Mostly a cautionary tale about the necessity of seller’s disclosures when purchasing an older home, Gil Kenan’s new take on the “Poltergeist” mythos borrows liberally from the classic Tobe Hooper film to revisit the story of a family, a house, and the closet-set portal that upends their lives, with limited results. Although the horror offering puts a nice twist on the family dynamics at play and adding in a backstory that helps frame the entire narrative, the feature eventually dissolves into shoddy CGI and a flaccid third act that comes up short not only when it’s compared to the original feature, but the genre in general. There are some chills to be had here, but they taper out exactly when the action should really be ratcheting up, and the film’s tension burns out so quickly that it might as well have been sucked into an inter-dimensional portal of its own.
Forced to downsize after a string of bad economic luck, the Bowen family decamps to an older home in a modest neighborhood, blissfully unaware that the empty abode might harbor some serious secrets. The film’s only son, Griffin (Kyle Catlett), immediately picks up on the home’s weirdo energy, and his perspective is soon translated by way of plenty of shots of him staring at seemingly innocuous spaces and objects. Classified as a “nervous” kid–parents Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) even toy with the option of sending him to a therapist to help battle his general sense of anxiety–Griffin serves as our entry point for the first half of the film. When the strange stuff happens, Griffin is the one who sees it, from the terrifyingly agile clown toys that pitter-patter around his room to a stack of comic books that magically rise in order to impede him from getting out of his little sister’s room, a storytelling choice that works quite well.
That’s not to say that baby sister Madison (Kennedi Clements) doesn’t see this stuff, too, she just seems to enjoy it. While Griffin is understandably freaked out, little Maddie revels in it, and she’s soon spending her time talking to her “new friends” that may live in her closet (that damn closet) or the television set or the ground outside or a million other places. For the film’s first act, David Lindsay-Abaire’s script and Kenan’s tone walk a compelling line, with the kids growing ever more freaked out by their creepy new house, while both Eric and Amy are more preoccupied with seemingly more pressing matters, like how they’re going to pay for the stupid thing anyway.
“Poltergeist” isn’t a film for kids, but it’s about kids, and the tension between adult concerns, the tangible kind that exist in the real world (like bills and unemployment and a house that’s far from dreamy), and what the little ones see and feel has always been a large part of what makes the horror series so uniquely relatable and fresh. Kenan, Lindsay-Abaire, and the cast nail it, and the film starts out surprisingly strong, with a slightly skewed new point of view that makes the whole “remake, reboot, revision” machine not seem so very broken. (And kudos to the film’s casting department for putting together a family that really looks like a family–Catlett in particular looks so much like DeWitt that it’s hard to believe they’re not actually related.)
The normal horror tropes are all accounted for here, lots of jump scares and weird sounds, plenty of blinking lights and the feeling that something bad is lurking around every corner, even a bent spoon or two. Kenan even attempts a spin on the iconic glowing television scene, with young Maddie making contact with her new pals through a flatscreen while a terrified Griffin looks on, and although it’s a perfectly serviceable sequence, it suffers simply because it’s not nearly as skin-crawlingly horrific as the original. Lindsay-Abaire has injected a nice splash of modernity to the picture that’s mostly unobtrusive–a sequence involving one of the Bowens using a new iPhone to find the source of a weird electronic interruption works spectacularly well, though a long subplot involving the use of a drone kitted out with a camera is far less successful–and the film has been pulled into a contemporary setting in a clean, unfussy manner.
The sense of unease–and the nefarious spirit-crafted hijinks–come to a head on an appropriately stormy evening when the elder Bowens are out of the house (funnily enough, to attend a party where the rest of the guests blithely mention that their new residence was built on top of a cemetery, oops) and oldest sister Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) is tasked with attending to the little ones. Griffin is already unhinged and Maddie is getting weirder by the day, but as the rain rages around the new Bowen house, everything finally comes to a head and the eldest Bowen kids are distracted by mostly bad CGI (and the spirits, too, probably) long enough for Maddie to be sucked into a parallel world.
The rest of the film is spent trying to get her back, thanks to the skills of a local university’s paranormal studies department (which, inexplicably, includes a character who doesn’t seem to care about the paranormal in the slightest) and a cable television star known for cleaning houses of evil spirits. As famous investigator Carrigan Burke, Jared Harris adds significant gravitas to the film, but he’s no Tangina Barrons and he’s not around nearly long enough to put his own bite into the material.
There’s little question that something is going on, something ghostly and otherworldly, a choice that dilutes the film’s tension something fierce, with the second and third acts stretching out with few scares and even less power. The palpable pressure of the film’s stellar first act is deflated the second Maddie goes missing, precisely when “Poltergeist” should be going whole-hog (or, in the case of this new version, whole pig unicorn, one of the Bowen toys that helps the spirits capture young Maddie, in a nice touch). The rest of the film is an ectoplasm-covered slog to the end, with increasingly worse CGI robbing the film of any practical charms and an adherence to the original storyline keeping questions at bay. Even a last-minute gotcha sequence feels like a sad attempt to pull its viewership back in, not a fresh attempt to leave them with something new to chill them. [C+]