That’s right ladies, gentlemen and anyone in between, it’s Elessar’s favorite time of year; Remaketober. For those of you just joining us, who are wondering what the hell Remaketober is, every year for each week of October, I watch a horror movie and its remake, in order to compare and contrast them. These are not reviews, per say; Very little nitty gritty, no plot recaps, no scores. It may not sound like much, but trust me when I say, I look forward to this every year. So, let’s not stall anymore, let’s get straight into our first movie of Remaketober 2015: Poltergeist.
Poltergeist may not be a particularly odd film, but it’s an odd presence in pop culture. Regardless of its considerable merits, discussion about it is always at risk of being overwhelmed by its background. The supposed Poltergeist Curse, the question of who directed it (and incidentally, you will never be able to convince me that Tobe Hooper was anything more than a puppet director for Spielberg). That’s a lot of background noise for a film to overcome.
And it’s a mark in the film’s favor that it does actually manage to overcome all of it. Part of the reason I remain unconvinced that Tobe Hooper directed is because the film is vintage Spielberg, from top to bottom. On the first viewing it might seem a tiny bit slow paced, but that’s actually a good thing, as the film takes the time to build up the characters and their relationships to make the second and third act mayhem mean something.
That mayhem builds up pretty smoothly, beginning with fairly standard chairs moving and similar, and building to pure mayhem in the climax. The effects are pretty restrained, only taking off when called for, and manage to eschew the gore common to the popular horror flicks of the time (yet another reason why I think Spielberg directed it; Hooper loves him some gore). All in all it’s an incredibly effective little horror flick, doing quite a lot with relatively little. And while I’m slinging obvious compliments, it’s worth pointing out that Zelda Rubinstein is amazing, completely eating up the screen every second she’s on it.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. While the practical effects have aged pretty well, the handful of computer effect have aged hilariously. It’s also got a somewhat awkward act structure; It has a somewhat overlong 2nd act, to begin with, and then once the third act ends, the movie sort of pauses the mayhem for a few minutes, and then kicks it back up again, essentially giving the movie a weird 4th act. I’d say the movie is trying to convince it’s ended, but the post mayhem calmness goes on a tiny bit too long, and tips its hand that it’s not resolved yet.
Still, despite being well known and beloved, it didn’t strike me as good remake material. Part of that is wondering what a remake could possibly add to the concept, but really, I’m not certain why you would need a remake. Poltergeist is a great movie, to be sure, but it’s not so unique that, when making a remake, you couldn’t just remove a few famous moments, alter a few incidental details and call it something else. No one would notice.
Right off the bat, this remake makes one of the classic blunders that a lot of remakes of well known movies make, which is assuming that what the movie needs is reenactments of the famous scenes from the original, dressed up with fancy new special effects. There’s a couple downsides to this. Firstly, it makes comparisons to the original inevitable, and that’s not always going to be favorable; The tree scene winds up downright comical, and most of the rest of them read as trying way too hard.
But more than that, they end up eating up a huge amount of valuable real estate. The remake is significantly shorter than the original, so its time is incredibly valuable, and the fact that it feels to make all of its big special effects sequences overlong and a tiny bit draggy. As a result, it winds up smashing scenes together in order to have room for them all.
Notably, the initial daughter stealing/tree scene is combined with the finale’s clown attack AND skeleton attack. Not only does smashing scenes together make the way the scenes play out awkward and unfocused (and create an opening baseline that the movie is incapable of rising above) but it also leave precious little time for the movie’s handful of original horror beats, not to mention its tiny amount of (pretty heavily cliched) plot or character development.
I use the word original to describe those scenes, but they’re only original in context of the movie it’s remaking. Most of them are pulled, in whole or in part, from other horror movies (I sense influence from the Insidious movies notably). All of that might be excusable if it was scary, but most of them are subpar, and none of them rise above average (they telegraph way too hard) so the movie is just boring. And really, that’s the most fatal thing I could say about it. A horror movie can survive being a lot of bad things (poorly written, cliched, badly directed, sloppily plotted, amateurishly acted…maybe not all at once) but it cannot survive being boring.
There are elements that are, strictly speaking, not bad. Sam Rockwell is a good actor, and he’s pretty invested in his role. It has a couple of smart subversions of scenes from the original, and the new backstory for the third act medium is, at least conceptually interesting, even if the movie does basically nothing with it. I’ve definitely seen worse horror movies, both in and out of Remaketober, but this one just doesn’t have any identity of its own. And how good can a movie be, honestly, if I saw it less than 24 hours ago and already I’m having trouble summoning any memory of it.
Next week, we’re continuing on the ghost theme, with one of the more well known “True” stories in Horror film history.