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John’s Horror Corner presents: Critically comparing the Poltergeist (2015) remake to the original Poltergeist (1982)

May 28, 2015

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Poltergeist (1982) changed the face of horror and paved the way for new horror tropes.  The horror genre already had its share of great haunting movies (e.g., Ghost Story, The Amityville Horror), but Poltergeist changed the game when it yanked little Carol Ann into the spirit world and called in the paranormal researchers for help instead of the police (who surely would get the wrong idea) or a priest (for some sort of exorcism).  The concept of “the other side” had not been approached so effectively before nor in such a direct manner.  And the use of paranormal researchers had never been so brilliantly portrayed.  In many ways I consider the original to be a perfect film even today.

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Both Poltergeist (1982) and Poltergeist II (1986) stand as excellent proof that the best horror came from the 80s and even today I enjoy these films for reasons beyond simple nostalgia.  However Poltergeist III (1988), while watchable and not a “bad” horror movie, suffered a drop in quality so noticeable that many Amazon shoppers prefer to buy the Poltergeist/Poltergeist 2 DVD combo pack in lieu of the “trilogy pack.”  Now why is that?  I’d suggest that by part III the novelty had worn off and the “new tropes” pioneered by the franchise had already become that overplayed song on the radio you once loved but now can’t stand even though you can’t help but to sing along because you know all the words.  Similarly, I loved Paranormal Activity (2007) and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)—actually very Poltergeist­-esque films.  But sadly, just as with the Poltergeist franchise, things started to fall apart with PA 3 (2011), and PA 4 (2012) really just upset me.  To that effect, I’ll say that I never felt a remake was necessary for Poltergeist, but I was admittedly excited to see what they’d do with it after the success (and my enjoyment) of the recent Carrie (2013) and Evil Dead (2013) remakes.

The following is an article (not so much of a review) comparing the approaches, strengths and weaknesses of the recent remake to Tobe Hooper’s 1982 predecessor.  But before we proceed…

SPOILERS!!!   If you have not yet seen this remake then DO NOT READ THIS.  SPOILERS abound!  Instead I’d suggest you visit my older article:
John’s Horror Corner presents Strong Opinions: on remaking Poltergeist (2015)

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A great tagline and a great poster for the 1982 original.  2015…the exact same tagline with a less effective poster.

The Parents. As the remake begins, we are introduced to our family.  The only element that made me like them was Sam Rockwell as the sarcastic, out-of-work and somewhat irresponsible father.  Rockwell steals the show right away with his snippy commentary, his support of his wife and his interactions with his kids.  The problem here is that he—or more so his one-liners—is the keystone to me giving a damn about the entire family…and I didn’t care all that much.  Despite his great one-liners, he pretty much phoned it in and DeWitt was (and I’m so sorry to say this) awful as the mother.  In the original, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams were perfect.  Every time you saw their faces you felt whatever they felt and feared what they feared.  They were just normal people with normal hopes, but these characters “felt” like people you wanted to succeed, or at least you wanted them protected from restless spirits.

The original casting in 1982’s Poltergeist felt perfect. But this portrait of an American family is, in fact, reproducible.  Shame they failed to do it again in 2015.

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The Kids. The teenaged daughter went from a typically self-interested teen to someone devoid of appropriate human emotion.  When Maddee is taken to the other side, she doesn’t seem traumatized or sad or scared.  But once the TV medium shows up she is excited to meet him and nothing but smiles…as if her kid sister’s soul wasn’t in jeopardy…as if the worst thing that would EVER happen to her family wasn’t happening right now.  I guess this is no major drop-off from the original.  The character just seemed “off.”

The young boy is likable but he pulls a totally unwarranted 180.  He goes from being afraid of everything (including the dark) to behaving like a first class hero at the drop of a dime.  Worse yet, this scaredy-cat should be traumatized to the point of catatonia!  He has attacked by an evil clown doll and attacked by a possessed evil tree monster!  Yet he somehow musters the courage to plunge himself into the deep end of the CGI swimming pool of other side and is completely unphased by the zombie-like twisted souls that form the corridors of the netherworld?  Who is this kid?  Constantine!?!?!  I’m sorry, but there was nothing credible about this and instead of feeling inspired by this brave little boy I just felt annoyed by the stupidity behind penning that scene.  The boy in the original was a traumatized mess and he dealt with a much scarier evil tree and at LEAST an equally evil clown doll!  Just because your kid sister needs help it doesn’t justify emerging from a Marvel chrysalis as a superhero.

