Within Hollywood's ongoing remake cycle, the 1982 hit "Poltergeist" is a choice both obvious and challenging. A touchstone for much in contemporary horror, with its emphasis on a family in peril, then cutting-edge effects work and some sly satire, the original "Poltergeist" was an efficient, intense haunted house story for and about its times.
Directed by Gil Kenan — nominated for an Oscar for his 2006 animated film "Monster House" — the remake is a disconcertingly uneven outing, not quite connecting in the manner of the original while also never standing firmly on its own two feet. The new "Poltergeist" is a pleasant enough diversion, better as a low-simmer suspense story than a full-blown effects extravaganza.
In the new film, Amy and Eric Bowen (Rosemarie DeWitt, Sam Rockwell) are moving into a more downscale house with their three children after Eric has been out of work for some time. As a series of unexplainable disturbances escalates, Amy and Eric learn their subdivision was built on land that was once a cemetery just before their youngest daughter, Madison (Kennedi Clements), becomes trapped in a supernatural spirit realm.
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The Bowens appeal first to a parapsychologist (Jane Adams), who in turn brings in a medium/reality TV personality (Jared Harris). Together, they all try to get Madison back.
The '80s-era original, directed by Tobe Hooper, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, was about what might be lurking and repressed underneath the façade of a perfect suburban life, with Craig T. Nelson's dad character even seen reading a book on Ronald Reagan. The talk of layoffs and foreclosures in the new film shows that dream already broken from the start, so there is little other left for the otherworldly to reveal.
David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for his family trauma drama "Rabbit Hole," wrote the screenplay for the new film in which the kids have tablets and smartphones and young Madison becomes stuck inside a flat-screen. But nods to modernize the story never meaningfully connect it to the here and now, apart from the use of a flying toy drone as a tool to first visualize how things look on the other side of an interdimensional portal.
The storytelling is choppy in a way that feels like some things were left in the cutting room. Amy and Eric attend an awkward dinner party that isn't even talked about on the drive home. While the parents in the original film smoked a little pot when behind their bedroom doors, the Bowens have a drink or two, with a lingering, unexplored implication that Eric drinks a little too much.
DeWitt, Rockwell, Harris and Adams are among the most dependable performers around today, and much of what works in the new film is thanks to them. As the action in the film ramps up, it's hard not to want the story to pause so the four of them can just hang out a bit more, as they all create warm, vibrant characters that seem trapped within the mechanics of the plot.
And yes, the new film includes the original's famous tagline of a young girl saying, "They're here." But it undercuts its effect by unnecessarily preceding it with her warning, "They're coming."
Rating: PG-13, for intense, frightening sequences, brief suggestive material and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: In general release