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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Poltergeist  (2015)
2½ Stars
Directed by Gil Kenan.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements, Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Jared Harris, Nicholas Braun, Susan Heyward, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow.
2015 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 21, 2015.
When the Tobe Hooper-directed, Steven Spielberg-written-and-produced "Poltergeist" scared its way into theaters in the summer of 1982, it quickly became the quintessential blueprint for all suburban haunted-house movies to follow and an offspring of the kind of serious cinematic summertime thrills and chills Spielberg brought to 1975's "Jaws." Three-plus decades later, it still holds up spectacularly well, the key to its success not only in its power to creep the viewer out, but in its perceptive and sympathetic portrayal of an everyday nuclear family. The "Poltergeist" reboot, as it has been labeled by the filmmakers and marketing department, is really just a remake, and pretty much a faithful one at that. When a film relies so heavily on the story beats of the original version, it is difficult to carve out a place for itself without constantly inviting comparison. This "Poltergeist," then, never quite escapes from the shadow of its predecessor, but gets a lot of mileage out of Gil Kenan's (2006's "Monster House") polished direction and the sheer likeability of his cast.

The Bowen family—parents Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and children Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and Madison (Kennedi Clements)—have just moved into a slightly run-down single-family home on the opposite side of town. With Amy a stay-at-home mom trying to kickstart a writing career and Eric unemployed for too long after an untimely layoff, they have had no choice but to downsize their way of life. Their struggles with credit card debt and providing for their kids soon become the least of their worries when 6-year-old Maddie suddenly goes missing and reappears as a voice through the static of their television screen. Faced with circumstances so wild they don't dare go to the authorities, the family instead seek the help of Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), a parapsychologist who informs them they are dealing with dangerous poltergeist activity. As it turns out, the Bowens' home was built years ago atop a cemetery; while the headstones were relocated prior to the construction, the bodies were left behind.

At 93 minutes, "Poltergeist" feels a little rushed and would have benefitted had the characters been given more time to settle into their roles and their day-to-day struggle under the thumb of a recession. This hurried feel calls attention to itself precisely because the Bowen clan's plight is so instantly involving. The non-horror scenes are some of the film's most effective, a study of financially strapped parents under mounting stress who are trying to do their best and not always succeeding. As parents Eric and Amy, Sam Rockwell (2013's "The Way Way Back") and Rosemarie DeWitt (2014's "Men, Women & Children") elevate the material, playing exceptionally well off each other and giving their relationship enough nuances to seem very much real. As cell-obsessed teenage daughter Kendra, Saxon Sharbino gets a few nice moments to show the different sides of a girl who cares about her family, but is nonetheless having a tough time readjusting to a less privileged existence than the one she too long has taken for granted. Kennedi Clements is suitably precocious as the imperiled Madison, but cannot compete with the late Heather O'Rourke, who was so uniquely special as young Carol Anne in the earlier picture. Perhaps the most notable of the siblings is sensitive middle child Griffin, who blames himself for Maddie's supernatural abduction and must overcome his plethora of worries and fears in order to save her. Kyle Catlett is a disarming find as Griffin. Together, these five performers make up what feels like a genuine and sincere family unit, the sort that could be easily transplanted into a straight drama and still be worth following.

The screenplay, penned by David Lindsay-Abaire (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful"), straddles the line between relying too heavily on most of the key moments from the 1982 feature and putting just enough of a spin on them that they aren't simply lazy rehashes. In lieu of having a horrifying stuffed clown propped up for no sane reason in a chair at the foot of his bed, Griffin finds a whole box of clowns left in his attic bedroom's crawlspace. The use of a red pull-string nose on one of the paint-faced nightmares is a creepy little touch. Likewise, the foreboding old tree at Griffin's window isn't milked for quite the suspense that it was for young Robbie in the earlier "Poltergeist," but the payoff is a knockout as its twisted branches stalk him around the house. With the restless specters hoping to use Maddie as a conduit to lead them from out of purgatory and into the light, the "other side" is auspiciously imagined via some slick effects work as a dark, ghoulish place where the screaming souls of the dead resemble a particularly unsettling Hieronymus Bosch painting. These sequences could have looked tacky without the right touch and artistry involved, but fortunately come off appearing rather cool.

As appealing as the ensemble are in "Poltergeist"—and this extends to Jane Adams (2009's "Lifelines"), a standout as the quirky, compassionate Dr. Brooke Powell, and to Jared Harris (2014's "The Quiet Ones"), despite his reality show ghost hunter Carrigan Burke being no match for Zelda Rubinstein's Tangina—the film could have still used a touch more personality in reimagining a story as familiar as this one. Director Gil Kenan brings a sense of style and innocence to his mise en scéne, the latter attribute persuasively contrasted to the harsh socioeconomic realities of the Bowens' here and now. With more time to fine-tune the script and less alleged studio interference, however, his vision might have more significantly thrived. As is, there is the sneaking suspicion that he would have preferred more breathing room for his characters in between the haunted happenings, and that the finished film would have been better for it, too. Inferior though this twenty-first century rendition is, "Poltergeist" is a respectable thriller when judged on its own merits, shot with a glossily dynamic sheen by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (2013's "Warm Bodies") and handsomely scored by composer Marc Streitenfeld (2012's "Prometheus"). Without an ounce of blood in sight, the picture does nothing if not pay rapt tribute to the classic spookfest that came before it, a macabre all-audiences entertainment that thrived on old-fashioned tension over cynicism and violence.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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