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And our brunette Carol Anne, Maddee?  She was a cute kid and did an appropriately passable job.  But she was no Carol Anne!  Both Maddee and Carol Ann were cute, you wanted to save them, and when things got creepy so did they.  But Carol Ann seemed to have more personality than Maddee, thus seemingly reducing Maddee to a storytelling device rather than a character.

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The Paranormal Researchers. In the original the academics were great and Tangina was amazing.  Their highly different approaches, background and personalities somehow found excellent synergy in the story and added extra character dimensions without adding confusion.

Tangina was perfectly weird.  She is NOT reproducible!  I’m glad they didn’t try.  Any medium can be a weird character, but if they go super short then they’re just trying too hard.

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In the remake the academics are okay and Jared Harris is at times good as a modern ghost hunter medium with legit skills.  As excited as I was to see him in this after his role in The Quiet Ones (2014), I didn’t feel that Harris added any suspense or legitimacy to the story.  Adding Harris’ character was not an improvement; it was just adding “more.”  I wish his role was better written and more integral.  Meanwhile the academics came off as a less interesting, less credible, and less well-acted version of the 1982 troupe.  Also, for better or worse, they didn’t remake the crawling steak scene or the bathroom mirror scene of 1982, both of which involved the paranormal researchers.  I’m half glad they didn’t.

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I’ll admit this looks fake.  But the 1982 clay-faced fakeness of this actually made it seem more surreal and off-putting. This was really hard to watch as he tore his own face apart!  This scene may have stood the test of time…and the test of gross-outs.  Really hard to watch!  I thought they might try to recreate this iconic and gory moment.  Instead we got a weird closet scene involving a young researcher and a power drill.  It was highly predictable and dumb; although I was mildly entertained by its tropiness.

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Jenga!  The original boasted a startling scene in which the haunters stack things in the kitchen.  It sounds overly simple, but it was very effective and was delivered cleverly masked beneath Carol Ann’s playful connection to the spirits early in the story.  Rather than reproduce this, the remake decided to impossibly stack comic books to barricade the young boy from escape.  I can offer no more elaborate opinion than to simply say: it was dumb.

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2015 tried to get needlessly clever with this scene.  I’d say it backfired.  This image has no place in this or any movie.

1982…perfect.  It made an unscary scene startling while demonstrating Carol Ann’s sensitivity to the spirits.

It was copycatted much better by Dark Skies (2013).

The Evil Tree.  In both films we find the young boy placed in a room with a view of an ancient, almost sinister-looking tree.  The buildup was effective in both with the child appearing noticeably troubled by the tree’s appearance, but somehow the CGI-ness of it all made the 2015 remake vastly inferior to me.  We see the tree swiftly reaching around corners and whipping the boy down the hall like he was on a rollercoaster.  While visually dynamic, the remake’s take on this scene just lost its creepiness once the tree’s effects came into play.  What’s more is that the original evil tree tried to EAT the boy, leaving him covered in filth.  The remake’s tree simply menacingly held him in the air like Harry Potter’s womping willow playing a game of keep-away.  This 2015 tree felt like a not-so-scary scene from an adventure movie rather than something of horror.

194tqzn4jl5jojpgPoltergeist-tree-attackpoltergeist-tree So what’s scarier?  Having the tree from Hell try to eat you in 1982?  Or being hung upside down in 2015?

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Attack of the Graveyard.  The 1982 original boasted an elaborately intense scene as coffins erupted from the back yard during a storm and terrified the mother (JoBeth Williams).  This was the scene that properly revealed the anger of the poltergeist and justified the story while also delivering one of the most memorable scenes of 80s horror.  The remake squandered this notion entirely by reducing it to a CGI muck-covered arm reaching for the selfish teenage daughter (who nobody likes anyway) through a hole in the floor in the garage.  I’m not a CGI-hater…I just hated this CGI scene.

Calling Carol Ann.  The scene is simple and integral.  The paranormal researchers just arrived at the house and the parents need to provide some evidence that their daughter is still there even though she “isn’t there.”  In the original this was a very powerful scene.  The parents had just given a tour of the house including Carol Anne’s telekinetically disturbed bedroom and we see Craig T. Nelson’s sleep-deprived and exhausted demeanor as he almost comically calmly explains the situation with an inexpressively deadpan face.  Their desperation is palpable and they need these researchers’ help.  So they stand near the TV, which serves as sort of a White Noise (2005) conduit, and call out her name awaiting a response.  JoBeth’s calls for Carol Ann are followed by a plaguing silence.  But when Carol Ann responds with her sweet tone and the uplifting score, we are moved with hope.  Calling  The tone and the score were intense and even scary, and then so uplifting once Carol Ann responded, then so “off” when she was scared thinking she saw her parents.  for Maddee (our brunette Carol Anne reincarnate) on the other hand, was done with no tension, urgency or hope.  This remake squandered that touching scene…and by the same means screwed up the recovery of Maddee from the other side.  The parents’ disposition after losing Madde, meeting the paranormal researchers and “calling” for Maddee from the other side simply never felt like they were “all in” when any other parents would be, nor did they appear as disheveled (at least emotionally) as they should have.  To call 2015’s remade scene bland would be polite.  It was boring and reproduced without life; like a cupcake devoid of sprinkles or icing or a cake made without sugar.

