At its best, horror cinema works like a trance. From more esoteric, cryptic works like Dreyer’s Vampyr to pressingly, pulsingly modern joints such as It Follows and Under the Skin, the genre cuts through the fat and almost approaches us on an unconscious level. At its best, which isn’t nearly often enough, the new Poltergeist almost gets there. Director Gil Kenan is, at a conceptual level, the perfect shepherd for the material – his animated Monster House is almost an animated Poltergeist anyway. Unfortunately, it ends up being a much better Poltergeist remake than the one he would go on to direct a decade later. The one, you know, called Poltergeist.
For the first half, at least, when the material is generally at its lightest and least anxious to grow and out-do itself, he proves a capable director for the material. The early sections of Poltergeist, where David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay casually articulates the often unstated loss in the Bowen family as they adjust to life in a new neighborhood, boasts a surprisingly thoughtful and reasonably reflective eye for messy family drama and low-key, nonchalant romance between parents Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), both of whom introduce more unhurried empathy into the characters than the script probably deserves.
Kenan too proves a great director of space, using the 3D camerawork to legitimate advantage as an expression of the empty, wide spaces of modern suburbia and concocting a house that feels lived-in. Extremely talented Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who has turned in recent years to the questionable likes of the Twilight films (but then, we don’t treat cinematographers with the respect we afford directors, actors, and writer, so blame Hollywood for that) doesn’t rewrite the haunted house story from the ground-up. But his interpretation of modern-day suburbia plays with modern technology in inventive, challenging ways, utilizing the digital cinematography for all its slightly mechanical, too-real-it-must-be-fake hyper-saturated artifice and turning that cinematography into a statement about the replete technology in the film.
Notably, for instance, the film takes a somewhat too-cloying interest in giving us the viewpoint of various technological devices (a tablet video game, a commercial drone), which itself is a commentary on the original Poltergeist’s implicit critique of modern-day suburban Americana. The script here announces the theme far too formally and explicitly, but Aguirresarobe pulls off a neat trick where he over-sells sections of the screen occasionally so that we see, in parts of the screen, only the abstract pixels of the digital camera rather than any discernible objects. The technique is so subtle as to barely register, but the effect – technological pixels flickering in the corner of the screen as we try to watch the action unfold in the center – is a nicely sinister implication that the film, itself, is the product of a digital modern recording technique. It makes the film look a little fake, in other words, not unlike allowing a water drop to land on a more conventional celluloid camera, and it is a nuance that fits the “modern suburban nightmare” theme – where the horrors are filtered through the technological toys of modern suburbia – exceedingly well.
It is also a nuance that, arguably, the film around it doesn’t deserve. At some point, after all the effectively moody and even dramatically capable build-up, the film has to be a Poltergeist remake, and everything falls apart. When it is just a haunted house tale, Kenan and co are in fine form, but when it becomes a spot-the-reference recreation of the original film, they rush through the expected sequences with little eye for adding to them. The film feels a little too breathless in this regard. In the final third, where it becomes almost explicitly a special-effects showpiece, all of the tension and the atmosphere evaporates and we are left looking at pretty, arbitrary imagery. Pretty, arbitrary imagery that the cinematographer had, earlier in the film, subtly mocked and implicated, and pretty, arbitrary imagery that, toward the end, becomes the basis of a film that wants to be a little too ungainly a little too quickly.
A problem that, frankly, the original Poltergeist has as well, albeit to a lesser extent. For that film, Steve Spielberg was the producer, and he ran away with director Tobe Hooper’s down-and-dirty visual framing for something far too grand and ostentatious for its own good. He turned it, in other words, into an outlet for set design and special effects work that were far too clean and grand for what was, in theory, a small film about a family moving into a house and learning that said house was occupied by a more malevolent form of ghostly apparition. When the children were simply exclaiming “they’re here,” everything was on fine form, but the film suffered from the principle flaw of most modern horror: expending, tirelessly at that, far too much effort on both explaining and showing when it ought to have been hinting. Learning about the fiction of a monster is very rarely the best tactic for inducing fear, nor is openly showcasing the physicality of the beast – the less we know, generally, the more terror our mind fills in. But Spielberg just couldn’t resist his slightly hammy habit for overly-writing material and losing himself too much to his showy production design.
A mistake, I had hoped, producer Sam Raimi here wouldn’t have recreated, but the climactic material grows and shows far too much, and the inclusion of ghost hunters – very much like in the original – sacrifices some of the purity of a family beset by, and on the defensive against, the poltergeist. The offense, the “fighting back”, necessarily curtails that fundamental and elemental frailty of a family with no idea of what to do.
Which increasingly seems to be the de facto flaw of the haunted house film, a sub-genre of horror that went away for a good long time and now seems to be back with a vengeance in the 2010s. There is a fundamental appeal to the genre, but the seductive implication, the sense of the uncanny just around the corner that is pointedly left unstated so that it can fill in and claw at the minds of audience members, eventually dissipates. The winkingly malevolent fantastique – that sense of the unknown that pervaded the original films in spooky, although not necessarily haunted, house sub-genre, from Whale’s The Old Dark House to Wise’s The Haunting – gives way to something that is just too big and obvious to scare. Poltergeist isn’t without craft, but it is always never more than a product, and considering the film’s obvious desire to poke fun at the artificial products of modernity, that may be the greatest irony to befall it.