It was inevitable that Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost story produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, would finally get remade. Taking place in a suburban paradise at the dawn of Reagan’s America, when owning a McMansion in the ‘burbs was considered the epitome of the good life, the original film was mainly famous for transplanting the creaky haunted house premise to (then) modern day suburbia. Poltergeist was lauded for smartly updating the horror film, even though writers like Richard Matherson had been doing the very same thing (and much better) in his published fiction and through his scripts for projects like the original Twilight Zone.
I actually remember the 1982 Poltergeist best for two real-life behind the scenes stories, the first was the tragic murder of actress Dominique Dunne, who played the eldest daughter in the film, by her ex-boyfriend. The second, more prosaic controversy was whether or not Poltergeist had actually been directed by Spielberg, much like how producer Howard Hawks was rumored to have actually directed the original version of The Thing.
But as a film, the original Poltergeist was technically very well done, with spectacular ghostly effects that were impressive, and a storyline that focused on and emphasized the family as they dealt with this overwhelming supernatural threat in their own house. Despite the fact that I never found it to be very scary overall–it was more in the vein of horror-lite; a toned-down “horror film” that’s suitable for the whole family (it even had a PG rating)–it’s still an enjoyable film to watch even to this day.
While the 2015 film doesn’t have the specters of any behind the scenes controversy hovering over it, there’s not much to recommend about the new version, as it’s basically a by-the-numbers remake that’s very toothless and timid. Where the original at least had some solid performances (especially Jobeth Williams in particular, who was memorable as the feisty mother who rises up to try and save her family), everyone in the remake is too bland and lifeless for you to care about them.
Another major problem (and it’s not really the fault of the remake’s filmmakers) is that Poltergeist has already been remade–just under different names. The original Paranormal Activity, along with James Wan’s fun Insidious, and his superb The Conjuring, have reintroduced 21st century audiences to the haunted house story, while deftly redefining it, and have all done a much better job in doing so. In contrast to the inspired films that I’ve mentioned, the Poltergeist remake feels lackluster and tired. It might be time to consider giving these “noisy ghosts” a rest. –SF