The Other Side.  In the original the other side is something mysterious and abstract, and consequently scary in its unknown nature.  Carol Ann (and her SOUL) was trapped in this alternate dimension and JoBeth Williams simultaneously wore shades of vulnerability and mama bear bravery as she dove in to save her, emerging from the otherworldly portal with Carol Ann in arms and covered in gelatinous ectoplasmic afterbirth.  Neither of them breathing after this perhaps unsurvivable experience, the father (Craig T. Nelson) scrambles to clean the slime from their noses and mouths desperately repeating “breathe, baby, breathe…breathe.”  Deep down we all knew we’d get a happy ending—but that made the scene no less intense nor any less satisfying when Carol Ann awakens and most adorably and in her itty bitty voice mumbles “hi, daddy.”  My heart about sunk and my eyes nearly watered as a relieved smile traversed my face.  That scene was perfect.  Flash forward to 2015 and the young boy out of nowhere steals the role of netherworld spelunker.  He wanders corridors of flailing zombie arms and spirit whispers without a fear in the world (but not coming off as credibly brave either) and emerges from the portal with his sister by plopping on the living room floor like a trout dumped from a fisherman’s net on a boat deck.  Then they wake up and that’s it.  Basically there’s no sense of tension in the decision to venture to the other side, no urgency while waiting, and no concern about their welfare upon their return; just a weakly rehashed scene from the original.  And while we’re at it, “showing” us the other side was not a good decision.  Just because Insidious (2011) borrowed it from the original and decided to show it to us doesn’t mean you need to show it here!  If you ask me, both films failed to produce a credible depiction of 1982’s other side.

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Why weren’t the scary guardians of the other side enough?  Why did we have to go in, 2015?

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SUMMARY.  The pacing didn’t feel right at all.  I felt like we were rushed from recreated scene to recreated scene so quickly and forcefully that there was no time (nor the writing) for the characters to develop or for us to decide to give a damn about them.  The characters more than anything are what made the original work so well, and the ball was dropped for the remake.  The original had synthesis.  I feel like if I hadn’t already seen the original, I’d be off put by the pacing even more.

The original is still a great film but I no longer consider it an effective “scary” movie to an adult audience.  To kids, yes, very scary.  To adults…?  Nope.  Not horror fans anyway.  The upcoming remake was criticized on Cinema Blend and other horror forums as being a horror movie for kids.  But that’s actually what the original would serve to be today!  I still love the original as it remains emotionally powerful today and intense, even if not scary.  The 33 year old effects were better, too.

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2015 11:44 am

    Thanks, John! Wasn’t really interested in the remake, but your analysis made me realize I’ve got to get the original on blu-ray, stat! Good stuff. 8^)

    • John Leavengood permalink
      May 29, 2015 12:14 pm

      Absolutely. Part II still holds up fantastically as well in my eyes.

  2. Man Juice permalink
    October 19, 2015 8:23 am

    Brilliant review — watching the original now. Began watching new 2015 but I think I can sum your review up a bit more. The new remakes such as Poltergeist are simply too synthetic & artificial. I stopped watching the 2015 after the tree scene, a blatantly wasted scene to CGI, yes I am a CGI hater. Cartoony, fake and unbelievable, I get why kids like the CGI their still watching cartoons. But when I grew up I stopped watching cartoons, now my movies are infested with it. If Jim Henson were still alive…. (J.H. creature works made many puppets for these movies that were REAL!).

    • John Leavengood permalink
      October 19, 2015 8:53 am

      Thanks for the praise and feedback, man! I won’t say I’m “glad” you disliked the remake so much you couldn’t finish it, but I certainly appreciate like-minded movie-goers. Too true about the synthetic nature of modern remakes. Spielberg backed Poltergeist and imbued it with an emotional soul. Sadly, Keenan (who, prior to this, did an entirely CGI movie as it turns out) simply ran the plays from the 1982 playbook like it was a scrimmage instead of the big game; he just went through the motions. It reminded me of when I sat for “readings” of play scripts…before the “character” is actually added to the lines.

      Thanks again, and please keep commenting!

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