Over the years, remakes — especially horror remakes — have gained such a sour reputation that even the mere mention of the word is immediately followed by groans, sighs, and rolled eyes. Of course, the main problem with remakes is that we can’t help but compare them to the original works. The other problem is that hardly anything is capable of conquering that beast called nostalgia. We have endless discussions of “what’s wrong with the original?” and “is this even necessary?” with points and counterpoints so meticulous that the whole argument has become exhausting. But what if we took that element out? What if neither is “better”? In this series, my goal is to examine remakes as if they’re their own things entirely, and not waste time with comparisons. And, by doing so, hopefully I can encourage a broader appreciation for some of the more well-made remakes out there by spotlighting certain elements about them that maybe haven’t been considered. Welcome to Elbee Defends A Remake.
Today’s concentration is the 2015 version of Poltergeist, by Gil Kenan. Warning: I will be spoiling this all to hell.
Right off the bat, I have to say this one might be a little tough for me not to compare to the original film. I’ll start with some light background for me and 1982’s Poltergeist. I often credit Poltergeist as the first “scary movie” I remember seeing, and I couldn’t have been more than two or three years old when my dad rented it. I wouldn’t exactly label my dad as a “horror guy,” but he did live in a real life haunted house for several years, and he does own everything Stephen King has written, so I can say without any hesitation he was my introduction to horror. It was all supernatural, too; slashers and creatures and gore were mostly “meh” in my house, so it’s no surprise I love ghost stories as much as I do. I’m definitely not trying to say one subgenre of horror is “better” than any other, but ghost stories resonate with me because I feel like they contain a certain human element that may be missing in other types of horror pictures. Ghost stories are not only about us as people and how we interact with one another, but how we perceive ourselves and deal with our fears. We’re afraid of ghosts because they represent what we don’t know; if they’re not “real,” they’re a manifestation of our anxieties. Poltergeist perfectly mixes humanity and fear of the unknown, and it was films like it which made the most lasting impressions on me. They taught me at a young age how to fully appreciate good, in-depth storytelling.
So you can see I have a soft spot for 1982’s Poltergeist. But, over the years I have watched it so many times that I’ve been able to pick out exactly what I don’t like about it (don’t worry, I won’t be doing that here). When I heard the news it was to be remade, I was excited. While the masses were groaning, I was thinking, “this will be cool. I can’t wait to see how it’s updated!” And that’s what director Gil Kenan really wanted to do. He told Collider, “I wanted to make sure that a Poltergeist film could be told that actually loved and respected the films of the 1980s, what made them tick, what made them work, what made them have an engine and a soul. And I feel like modern audiences don’t have human stories that take fantastical leaps that aren’t superheroes anymore. It’s very rare to introduce fantasy or sort of genre elements into a grounded human setting.” I think Kenan is mostly right, and I think he mostly succeeded in crafting his film as both homage to an older type of filmmaking and as an entirely fresh, new entity. Some of us talk a lot about how “films aren’t like what they used to be,” and usually when that’s said, it’s a reference to ‘80s films and the work of (deep breath) Steven Spielberg (exhale). It’s a feeling we get that’s brought on by nostalgia, which I’m not dismissing because nostalgia does have a certain kind of validity. But it’s when we can’t look beyond that feeling and accept another take on the familiar that keeps us from learning and growing. In that same interview, Gil Kenan said “Great stories deserve to be told often,” which is honestly like a mic drop for this column. Nothing more really needs to be said to prove my point (like, ever), but I suppose I still need to explain just how special this 2015 version is.
(By the way, when I mentioned Spielberg just now, I am, for the record, fully aware Tobe Hooper was given credit for directing the 1982 Poltergeist; we need not discuss it any further.)
Now, from what I’ve seen, the major criticism of this film (besides the overuse of the word “unnecessary”) is that it seems like it was made for an audience of children. Star Sam Rockwell even joined the chorus poo-pooing it as a kids’ movie, told from the perspective of a ten-year old boy. While that’s kind of true, the film is much more complicated than what that statement would lead us to believe. There are themes throughout, both hidden and in plain sight, that make it appealing to adult audiences, but at the same time it maintains an air of spooky childhood adventure. This film is about the family unit, how parents and children function with each other, how a marriage can stay strong through adversity. It’s also about socioeconomic status and the recession, and how we’re all struggling to keep our families and lives together. And, through a slight focus on that ten-year old boy, it’s about how we can overthrow our fears and get a handle on our emotional well-being.
Eric and Amy Bowen are on the market for a new house. Eric has just been laid off, and they are having trouble finding a house in their price range. So when one suddenly becomes available, they decide to take it. It’s a big adjustment in general for them and their three children, but soon they discover they also must deal with a menacing, otherworldly presence.
