Saturday, September 12, 2015

Catching Up: "Poltergeist" (2015)

 1 / 5 

The 1982 mini-classic Poltergeist opened with an extreme close-up of a television screen as a channel signed off for the night and the picture faded into noisy snow.  The ghosts in Poltergeist used this video snow as a way to communicate between the spirit world and the real world, and they latched on to a little girl named Carol Anne, who they wanted to help lead them out of purgatory.

It was a convoluted story, but it worked because of the skill of its filmmakers (the director, at least minimally, was Tobe Hooper, but it was executive producer Steven Spielberg whose creative fingerprints were all over the film, released just a week before E.T. the Extra-Terresrial.  The two movies were bookends that offered a fantastical look at just what secrets and oddities lurked behind the normalcy of American tract homes.

The 32-years-on remake of Poltergeist (thankfully, no one has touched E.T. ... yet) also begins on an extreme close-up of a video screen.  It's not because the ghosts are going to use this particular screen as their point of entry. In fact, the video screen seen in the first shot of this movie never factors into the story again.

The filmmakers do it because the original movie did it.  All throughout the 93 execrable minutes of Poltergeist, elements from the first movie keep reappearing, no matter how little sense they make.  There's a malevolent clown doll, for instance. But what 10-year-old boy owns a creepy clown doll?  None.  So the filmmakers have to figure out a way to bring that into their version.  There's a big tree outside of the house, too, because there was a big tree in the first film.  Yes, it attacks.  No, it's not scary or creepy or even (as in the first film) lyrically malicious.

And when it attacks, during a freak storm, little Carol Anne -- here renamed Maddie, because, well, I don't know -- will go into the closet, which has already been set up as a spooky place.  If she didn't go into the closet, there would be no movie, since the filmmakers behind this version of Poltergeist can't really do anything different or unique, except make inexplicable changes like renaming Carol Anne Maddie.  So, yeah, back to the closet.

Poltergeist a lumbering, gloomy movie, resembling the first one in the way a paint-by-numbers kit resembles the Sistine Chapel.  There's some vague sense that maybe they're trying to replicate the original by copying it, but they're using cheap dime-store paint and the colors aren't even right.

There's none of the spark of the original.  The family is angry and sullen, dad is an unemployed wimp, mom is a non-entity, the little boy is neurotic, Carol Anne/Maddie is a forgettable plot device.  The silliness of having a little tiny psychic with a beehive hairdo figure everything out is replaced with a middle-aged British reality TV loony wearing a porkpie hat.  I don't know who thought these were the changes that needed to be made to update Poltergeist into the 21st century, but the changes stink.  They're listless, lazy ideas that suck the life right out of the underlying concept.

Back in 1982, Poltergeist was a romp, a blend of comedy, horror and over-the-top visual effects, tied together with appealing actors and a memorable Jerry Goldsmith score.

The new Poltergeist just proves that you can't go back again. It's a tired, bitter, strangely angry movie (dad is unemployed, the house is no longer a gleaming tract home but a run-down, slightly squalid place) that proves just how rampant cynicism is in Hollywood.  Poltergeist has had every trace of fun removed from it.  Every time the movie's score hints just slightly at a few notes of Goldsmith's theme, every time Rosemarie DeWitt as the mom repeats one of Jobeth Williams' lines, every time the movie tries to offer a knowing nod at the first film, everything just feels even worse.

Poltergeist is the cinematic equivalent of that dirty, stained-up Spider-Man on Hollywood Boulevard. He's just a pudgy, grungy, odor-filled copy of the original, and by trying to imitate the original he's just embarrassing everyone.

Viewed Sept. 7, 2015 -- Virgin Atlantic

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