‘Poltergeist’ (2015) movie review: Sam Rockwell in remake of the horror classic

Creepy tree with long dangly branches blowing in the wind? Check.

Evil closet that tries to suck innocent family inside of it? Check.

“They’re heeeeeeeere.” Yup. 

2015’s Poltergeist plays like a highlight reel of the 1982 original, sufficiently re-creating its scare scenes (and shaving off 20 minutes in the process) without ever coming across as a fully-developed feature film. 

I’ll give it this: director Gil Kenan has a keen eye for spatial awareness and shot composition, and we have a great feel for the haunted house where 90% of the movie takes place. Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera slowly and eerily traces over the location for most of the film, giving us an unusually vivid sense of atmosphere, meaning the (relatively few) Boo! moments have maximum effect. 

There are also a number of good performances here, led by Sam Rockwell as the husband and father of three who is struggling to find a job and support his family – and then has to deal with supernatural forces in his new home that have kidnapped his youngest child. 

Both the character and Rockwell’s performance are better than any character work in the first Poltergeist – or any of the countless imitations that have littered the screen over the three decades since. We truly sympathize with Rockwell’s Eric Bowen over the course of the film. 

The supporting performances work, too: young Kyle Catlett, as the Bowen’s son, is especially effective as the put-upon middle child forced to bear the brunt of the scary stuff; his character is the lone one to have a tangible arc. Rosemarie Dewitt’s mother, and two daughters played by Saxon Sharbino and Kennedi Clements, are more thinly developed. 

In storytelling terms, however, this Poltergeist is a dud: the entire film is flat, playing one note from beginning to end with no building sense of dread or terror. The haunted house stuff goes from zero to sixty at around the 15-minute mark, and the characters merely dealt with it for the duration. 

While the original film had a more developed storyline relating to the house’s haunting – the ancient Indian burial ground stuff, “you moved the bodies, but not the graves!” – that’s all rattled off as backstory in this version. The reasons for the haunting feel almost perfunctory, and the only story arc involves the quest to get the youngest daughter back from her paranormal abductors. 

This was also a key point in the original 1982 film, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg, which was the springboard for countless haunted house imitations over the following years. 

2015’s Poltergeist, scripted by David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful), seems to owe a lot more to the Insidious films, which also surrounded the paranormal abduction of a child and a family’s fight to get them back.

Kenan does manage to deliver a few creepily effective scenes here: that clown doll is always scary, and a stuffed pig is also employed to great effect in one sequence. But while early sequences are more suggestive, the latter half of the film is completely in-your-face: the nail in the coffin is an army of CGI zombies that feel rejected from a House of the Dead-type video game (which, ironically, the son is seen playing in the film’s opening scene). 

Jane Adams and Jared Harris play paranormal investigators who are called in to investigate; the reasons the parents don’t call in the police here are laughably glossed over. The actors are fine, but these characters are utilized primarily for comic relief, and are a poor replacement for Zelda Rubinstein’s psychic in the original film.  

Last comparison between the original and this remake: Marc Streitenfeld’s wildly inconsistent score is no match for Jerry Goldsmith’s classic from the 1982 film. 

While this version of Poltergeist has its moments – and it’s a passable tour through a haunted house, if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing – it’s also completely redundant. Many remakes of classic films end up feeling unnecessary, but even if you’ve never seen the original, this one plays it so close to supernatural formula you’ll come away thinking you’ve seen it all before anyway.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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