The film begins with the Bowens meeting their realtor to check out their potential new home, so we’ll start there, too. Immediately we get a sense of the stress this family has been enduring, clearly the hassle of buying a home has put a strain on things. It’s hard buying a home, you know? Not only is there the stress of uncertainty — of worrying about where you are going to live, probably the most basic of human dilemmas — there are meetings and credit checks and inspections, and a ton of other annoying bureaucratic things that make us nervous. Many of us let that pressure get to us in disparaging ways, too; in some cases, a big, beautiful house is the ultimate status symbol, so when the harsh reality of our income ratio comes crashing in, we feel bad about ourselves for not being able to afford what we want. And while we might not externally “care” about such things, there’s often a hidden desire within us to possess them in order to feel satisfied. We can blame some of that bad feeling on the housing crisis, which we all know has hit Gen X and, more notably, Millennials pretty hard, because, obviously when the ratio of home prices to full-time earnings is roughly 10 to 1, not many of the younger generation are able to stake a claim to anything. Couple that with how Baby Boomers had it relatively easy to “climb the property ladder” in their lives, it’s a pressure cooker of social expectancy in which the older generation doesn’t understand their successors’ struggles, and the younger generation is tired of trying to explain themselves. The father in our story, Eric, has just been laid off (no doubt as a result of the US recession), forcing the family into a smaller, more economic home in an presumably less glamorous neighborhood. He hesitates when the realtor asks where he works (he answers “John Deere corporate, over in Moline”), skirting around his recent dismissal to save face for just a second (she replies, “That’s a wonderful company, we have a riding mower!”). No one is happy about having to leave their previous home, but it’s a disruption they just have to deal with. There’s an overall feeling of “settling” throughout this first portion of the film, which would be completely depressing if not for the Bowens’ slight optimism. They know this not the vision they had for themselves, but they love each other enough to try to make an effort. Amidst the cynical and general defeated nature of this set-up, there’s still a glimmer of hope.
Yet there’s a “back and forth” about that hope, which helps this film be so resonate. I want to focus on the parents here, because it’s their personal struggles that give the film its realism. To be clear, Eric and Amy’s marriage is never in question. Theirs is not a story of a husband and wife who bicker or resent each other, it’s a story of a husband and wife making sacrifices because they love and want what’s best for each other and their children. Like many of us, most of their burden is financial, again, with Eric losing his job and Amy choosing to take time off from her career to be a stay-at-home mom. Eric’s albatross is the age-old expectation for a man to be the breadwinner in his family, and while he’s out of work, he feels he’s letting everyone down. He’s tender and emasculated in a sense, and we can see that when he mistakenly thinks that buying everyone gifts will quell their unhappiness. Of course, he’s only doing the best he can think of in that moment, but we all know it’s a short term solution to a long term problem. He knows this deep down, too; as he’s paying for some of these items, the first credit card he tries is denied. “My wife said she might cancel one of the cards because we don’t need them all. I didn’t know she did it,” he tries to convince the cashier, embarrassed and lying about the card actually being maxed out. He’s giving in to the pressure of keeping up appearances, a theme that is repeated after the Bowens attend a dinner party.
Eric and Amy downplay their move to the other guests as the discussion turns to the old cemetery that used to be located on the grounds of their new home. It’s kind of macabre, with jokes like “It’s not like it was an ancient tribal burial ground,” and a dismissal of the importance of a stable final resting place. “People can still visit the graves,” one woman says, adding “now it’s in a nicer neighborhood.” Of course these jokes are in poor taste, but it shows us the classist and offensive nature of these socialites, and how they are completely unaware of the strife others may be experiencing (this is the kind of thing that strikes me in films, how the upper class pays no mind to those “below” them. Pretty much any film that realistically shows how rich people can be assholes, I’m all for). It doubles the pressure Eric is already feeling, because not only does he have to provide for his family, he thinks he has to provide enough to please these people, too. It’s depressing enough that most of us are struggling just to make ends meet, we shouldn’t be worried about what others (like dinner guests or store cashiers) think of us. Yet, like a lot of us, Eric still does.
Amy’s story is similar in that she has her own brand of what society expects from her. Like I said, Amy’s been at home for what we can assume is several years raising their kids. Up until now they’ve made it fine on Eric’s salary, but since his layoff, she’s been thinking about getting back into the workforce. She mentions at breakfast that she could take a retail job or something small to help tide them over in the meantime, but it seems there’s a plan in play here that we’re unaware of. Eric insists she still stay at home, not just for the kids, but for her writing. Ah yes, Amy is (or used to be, or is trying to be) a freelance writer. The impression I get from this scene is this is something they’ve talked about before: perhaps a past discussion of “when the kids are old enough to take care of themselves, I want to refocus on my writing because it’s something I’m passionate about,” and Eric is trying to support her in that. But Amy is now less than optimistic that she can start writing again anyway, behaving as if it was all some kind of pipe dream (back to the earlier scene with the realtor, Eric brags to her, “Amy’s an amazing writer. She’s humble right now, but she is.” Amy says, “I try to be, but it’s, you know, hard to find the time.”). What makes Amy so cool to me is that she is a stay-at-home mom. We live in a strange age post-women’s liberation, where society now expects women to have flashy full-time careers at the same time as being totally attentive, full-time moms. It’s an unreal image of a kind of uber-woman — working overtime, packing lunches and baking cookies, going to every Little League practice — and somehow we’re “less than” if we can’t live up to those expectations. What I think gets lost sometimes these days is that staying at home with one’s children is oftentimes a choice, and an admirable one at that. So when Amy offers to go back to work in a store somewhere and Eric insists she doesn’t, it’s him encouraging her to be faithful to her decision. Plus, he’s letting her know he’s in full support of her potential writing career — something altogether invaluable to creative types, is it not?
