‘Poltergeist’ might have been a winner had it not already been done 30 years ago

Do you really really want to do a remake of a movie that has become a classic of its genre and has the stamp of Steven Spielberg on it?

Well, producer Sam Raimi — who has his hand on classic horror via his directing efforts of “The Evil Dead,” “Evil Dead II” and “Army of Darkness” — and director Gil Kenan (“Monster House”) believed they could pull it off. Thus, the latest “Poltergeist.”

One of the challenges of remakes these days is that it is easy to access the original movie, view it and do an almost scene-by-scene comparison between the two films. Even those who were not yet born when the first “Poltergeist” came out in 1982 likely have seen it, probably more than once.

At the time, Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay for the original that in turn was directed by Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame, was at his peak, with a run that included his directorial efforts in “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” Aside from blueprinting the action in these phenomenally successful movies, Spielberg was a master at creating interaction among the characters that made us care about them. Sadly, this enhancement is missing in the “Poltergeist” remake.

The story in both “Poltergeists” is virtually the same. A family — husband, wife, a teen daughter and a pre-adolescent son and daughter — go through terror when their home, built upon an old cemetery, is besieged by restless spirits of people who had been buried there, and the youngest daughter is taken captive be these entities.

The remake screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his “Rabbit Hole,” does not glide into the story like Spielberg’s script. In the original story, the Freelings — Steven and Diane and children Dana, Robbie and Carol Ann — have been living in their home for several years before things start getting strange. There is a gradual increase in incidents that start after Carol Ann is seen talking to “TV people” apparently communicating via channels that have stopped broadcasting for the night (that does not happen any more). These spirits at first seem to have a sense of humor — stacking chairs on the dining table, getting the dog to fetch its toys, bending utensils.

But then the closet in the kids’ bedroom opens up and becomes a portal to another spiritual plane, snatching Carol Ann, and the spooky, threatening old tree outside turns into a malevolent version of Groot, grabbing Robbie.

In the 2015 version, the Bowens — Eric and Amy (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt), teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and youngest daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements) — have just moved into a house in a downsizing because Eric has been laid off and Amy is a writer with an unfinished book. There is a creepy weeping willow next to the house, and the top floor of the residence is essentially an attic bedroom, where the psychologically fragile Griffin must sleep.

Strange things start happening almost immediately, depriving us of the little pre-haunting gems that made the original so memorable — the bedroom conversations between the Steven and Diane while sharing a joint, dealing with Carol Ann’s dead pet bird (there are no pets in the remake), and the TV remote war between Steven and his neighbor Ben.

The remake certainly has all the latest technology. Kendra chats with friends on her computer while Dana in the original had to use a land line telephone. There is no sign of any “Star Wars” products in the Bowen house, but Griffin has a toy drone. And the TV from which little Madison talks with the spirits is a wide, flat-screen, not the bulky analog models of yesteryear. And now there are all sorts of mobile devices the spirits can mess with beyond just the TVs and lights.

And there is the closet in Madison’s room that while it does not suck the little girl into the next plane, does lure her in. And the tree, yep, it acts up too. Then there are the clown dolls — don’t ask.

Another disadvantage plaguing the remake is that the spiritual expert brought in to help rescue Madison is not the memorable Tangina, played with ethereal delight by the late Zelda Rubinstein. In her place is an updated version, a reality TC superstar ghost expert named Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris, most recently featured in “The Quiet Ones”). Burke does use the declaration “This house is clean,” as his triumphant claim in his TV show as he once again sends the spirits on their way. But face it, Harris, looking very much like a scholarly individual, cannot compete with the diminutive yet striking presence of Tangina as she tours the house and says, “You all want to hang back? You’re jamming my frequencies.”

The actors do what they can with a script focused more on the action than characterization. Rockwell seems almost detached in trying to play a father, and DeWitt hardly gets a chance to shine like JoBeth Williams did both physically and emotionally as Diane Freeling — what viewer does not feel a lump in their throat when Diane proclaims that Carol Ann “went through my soul”? In addition, Williams and Craig T. Nelson as Steven had great chemistry together.

The young actors also get shortchanged. Kendra will fall into the abyss of the typical social media savvy teenager, unlike her counterpart Dana (Dominique Dunne, who was tragically murdered by an ex-boyfriend the year “Poltergeist” came out), who always was eating something and had a moment to flip obscene gestures at the pool diggers flirting with her. Interestingly, the Griffin character actually gets to do more than his counterpart Robbie, who was so traumatized he had to be shipped off to his grandparents house. And Madison, no matter how cute, will never upstage little Carol Ann, played by Heather O’Rourke, who died at the age of 12 of intestinal stenosis.

So, is this new “Poltergeist” scary? It could have been, had the story not been told so effectively 30 years ago. One element that is necessary in haunting stories is the shattering of security people feel in their homes. In the original, the Freelings had been settled in for years. This was their home, now being rendered a dangerous place. In the remake, a sense of alienation exists between the Bowens and this new home. This is not their home and the feeling of security already is tenuous.

The usual scare tactics are employed for the quick, cheap thrills, but that is about it. As one disenchanted viewer noted, when the scariest moments in “Poltergeist” circa 2015 involve a squirrel, the movie has come up way short.

 

Guilty pleasure on Netflix

Browsing on Netflix the other day and came upon a 2014 movie titled “Zombeavers.” No doubt about it, this little film was going to be ridiculous.

Directed by Jordan Rubin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Al Kaplan and Jon Kaplan, this is a throwback to the 1970-80 era of the teen horror flick, and it appears these three fellows decided to laugh at themselves throughout.

Three college sorority sister women — Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Cortney Palm) and Jenn (Lexi Atkins) go on a girls-only weekend trip to a cabin in the woods owned by Mary’s relatives. Mary, who seems to be in charge of the trip, deems that there will be no men, and definitely no mobile devices.

Prior to their arrival, a canister containing some toxic waster bounces off a truck and rolls into the nearby lake, getting snagged at a beaver damn and punctured, spewing the chemical.

Mary’s plan to have a men-free weekend disintegrates when the three boyfriends, spoiling for sex romps, crash the party. There is a side story about Mary having a fling with Zoe’s boyfriend, but that soon gets pushed aside when mutant beavers first attack the young people in the lake and soon invade the cabin.

The male stars, Hutch Dano (grandson of Royal Dano), Jake Weary and Peter Gilroy, wear their desires on their sleeves and get to make all kinds of sexual remarks, a lot of it gross and graphic.

“Zombeavers” is a comical nod to those horror flicks of yesteryear featuring attractive young actors, silly dialogue, gore and gratuitous nudity.

The zombified beavers look mechanical, but the FX of the gore is pretty good.

In all, “Zombeavers” is good for a few laughs.

 

 

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