★★ / ★★★★
Moving into a new home has its set of stresses, but the Bowens have another challenge: They had not been told that the land the house is standing on used to be a part of a cemetery and there is a possibility that the bodies had not been moved prior to construction. During move-in day, middle-child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) catches youngest child Madison (Kennedi Clements) speaking with someone—or something—from behind a closet. Perhaps it is only one of Madison’s harmless imaginary friends… but perhaps it is something more sinister.
Although “Poltergeist,” written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan, offers two, maybe three, genuinely scary scenes, it falls apart almost completely during the final third when visual and special effects move front and center. These effects are too stylized that they begin to look fake—almost like watching a video game—and so the horror element grows weaker as the visual spectacle grows stronger. The most effective supernatural horror stories—those that inspire a real sense of dread, suspense, and chills down our spines—understand that the punchline is about small moments, perhaps when one is home alone or when one is supposed to be safe in her bed.
A memorable scene involves Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), the eldest child, babysitting his little brother and sister while their parents (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt) are out. While texting, her phone screen starts to get staticky and it appears to get worse as she moves around the house. Meanwhile, Griffin is terrorized upstairs by toy clowns he had found—or that found him?—the night before. This part of the movie is effective because we get a genuine feeling that the children are not safe. With the parents around, the adults can always run upstairs or downstairs to offer help. There is a sense of urgency in how Kendra and Griffin’s encounters are edited together. Meanwhile, Madison sits in a corner, afraid of the increasingly powerful entity behind her closet.
There is not enough characterization. Rockwell is one of those actors who can pretty much deliver whatever emotion the script requires. Here, his character is supposed to be so stressed out and so upset about having been laid off for a while that sometimes he reroutes this negative energy into the opposite of what he is supposed to be doing—like going on a spending spree instead of being more careful with money. I wanted to understand his personal struggle as a provider who is not providing, but the screenplay does not go deeply into the root of his emotions, thoughts, and choices. Although the film is not a drama, horror movies have lasting power when we are invested in the characters—characters of whom we can recognize a part of ourselves or someone we may know.
The other solid scene involves a paranormal researcher (Nicholas Braun) attempting to set up equipment inside Madison’s closet. Notice that with each passing second, the frame gets tighter and tighter which runs parallel to the buildup of tension. This is a film not without potential to become engaging. Clearly, the director, who helmed “Monster House,” one of my favorite animated films, knows how to setup and execute scenes that make us feel uncomfortable. Imagine if the screenplay had been more sparing when it comes to the CGI. The filmmakers would then have to be more creative when delivering shocks and scares.
Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” did not need a reboot because it already embodies the horror trifecta: heart, brain, and very unsettling scenes that sometimes come in a form of special and visual effects. Perhaps it just needed a sequel—maybe injecting a bit more menace into the template’s marrow or a proper and convincing background story with respect to those corpses underneath the house.