So, if there’s anything great to be said about the housing crisis, it’s the sense of family togetherness that can come with it. It’s an opportunity for couples and their children to rekindle a closeness, to join and support each other. That is absolutely the core of what I love about this film, and the main reason I’m having trouble not comparing it to 1982. It’s not that I don’t think the Freelings were especially close, but that story is dominated by Steven and Diane and their struggle to get Carol Anne back from the astral plane. What I mean is, in ‘82, Poltergeist is about parents alone working to save their daughter; by the time they’re telling Carol Anne to go into the light, they’ve sent their other children away. But 2015’s version has the whole family working as one unit to find and retrieve Maddy. And that’s how the ten-year old boy’s perspective gains its effectiveness.
Griffin is a scared little kid. He’s at the age when he’s beginning to learn how the world works and grow into his emotional self, and he’s got this general unease about him. Of course, it’s a common thing for children to be anxious; as they develop, their brains are trying to figure out which fears are based in reality and not (perhaps like “are there monsters under my bed?” versus “are my mom and dad going to split up?”), and sometimes those anxieties manifest in weird ways. So, Griffin frustrates his family a lot with what they perceive to be irrational fears (early on, a squirrel finds its way into Griffin’s attic bedroom, and there’s an almost screwball chase scene that follows in which Griffin effectively freaks the freak out), but there’s some guilt going on, too, as Amy recalls to Eric the time Griffin got lost in the mall. “I called my son a baby,” she says, with full remorse in her voice. All of this is set up to give Griffin a very important story arc, a hero moment that shows us he’s decided he needs to grow up right then and there. He blames himself for Maddy’s disappearance, thinking he should have been there to protect her, and when it comes to it, Griffin is the one who takes charge, impulsively running into the otherworld to find and grab his little sister. It’s a moment of uncertainty — just imagine being a parent and already having one child lost to a different dimension and suddenly there’s another gone, too — but one that brings the entire family together to rejoice in her rescue, which I have to say does more for me than if it was just mom and dad. They’re working with each other not only to save their lives, but also to save their sanity, whether or not they fully know it, especially since it seems the odds are so against this family.
There are other things to this movie that I think are cool, like how updates in technology come into play (how is the poltergeist ever going to manipulate a cell phone screen instead of a CRT television?!) and the modern update on the group of paranormal investigators. I’m not sure Poltergeist ‘82 gets too much credit for being one of (if not the) first movies featuring the procedural aspect of a paranormal investigation, but by now we are entirely used to seeing representations of that line of work in our media (actually, we may be oversaturated by this point, but that’s a discussion for another day). The investigators here include a quirky college professor and her team of students, and a psychic-turned-reality star who, alongside little Griffin, also has something to prove. I appreciate the depth added to these characters, as they not only provide comic relief, but are a secondary source of heart in this picture (Jared Harris and Jane Adams as Carrigan Burke and Dr. Brooke Powell absolutely own their roles, and have charisma literally dripping off of them.). But while we’re still talking about updates, this version of the film even has modern cynicism, seen when one of the investigators accuses Eric of faking the poltergeist activity to make quick money or get a reality show himself (the following scene involving an electric drill seems to serve as the poltergeist saying “Oh yeah, smart ass?” to that guy; coincidentally that may be the most tense scene in the movie).
I’m not sure if any of this movie is “scary,” per se, and that might be another reason they say it’s for kids. To play devil’s advocate for a moment I ask, is it a horror movie? Of course it is, don’t be silly. I understand, though, that everything I just described about it kind of makes it sound like a mere family drama, with ghosts. But, wait! That drill bit scene is pretty effective, and the design of the otherworld with skeletons and bodies grabbing at the kids as they try to climb out is, honestly, great. And I really like the final action sequence when the Bowens realize the house isn’t clean after all, and the spirits take over their car, flipping it and driving it into the house. Yeah, there’s definitely some neat stuff in this PG-13 horror movie that I think has been sorrowfully overlooked. So please, I know it’s a big ask, but maybe take my word for it over Sam Rockwell’s? Cool. Oh! And the end credit sequence uses Spoon doing a fantastic cover of “TV Set” by The Cramps. So, honestly, need I say more? Yeah, I didn’t think so.