Saturday, May 30, 2015

Poltergeist / ** (PG-13)

Eric Bowen: Sam Rockwell
Amy Bowen: Rosemarie DeWitt
Kendra Bowen: Saxon Sharbino
Griffin Bowen: Kyle Catlett
Madison Bowen: Kennedi Clements
Carrigan Burke: Jared Harris
Dr. Brooke Powell: Jane Adams
Boyd: Nicholas Braun
Sophie: Susan Heyward

20th Century Fox and MGM present a film directed by Gil Kenan. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the 1982 screenplay by Steven Spielberg. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense frightening images, brief suggestive material, and some language).

There are some who are calling the present period in cinematic history the Golden Age of Independent Horror. It is true that there have been a good deal of innovative horror films released over the past decade. We’ve seen the rise of Spanish and Korean horror masters, like Guillermo del Toro and Joon-ho Bong. “Saw” changed the horror landscape forever. The first “Paranormal Activity” was original and genuinely frightening. And even as recently as this year we’ve seen innovative horror films like “It Follows”. Perhaps, however, horror directors are getting a little full of themselves and are forgetting the basics of filmmaking as they apply to horror.

Gil Kenan has only directed three films. His first was a motion capture animated movie, the overlooked family oriented “Monster House”. His second was the non-horror, equally overlooked family film “City of Ember”. Now, he’s tackling more adult oriented horror in a family environment with the remake of the early eighties horror classic “Poltergeist”. Although, indie horror master Tobe Hopper directed the original “Poltergeist”, it was very much the child of its screenwriter, Steven Spielberg. In preparation of tackling something from Spielberg’s canon, Kenan seems to have spent a good deal of time studying the modern horror trends. It would’ve served him better to study a cinematic master like Spielberg than what some filmmakers today think is scary.

“Poltergeist” looks at a family dealing with living in a new house that appears to be haunted. Although, it is impossible not to compare this new version with the original, the changes to the details of this family’s situation make sense for an update of what is the same basic story from Spielberg’s screenplay. The Bowen’s are downsizing due to the fact that their patriarch, Eric, has been laid off work for some time. They’re moving into a neighborhood of cut and paste homes that were once a nice subdivision—not unlike the one featured in the original film— that has been devalued by the housing market crash. The mom, Amy, is a writer doubting her ability to carry the family finances with her next book. They have a teenage daughter filled with teenage rebellion, a boy still struggling with fears of the dark and a precocious younger daughter.

The difference between this family and the original’s is that the movie isn’t in love with their lives. How could it be? Their world isn’t the family perfection of the early eighties, where riches abound and the sky was the limit with new fangled family gadgets like remote controls. However, Spielberg’s story kind of depended on that perfection. His writing at the time was very fixated on his own childhood of dealing with his parents’ divorce. “Poltergeist” presented a family that overcompensated for his own and the resulting movie had a fascination with this subdivision life of riches provided by the dawning of a new decade. The family in this film is still solid, but they’ve been through the ringer.

That premise could’ve worked if Kenan didn’t seem to so urgently rush through writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay. The characters and setting are merely sketched out in broad outlines. Important details—such as the fact that the subdivision was located on an old cemetery that had been moved—are checked off as obvious exposition in scenes that have little to do with the story at large rather than being worked into natural conversation focused on the family dealing with their problems. The result is a film that is more interested in getting to the scares than in developing any sort of connection between audience and character.

Again, never straying far from the original plot, a team of ghost hunters is brought in. First, we meet a University based team lead by Dr. Brooke Powell, a woman who seems unsuited to such eccentric notions as ghosts and demons. She brings in the much more unconventional Carrigan Burke, the host of a reality-based ghost hunting show. Played by Jarred Harris—who seems to be carving his American film career out of horror eccentrics of late—the filmmakers are able to find some more original ways to inject humor into the story, while unfortunately insisting on referencing the original by repeating line readings pulled directly from Spielberg’s script.

I was always glad that the original did not take the audience into the world that the daughter is pulled into by the ghosts. I liked that we had to imagine it. It certainly didn’t surprise me that the filmmakers of this new one couldn’t resist taking their cameras into that netherworld. Restraint is an unknown word in today’s Hollywood. Surprisingly, this is one of the features that actually works in this version. The world behind the bones of the house, as it were, is quite creepy and effective for its purposes.

One area where today’s horror filmmakers do insist, however ineffectively, on showing restraint is in the film score. “Poltergeist” has me concerned that the art of the film score is dying. I suppose the thinking is that the score might distract from the “reality” being presented. That’s the only reason I can think of that no scenes without horror action contain any scoring. Has Kenan not learned that a key component to effective storytelling is contrast? The scoring of the horror elements isn’t nearly as effective without the scoring of the non-horror elements. Much of the film feels lifeless without any scoring behind it.

This new “Poltergeist” isn’t a bad movie. It just isn’t as good a movie as it could be. The original is a little dated by now, due to vast improvements in special effects in the past 30 years. And yet, it is a movie that feels like it’s trying to be the best all around movie it can, rather than just being an excuse to shock people with sudden clown attacks and loud noises. It’s time for today’s horror directors to attempt to make great movies, rather than just frightening ones. Some truly independent directors are still doing that. “Poltergeist” is not the complete movie that makes for one of those great horror flicks, though.

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