MAY 22, 2015
GENRE: HAUNTED HOUSE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
I've noted before that Poltergeist II: The Other Side was the first horror movie I ever saw in theaters, and thus it's very likely that the original Poltergeist was the first horror movie I saw, period (why would my mom take me to a sequel if I hadn't seen the original, especially if I was obviously kind of young for that stuff?). That said, it doesn't hold TOO much of a nostalgic grip on my heart - I quite like it, but I don't watch it over and over nor do I even consider it one of my 10 (20?) favorite horror films or anything like that. Just because it obviously played a big role in my horror fandom (and also made me afraid of clowns for a while there) doesn't mean I hold it sacred, and thus I went into the remake with an open mind.
It didn't take long for that optimism to fade, however. The impressive cast is unfortunately left to flounder by the painfully by-the-numbers script and unenthusiastic direction, turning in one of the more lifeless big-budget horror remakes I've seen in quite some time. I think I have to go back to the Platinum Dunes Nightmare on Elm Street to find a film with THIS much potential and THIS much talent (and, of course, THIS much money) all going toward a film where absolutely no one seems to really give a shit about anything that's on screen. I'd almost rather it was nigh on unwatchable and riddled with awful storytelling, acting, FX, etc - it would at least be MEMORABLE. This was so rote I had to go off to the little walkway into the theater (where I could still see the screen but no one could see me) to take notes on my phone, because I knew that if I waited until I wrote the review hours later, or even until I got into my car, I'd forget just about everything I had just seen.
Let's get the good out of the way, because it'll be quick. As I said, the cast is great. Even a hack like Gil Kenan is incapable of making Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt anything less than the most charming and likable people you're likely to meet, and they do a fine job recreating that easy, lived-in chemistry that Craig The Nelson and JoBeth Williams had in the original. The kids are also good, and Jared Harris is always a pleasure so casting him as Tangina, essentially, was an inspired choice. And while the script plods along using the original as a guide every step of the way, there's a scene that seems to be paying homage to the sequels, with a garage based attack (a la the first sequel's climax) involving a hand coming out of a puddle in the cement (like Poltergeist III). And Rockwell drinks from a bottle and spits up some worms (hallucination scene), in what HAS to be a callback to II's most famous scare. Not that I particularly love those movies and was overjoyed to see them referenced, but I like the idea of giving them a nod anyway. Also, they didn't give anyone the same names - the family dynamic is exactly the same (two daughters, one son as the middle child) but it's not the Freelings (it's the Bowens) and the first names don't match either.
But that'd mean more if they weren't doing the exact same things in the exact same order. The oldest daughter plays more of a role here than the original Dominique Dunne character, but otherwise every single beat is pretty much the same until the final 15 minutes. The tree, the clown, the TV (static instead of snow), the youngest disappearing, the frazzled, sleep deprived visit to the paranormal team... it's all there, with no real diversions of note. It's not a word for word copy like Psycho, but it might as well have been, because at least then we could just settle into their groove in some way. Instead, they will continually offer new wrinkles or ideas, only for the end result to just be whatever happened in Tobe Hooper's movie. It's like, if Hooper was at point A and took a right then a left to reach point B, Gil Kenan would go straight and then take a right - they'd both be at the same spot, so what does it matter what path they took? I kept hoping for a major change, like they were trying to trick us by being familiar only to throw a major curveball (kill off one of the characters, perhaps), but no. The ending is a bit different but in a way that means nothing unless there's a sequel, which I hope there isn't.
The script also feels like the end result of two different approaches, which, like the Nightmare remake (and also The Fog), renders some plot points completely baffling. For example, the dad isn't in real estate this time, he's a recently laid off exec from John Deere, and moved to the house not because it was part of his company, but because they could afford it. Ignoring the idea that a family led by two people who don't work (she's a stay at home mom) are somehow "reduced" to buying a two story home in the suburbs (they throw some power lines up to make it look like a crappy neighborhood, but it's actually really nice and probably a lot better than most audience members can afford), we still have to wonder, then, why does the poltergeist fixate on them? It's the same plot as before - the housing development was built over a cemetery where the graves were left intact while the tombstones were relocated - but without that connection that Nelson's character had to (flimsily) explain why they specifically were being targeted, I spent the whole movie wondering why none of their neighbors were being harassed. There's some hint that the power lines are involved in the freaky occurrences, but their house isn't even the closest one to them, not by a long shot. For the majority of the film, Kenan ignores the existence of the neighbors entirely to avoid explaining this potential plot hole, but then when their house explodes (it's not a spoiler, it happened in the original and I've been perfectly clear that this movie does nothing different) you see cars in every driveway and even a few neighbors in the street watching.
There are also some new touches that add absolutely nothing, like an alarm system that they spend an inordinate amount of time establishing considering there's no payoff. The oldest daughter's cell phone gets fried (presumably from the ghost, we don't actually see it) and Rockwell buys her a new one, and that's that. And Harris' character is a lame TV show host, but he never even tries to use the family's plight for his show (Rockwell says something like "I told him he can't film", but since Harris never brought it up, it carries no weight). It's like half the people calling the shots on this thing wanted it to be identical, and the other half wanted to carve their own path and really modernize it, and Kenan just said yes to both parties, so you have all these potential new ideas to explore getting lip service before the film gets back on the 33 year old track established by the original. It got to the point where I was happy to see some CGI FX because at least it was something that they couldn't be copying from Hooper for a few minutes.
And that's the other odd thing - there are simply no scares in this movie. The clown doll probably would have worked if it wasn't shown in every trailer, and even if it still did it's kind of pathetic that it would be the highlight by far. The tree is less terrifying than the one from Harry Potter, and once Carol Anne, er, Maddie, gets taken they don't even really try for anything else that might jolt an audience (getting under our skin or offering legit suspense, at this point, would be expecting far too much from this enterprise). This is the 2nd major horror release in a row after Unfriended that is bizarrely lacking in even generic terror - it's not that the scares don't work so much as they simply aren't THERE. It certainly FEELS like a horror movie, but Kenan and the writers forgot to add those actual elements; even when copying Hooper it never approaches any semblance of fear or terror. I got more worked up during the trailers for other genre films (Insidious 3 and Crimson Peak) than I did throughout this entire thing, which is embarrassing considering how easy a sucker I am for family horror now that I have a kid (whose birthday is today!). I felt my pulse rise a tad when Maddie comes back unconscious from the other side, but that's about it - and that's like 75 minutes into the movie or whatever. Little late to start pumping the audience's adrenaline, wouldn't you say?
But the cast! It's a testament to all of them, particularly Rockwell, that the movie is even watchable at all. Sure, his droll one-liners are less amusing when his daughter is missing, but he's still making the most of a thankless role and never once acting like it's beneath his talents, which it most certainly is. Ditto DeWitt, who gets even less to do - there's a halfhearted attempt to make the son the center of the movie this time, but with everyone hellbent on copying the movie where he was NOT the main focus, it doesn't really work. But it still keeps mom from diving into the closet to rescue her daughter, which means DeWitt never gets a big moment (there's no pool either; the alternate Kenan offers is the movie's low point, for sure). There should be some sort of law against casting actors this good in a crummy movie like this and not even giving them a big hero moment to make up for the rest of the crap they had to walk through. I hope they were paid well, at least.
What say you?