When the original Poltergeist hit UK cinemas in 1982, it was quite a big deal. Back then big budget haunted house movies at the cinema were, if not non-existent, then few and far between - 1979’s The Amityville Horror, The Changeling and The Shining from the following year being other notable exceptions.
Watching the original Poltergeist now it all seems rather quaint, with some very dated effects which were obviously state of the art at the time. Arguably it was a movie that hadn’t quite decided what it wanted to be, a fright flick or a family movie. This may have been attributable to the dual directorship, with Tobe (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper’s reportedly rather laid back role in the chair gradually being supplanted by Steven Spielberg’s more hands on and family-friendly approach. The resultant X certificate from the BBFC (since downgraded to a 15) showed that the censor considered it a movie for adults – it was given a PG in the US on appeal. But the homeliness of the opening scenes, and the overall sense of wonder and wide-eyed awe suggested by the movie’s grand special effects set pieces, point to it being at heart a family film, albeit one with some grotesque touches.
For the two of you unfamiliar with the plot, the story involves the Freeling family and their three perky kids who live in the newly built suburb of Cuesta Verde. Dad Steve is employed by the real estate company who built the homes and stay at home mum Diane completes the wholesome American family. Youngest child Carol Anne starts hearing voices in the TV set, the beginning of a series of supernatural happenings which culminate in Carol Anne being snatched away into a kind of spiritual ether – she’s not dead but we can’t see her, only hear her voice.
A team of largely winging it parapsychologists are called in, but they have to resort to the heavy duty if minutely packaged talents of psychic Tangina, who understands what the spirits want and is finally successful in getting Carol Anne back. But the spooks are angered further by the little girl’s return, for they are the souls of the dead on whom the Freeling’s house is built (parts of the estate were constructed on the site of a cemetery), and who, in return for having their real life plaything taken from them and their resting place disturbed, exact a housebuilding in reverse revenge.
1982 Poltergeist hasn’t aged that well, but the acting is solid and the tone light and very family focused. The arrival of Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina is still a surprise, an awkward almost freakish woman invading the cookie cutter world of the Freelings. It may be mawkish but there are some great scenes - Diane discovering the supernatural powers in the kitchen, and Tangina’s other-worldly speech about spectral forces, for example - all underscored by Jerry Goldsmith’s heart-tugging music. But this film is all about parents protecting their children, allowing them to remain as kids unsullied by the events that happen to them.
No such fuss greeted the arrival of the 2014 remake of Poltergeist. Well, except for the armies of critics who queued up to bemoan the need for a remake at all and exercise high dudgeon at the injustice of it all. Most of these critics were probably too young to have seen the 1982 version at the cinemas and were busy defending their VHS memories. And let’s pause for a moment – there’s something in that. The original was made 33 years before the remake, so consider this: if the 1982 movie had been a remake following the same time pattern that would make it an update of a 1949 movie – would critics have baulked at this? No, but because with the availability of film via an increasing variety of formats time has sped up, so thirty years now seems like just a remote click away – also the spread of ‘geekdom’ (and I’m not using that word pejoratively) means that there are a lot more people around who have an opinion on remakes these days, particularly on the potential bastardisation of one of their sacred cows.
Gil Kenan, director of the 2015 remake, was five when the 1982 Poltergeist was released. So he was probably one of the legion who saw the movie for the first time at home. His 2006 animated flick Monster House caught a little of the frenetic activity and childish wonder of the film he was about to remake, and 2008’s City of Ember cemented his reputation as a young person’s movie director. Which is exactly where the remake of Poltergeist establishes itself – it’s a young adult film, granted a 15 certificate in the UK (but a more accessible PG-13 in the US – once again showing that the American certification system understood the target audience, and was alive to the additional dollars that a wider certificate would bring). So it’s likely that the UK target audience for this film wouldn’t get to see it until it arrived, in whatever form, on their home TV set.
The most important difference between the 1982 and 2015 movies is tone. The Kenan version is very dark whereas 1982’s was quite the opposite. The remake also uses a lot of the 21st century horror movie clichés – brooding chords on the soundtrack, a restless camera patrolling the house, and a lot of jump scares. The other thematic change is that the children are no longer the simpering offspring of the original, clinging to their parents. The kids in the remake are resourceful, plucky and smart. They are kids of the 21st century, and they make the 33 year difference between movies feel like a generational divide – which it is. Although the story and some key scenes are the same as the original, there are some important changes: the family, now the Bowens, have an aspiring writer mum and an out of work dad – far from being a successful household, they’ve suffered from the country’s recent economic downturn; the Tangina role is there but has been replaced by a TV ghost detective, Carrigan Burke - no room for strange little Zelda Rubenstein here (she died in 2010 anyway); the spirits are far more visible, shown as clutching hands behind the TV screen and then in more threatening form on the other side of the closet (yep, that rather hokey location is re-used in the remake – surely the basement would have been more in keeping with the modern feel?).
It’s perhaps the inclusion of key images from the original that weigh the remake down – the gnarled tree attack, the rope used to retrieve the daughter, the scary toy clown, event the haunted TV set itself – these were all effective in the 1982 version but appear clunky in Kenan’s film. The 2015 Poltergeist isn’t a bad film, just a bad idea. It would have been better to let the director free to make a film of his own – or maybe a live action remake of 2006’s Monster House would have been preferable – rather than restricting his talent by forcing him to remake a movie that, in my opinion, didn’t need to be re-made.