as he thinks with his actions and it feels very natural. His kid has been teleported to another dimension inside his house and he dutifully plays up the last resort, downtrodden man. He appears dishevelled and off colour as events carry on. I must be honest and hold my hands up to admitting I’ve not seen anything else he’s been in but I’ve been aware Nelson is a cult actor I guess. From this performance though, I can understand why he’s had a worthy career just from this opening star making showing. Considering the nature of a straight family shown here, everyone is superb in their roles, although I was not impressed by O’Rourke. Whilst sure the classic delivery of “They’re here!” is legendary, she just comes across more as a porcelain doll who cares because she’s cute and innocent. Possibly the closest category to compare the two to be honest but I’m going to go for… the original. The Freelings may not be that engaging or relevant for a 2015 audience but they are few missteps in their performances and the factors I didn’t like are swiftly moved on.
I will admit, I struggled massively buying into one of the supposed “iconic” characters of horror cinema. The original is apparently famous for having the late Zelda Rubinstein (narrator of Scariest Places On Earth) as renowned psychic Tangina Barrons and her debut does not help settle the tone of a deliberately confusing comedic eye to proceedings. I realise her dwarfism and distorted voice would leave a lasting imprint on some but I feel that there’s a forced comedic element to her because of her disabilities which is largely at odds with the usual straight-ness the film wants to be on. Also, I couldn’t help but feel that Carol Anne lacks that spark as a sympathetic little girl. I mean it feels forced just to show she is a caring little one and ohnoes she’s been taken away to a hellscape without seeing her shown to be a normal girl. However there is an amazing sense of family values and pulling together by the elder Freelings. Steve practically has a physical mental breakdown over the events and bullstrongs his way into solving the problem whilst Diane is willing to jump through a portal into the unknown to get her daughter back. It feels natural and everyone bonds over the events.
Still, I feel more inclined to award this category to the remake. A critique you can level at the original is that some of the Freelings are non-factors. Dana feels like she’s off-camera all the time and barely has any dialogue whilst Robbie gets booted off to Grandma’s after his incident with the tree. The Bowens on the other hand have something for everyone involved – for better or worse. Madison is far more sympathetic as the little girl and is shown to be playful, non-judgemental and carefree; in other words a far more developed character so I felt way more sad when she was taken away. Eric full on blubs when he’s begging Harris’ modern ghost hunter counterpart to Barrons, Carrigan Burke, who dutifully goes above and beyond his trash TV calling to save the day. They are not without problems – I don’t like the bigger role given to the son Griffin who has a forced coward’s redemption story arc which takes away from other, more suitable characters doing more important things (i.e. Amy just mopes about asking for Madison) and Kendra barely goes beyond teenager who hates her life. In the end though, it’s all far, far more than what the Freelings are on screen.
Whilst the remake of Poltergeist is far away from being the worst reimaging of a film I have ever seen (it holds up pretty well actually, even with it’s faults), it’s not a patch on the original version. My preference of the family nonwithstanding, a rushed 90 minutes feels like cutting it’s legs off as there is key moments of development not there and you feel you’re not getting a full picture or exploration of the concept. The moments of horror and fright in the original are still miles better than anything in the 2015 redo can offer, although the acting and characters offer close battles. In the end, the original Poltergeist stands up very well today as a classic horror film still, although the remake does hold merit in a pleasant surprise viewing.
What did you guys think? Have I just blasphemed at the mention of the remake doing well? Or is there elements to you that it outdoes over the original? Let us know in the comments below!