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Sam Raimi’s Poltergeist: Try To Think Of It As A Fun “Haunted House” Movie & Not A Spielberg Remake

Poltergeist is a classic film with a sensibility unique to its era that cannot be re-created.  Any attempt to do so is more likely to simply arrive, mildly disappoint, and go away like most of the other recent 1980s re-makes.

So says the man who was actually born the year Poltergeist came out.

However, what if you’ve never seen Poltergeist before?  What if you are completely unburdened by thoughts of Zelda Rubinstein’s odd way of saying the name “Carol Anne” or “This house is clean.” What if you just want a good haunted house movie?  Well, there’s this new movie due out this summer, also called Poltergeist, produced by Sam Raimi and directed by Gil Kenan.  It looks kind of great.  Here’s the domestic trailer:

And the superior international trailer:

That business with that clown looks freaky, right?  And what about the army of arms on the other side of that ginormous flat screen TV?  That little girl being led into her own closet and then somehow sucked away is rightfully spooky.  What’s not to love?

The fact that it’s called Poltergeist, and if you’ve seen the original this remake looks far too familiar just with “changes cut and pasted in. Instead of sliding in the kitchen the kids are getting a hair-raising sensation in the bedroom! Instead of ripping off his own face a paranormal investigator is being attacked by beings within the walls! Instead of a uniquely bizarre medium there’s a craggy British guy.”  The American trailer for the remake so spells out pretty much every single major plot point from the 1982 original that it makes this feel all the more unnecessary.  The international trailer at least gives the sense that there might be some completely new scary sequences in this one.

While I don’t know how necessary this film will feel to those who remember the original I am fairly certain it will still be a good scary movie, though.  Gil Kenan’s directorial debut, 2006’s Monster House, is one of those rare kid’s films which is legitimately too scary for most little kids.  In the form of that film, Kenan has done a haunted house movie before, albeit an animated one, and he did it incredibly well.  He’s the perfect guy for a Poltergeist re-make.

The titular Monster House. That’s just good family fun, though, right?

The screenplay is from David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer for his play “Rabbit Hole,” and when they made that into a film starring Nicole Kidman he wrote the screenplay.  That’s good.  He’s also partially responsible for the screenplays for Oz the Great and Powerful and Rise of the Guardians.  That’s less good.

Back when this thing was first announced in 2013, THR described it as “A revisionist take on the original film, the new story centers on a family struggling to make ends meet that relocates to an outdated suburban home and is confronted by an angry spirit who kidnaps their youngest daughter and challenges them to band together to rescue her from the clutches of evil.”  At that point, the script apparently contained a sequence [potential spoiler] in which “the kids’ find some things behind the sliding panel in the attic” which turn out to be some of the possessions of the family from the 1982 film.  That would then set this new Poltergeist in the same universe as the original films thus making it more like a continuation than a remake even though it tells the same basic story, a trick Sam Raimi pulled just a couple of years ago with the new Evil Dead.  It’s unclear to me if that idea made it into the finished film.

The original Poltergeist used the horror genre to comment upon the cost of economic expansion, with an eventual none-too-subtle reveal that houses which are built on literal graveyards aren’t going to fare well.  The human villain of the film is a shady man from the real estate industry who merely moved headstones and not the actual coffins when relocating a cemetery which was in the way of a new housing development.  His actions are what lead to the haunting from the supernatural villains.

The headstones from Poltergeist.

With the recent housing market bubble burst which caused the recession, it would seem as if the economic conditions might provide the filmmakers the underpinning of the story.  However, the quasi-remake is doomed to fail for one simple reason: you can’t outdo Steven Spielberg at the height of this powers.

Spielberg directing Craig T. Nelson on the set of Poltergeist while Tobe Hooper (in the middle) asks, “Are we even pretending that I’m the director anymore?”

The original Poltergeist is a Steven Spielberg film in every way imaginable other than one crucial credit: director.  Tobe Hoober was the official director, but the film is based on an original idea of Spielberg’s and he co-wrote the screenplay.  He wasn’t contractually allowed to officially direct the film because he was also making E.T. at the time, but by all accounts Spielberg was instrumental in the casting process, storyboarding, editing, and composing.  In fact, due to claims from certain cast members that Spielberg was usually on-set and directing the actors the Directors Guild of America (DGA) even investigated whether or not Spielberg should be credited as co-director.  Although the DGA ruled to the contrary, the notion of  Spielberg being the film’s shadow director persists to this day.

The resulting film is positively Spielbergian, focusing upon the nuclear family, containing bonding moments between father and son, and revealing a deep love for genre film-making.  It’s easy to see the sequence involving Craig T. Nelson easing his son’s worries about an oncoming thunderstom and think of the way Roy Schreider’s youngest son mimics his every movement in a touching sequence in Jaws.  This focus upon the family gives the film its emotional center, as we see them at their best and are horrified to see them torn down so thoroughly by the time paranormal investigators meet them after youngest daughter Carol Anne has been taken by some supernatural force.  The story takes every parent’s nightmare – losing a child – and turns it up to 11 through the mere introduction of the idea that Carol Anne can still be heard screaming for help but only through the television.  Plus, there’s this (which horrified me as a kid and still kind of does):

poltergeist_clown_mp_by_imadork007-d32rbslIf you want to do a haunted house movie just do it but don’t call it Poltergeist.  That’s what Insidious did in 2010.

insidious-2010-review-not-gonna-lie-i-pooped-a-littleIt rehashes most of the same basic plot points – young married couple with a kid, haunted house, kid knows about haunting before parents, quirky paranormal investigators show up only to be terrified of what they find, kid gets kidnapped to “the other side,” parent goes into netherworld to rescue kid, the end.  However, Insidious has some unique elements not derived from Poltergeist, such as the concept of astral projection and that the haunting is not-site specific but person-specific meaning moving houses halfway through the film won’t solve anything.  Plus, whereas when JoBeth Williams goes to “the other side” to rescue Carol Anne in Poltergeist we don’t actually see any of that whereas when Patrick Wilson goes to rescue his son Dalton we see every second of it, although the whole “the scariest parts are best left to our imagination” argument was lost on them during this sequence.

The irony here is that it’s likely that Poltergeist only got this updated treatment because Insidious did such a good job of ripping it off it became the most profitable film released in 2010, based upon budget vs. total gross.  As a result, films like Insidious 2, Sinister, and The Conjuring have brought back the haunted house movie in a very big way, and Annabelle extended that to haunted objects.  So, I’d welcome a haunted house film produced by Sam Raimi and directed by the guy who made Monster House.  I just wish they didn’t have to call it Poltergeist.  At this point the Poltergeist plot has been pilfered by others, the franchise itself died out quickly after two horribly unsatisfying sequels, and based upon his recent films I’d say that not even today’s version of Spielberg could re-capture the magic of the original.  However, based upon our first looks at this new Poltergeist I’d say that while it may struggle to establish any real unique identity it looks to be a potentially expertly made scary movie.  There are worse things to be.

Poltergeist is due out July 24, 2015.  If you don’t want to wait just go watch the 1982 original.  It’s not bad.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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