The scariest moment in Poltergeist happens before the film has begun, as the newly amended MGM logo fades up and is disrupted by digital static before reaching completion. It’s a pre-film jolt that demonstrates how the corporate visage is malleable and capable of being made a part of the film, as if its entirety, credits and all, is spooked; unfortunately, this gesture is ultimately false, since this remake of Tobe Hooper’s 1982 original turns out to be simply a flex of decrepit muscle, seemingly dug up and animated as if out of rote obligation and in pursuit of blank nostalgia, rather than thorough and contemplative reimagining. Much like the hauntings within the film, director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire have relocated the headstones of their purportedly revisionist graveyard without actually unearthing the bodies.
The wee-hours white noise of the television in the original film has been replaced by digital technologies, where the newly digitized static presents a series of reds, greens, and blues before pulling out of a screen to reveal the colors as the inner-mechanisms of a handheld tablet, on which Griffin (Kyle Catlett) plays a video game. However, as a tone-setter for the electric mayhem set to ensue, this revision is a predictable bore; compared to the opening of this year’s Blackhat, it’s child’s play. Griffin’s parents, Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) and Eric (Sam Rockwell), are opting for a smaller home following Eric’s firing from John Deere; Amy is hoping to use the new home as a space to become a writer. Older daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) remains buried in her iPhone for much of the film, while little Maddy (Kennedi Clements) enjoys screeching the curse words her older siblings utter to one another.
While the characterizations are comprehensive placeholders, leaning for purchase on callbacks to the original cast, this film’s initial interest in economic hardship is promising, as Eric is so strapped for cash that it takes three attempts to make a purchase with a credit card at a local hardware store. Moreover, when buying their new home, the couple is told there’s “wiggle room” on the price since there have been so many foreclosures in the neighborhood. These are welcome interventions, since the original was less concerned with finances than family values, as the middle-class clan must learn to not let technology divide them; the film culminates in the family’s final gesture, where the TV of their motel room is hurled onto the balcony. Yet despite the inciting credit crunch of Kenan’s update, the potential horrors of downward mobility give way to the cynicisms of corporate manufacture, as Poltergeist degenerates into a stock series of scares, some seeking to capitalize on the 3D format, others blatantly riffing on the terrors of recent horror franchises like Paranormal Activity and Insidious.
That’s especially so in the second half, once parapsychologists Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) arrive to dispense of the presence; Zelda Rubenstein’s line, “This house is clean,” from the original, has been turned into a reality-TV catchphrase for Burke, whose show Kendra knows only by way of celebrity crush. Near the film’s end, Kendra pleads for him to spout the line so she can record and send it to her friend, who will surely “freak.” Prior to this, the on-screen glut of CGI goo is impressive only if one is taken by how little imagination or ingenuity the film wrings from an eight-figure budget.
Few remakes have been as worthy as Poltergeist for invoking Jacques Derrida’s notion of hauntology, where the present attains meaning through a superficial orientation to the past, caused by an infatuation with its ghostly presence. The notion charts three levels in Kenan’s remake: the reclaiming of a desecrated burial ground, the imbued nostalgia for the original film, but more broadly, the studio’s insistence that the past is the sole cause for renewed capital, such that it doesn’t matter if this remake plays straightforwardly as a foregone conclusion, as an abject refurbishment trading on the sugar rush of its promised, pop-culture high. Everything has been calibrated for maximal vanilla, from the placid jump scares, to the dime-a-dozen clown dolls, to the refusal to carry out a sincere, pointed offering on the truly crippling pain and shame that accompanies being unable to care for one’s family in a manner that was once attainable. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a pat on the back accompanied by a slap in the face.