Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea a “Poltergeist” remake was coming. So it was just a coincidence that after a number of years, I popped the 1982 original into the DVD player. Obviously, the hope was for some real scares. Thirty-three years may have passed, but I still remember being impossibly young, sitting in that dark theater with my friends, and having a terrifying blast as vengeful American Indian spirits terrorized the Freeling family.
The original “Poltergeist” is no longer scary. Not even a little bit. What it is, though, is absolutely charming. The lack of frights did nothing to diminish the story’s entertainment value. You immediately fall in love with this family. The characters are all well-defined, including the supporting cast. And there are too many warm and funny moments between them to even begin to list.
“Poltergeist” (1982) is so much more than a haunted house movie. Producer/co-writer (and rumored director, though Tobe Hooper is credited) Steven Spielberg created a lovely slice-of-life filled with painstakingly perfect physical and relationship details that capture so well family and work life in 1980s suburbia.
This was one of Spielberg’s early and overlooked gifts. Go back and watch “Jaws,” (1975), “Close Encounters,” (1977) and “E.T.” (1982). Even at the time, I marveled at how well he recreated a recognizable family home. From the Jedi posters and R2D2 sheets to the clutter to the over-filled refrigerators, Spielberg remembered how real people live.
Spielberg liked real people, too. And for that reason we love and root for his Freeling family, even though what’s happening to them is no longer suspenseful. These are nice people. Normal people. A perfectly imperfect family dealing with a dickish boss, the jerk next store, the rebellious daughter. Because they are feeling their age, Mom (JoBeth Williams) and Dad (an absolutely perfect Craig T. Nelson) hide from the kids and smoke a joint while he humorously laments his growing spare tire. Poetic stuff.
With all their foibles and all their problems this is a functional and loving family, which is why (at least the first time you see the movie) the horror is so horrifying. And, not to belabor the point, why you can enjoy every moment even after the scares evaporate.
The cheap, rip-off artists behind this new remake either didn’t understand this or just didn’t give a damn. Spielberg brought horror into a lived-in but still bright and lovely suburban home. That is genius. The remake takes place in the suburbs but the home is dingy and dirty. And so is the family. Dad (Sam Rockwell, who needs a new agent) is unemployed, bitter and cynical. Mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a frustrated novelist.
This remake is noisy and full of cheap effects and cheap jump scares that don’t scare. If you like that kind of thing, by all means… The experience is also claustrophobic — all of it obviously taking place on a soundstage. And not a single moment between the family felt real.
The central premise makes no sense. We understood why, out of every family home in the subdivision, the spirits attacked Spielberg’s family. Dad was the realtor who sold the homes. He might not have known his development company lied about removing the bodies from the cemetery. Nonetheless, there’s a logic behind targeting the company’s top salesman. In the remake, no one in the family has anything to do with anything.
Why their house?
And no, a few dread-filled close-ups of a child’s stuffed animal does not answer the question.
In fairness, the question might have been answered after I passed out.
By the time the great Jared Harris (who needs to fire everyone) showed up to clean house, I was contemplating walking out. Harris plays a huckster who pretends to bust real ghosts on a popular reality show. The last thing I remember before falling fast asleep was his character’s sudden and completely contrived desire for redemption.
Sometime later I woke up. But just for a moment. There was a lot of noise and light and actors running from special effects they obviously couldn’t see.
The sudden quiet finally woke me up. The credits were rolling. The lights came up. Refreshed, I drove home.
P.S. The last time I feel asleep in a movie theater was at a 1983 QFM midnight showing of “Pink Floyd The Wall.” It was the hundredth time I’d seen it. I was drunk.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC