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Sunday, 21 February 2016

POLTERGEIST (2015) // Rising stars Kyle Catlett and Saxon Sharbino shine in a race to save baby sister Kennedi Clements from jumping dolls, bad telly and the long lost twin of Derek Acorah! // *EXTENDED REVIEW*


Writer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper's original, classic POLTERGEIST (1982) played up the idea of the protective, almost perfect suburban family being placed under unbearable pressure to self-implode in the middle of an onslaught of paranormal activity. When the family in that film's young daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), gets sucked up into the ether by a wandering gang of lost souls, trying to be led into the 'light' by an unseen figure of clearly evil intent (who needs Carol Anne to give them all that extra nudge) we sense the idea of helplessness from both parents. It's like losing a child at the fairground - the same sense of dread.

Original 80's CAROL ANNE 
. . and new girl under threat - MADISON!

The fight to get Carol Anne back, through portholes dotted around the house that go in 'that-a-way and this-a-way' between spirit world and our place (less following a fabled yellow brick road, more of a bony middle-fingered old dirt track in the dark) is claustrophobic and tense or icky, and stacked with scares. Two sequels followed, both wildly different and exciting, although the death of young Heather, not long after filming POLTERGEIST III, tainted that film forever with sadness. It also - predictably - led to rumoured curses having plagued the POLTERGEIST franchise over the years (Dominique Dunne who played the older sister in the original movie was murdered by her abusive ex-partner). The curse was put down to the first movie having used actual skeletons instead of replicas in the still terrifying bony-sludge 'zombie' sequence.

A review of the remake of the original movie, is another excuse to watch all the originals again, and to remember how good they were - and still are. Which isn't to say the 2015 remake doesn't have plenty of independently scary moments - it does. But unlike the real skeletons used in the original movie, the kind used in director Gil Kenan's version are reassuringly made of plastic [cue Radiohead joke about the fake plastic tree in the garden!].

I really mean that this family is itself metaphorically plastic - reflecting the increasing sterility of the traditional family unit's modern existence (the 'perfect' kind that Spielberg especially - and brilliantly - once endorsed and painted to perfection as an 'ideal', even if it was never representative for most of us) now battered by the pressures of modern life and isolation.


The teenage daughter of this new Poltergeist-terrorised family is far more interested in updating her social media profile every five seconds than recognising that the world around her is spinning towards a supernatural core somewhere on the outskirts of Hell. Even the arrival of a famous ghost-hunter in the house is just another excuse for a selfie, taken before the house erupts in fire and brimstone (which we can only hope she managed to film!). Her dad counters the sterility of his new life, fresh out of work and now trapped in suburban, if not supernatural, limbo and contemplating the eternal sterility of existence by spending above his means and being knocked down in extremely humiliating fashion for daring to do so - by his own wife!

The POLTERGEIST kids are effectively plucky and likeable as the new batch of haunted siblings. The youngest cast member - Kennedi Clements, who plays Madison Bowen, is sweetly captivated by initially quiet spirits and later fearfully wide-eyed enough to make sure you are suitably concerned for her well-being, especially when she gets sucked into the living room's widescreen TV. Especially worrying is who she spends her time hanging out with in the ether - a testosterone-fuelled bunch of grunting male spooks looking like they have one hell of a collective body odour (hey - dead so long and all that). A worry nobody seems to mention is that Madison is, to all intrinsic purposes, in the middle of the greatest stranger danger ever known (albeit of the dead and buried kind).

Expressive-faced Kennedi, I'm sure, will go on to do extremely well in future and far quirkier, and probably more independent, films. The original little girl from the 1982 movie - Heather O'Rourke, who pretty much set Hollywood alight for a few years before her untimely death, is a hard act to follow but at least Kennedi doesn't try to copy her predecessor's deliberately detached aura (sometimes achingly so - especially in the way she has to say the original's iconic "They're here!" dialogue in a more low-key, direct way than Heather O'Rourke's trilling, almost ecstatic, announcement of arriving evil.)

"My God . . she lost the remote!"
Madison's family, a bunch of paranormal experts and a 'Derek Acorah when he was in MOST HAUNTED'-like TV investigator with a played-up strong Irish accent all try and get the trapped little girl lost back to the land of the living. Things get predictability explosive, gooey, creepy and 3D effect-friendly flashy. Familiar faces and moments from the original movie are newly possessed and stutter back to life, if a little less enthusiastically (all the best scares were revealed in the theatrical trailer anyway - idiots!). So we get: the return of the creepy tree outside the bedroom window; the sickly pit of zombies (now more a deep pothole and just one spring-loaded zombie - but seriously cool in 3D!) and, of course - the scary clown doll hiding out in the bedroom and in the closet. Sam Rockwell, who plays Madison's dad here, has fought clowns before - in Victor Salva's far more controversial CLOWNHOUSE (1989).


Sadly, although all clowns are scary, especially smiling doll-sized ones (as happiness is always best equated with terror) they aren't as palm-clenchingly creepy as the single one used in the POLTERGEIST original, which was far more subtle in its sinister darting around the bedroom. In this remake the clown doll is much faster and far more springy - more of a jump shock than a demonic thing full of quiet unease and clever scuttling under the bed. But it's a scary setpiece all the same, when the new doll is unleashed - and the jump shot works (it's also trying to do something different with this plot device to Hooper's version).


The creepy tree that got hold of young Robbie, Carol Anne's sensible older brother, in the 1982 version (played to wide-eyed perfection by young Oliver Robins) developed a character of its own making - both malevolent and playful. In the remake, the scary tree is plain and simply a scary tree. A slow build with shadow branches replicating human tortured limbs could have been too safe  (or too risky!) to recreate as the original's playfulness can't be bettered. But it's still a chilling thing in the garden, full of wild branch flailing and psychotically grabbing away for young boy blood.

A startling shock where Madison gets pulled up the stairs at high speed is unique to this film and evokes the real-life Pontefract Poltergeist's best known trick. The use of the son's remote controlled drone through a dark, decaying labyrinth of the dead is also kind of genius and you wonder if Spielberg/ Hooper would have loved to have played around with this one too.

The afterlife waiting room labyrinth is also a scary, dank, dark place to be in - perhaps even more so than the original movie, and offers up real threat and claustrophobia (of the kind you were forced to mostly imagine before).


A teasing sequence involving an electric drill through the wall (from the other side - the spook side) towards Dad's head is brilliantly tense too, but the subsequent swallowing of whisky by the same character and vomiting gunk in the sink (and crying black goo) is a more by-the-way scare that's shyly out-of-focus and tame (even in this so-called 'Extreme' cut). The bathroom mirror skin-pulling of the original, with flesh falling into a sink, was truly gross - as should be expected from a director fresh from the extreme success, notoriety and inherent beauty of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).


Contradicting myself here a little, I should also mention the monster-from-the-bottle and into the gullet of the original film's sequel, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986) that went beyond disgusting - and was directed by Brian Gibson, who had no pedigree in horror whatsoever (best known at the time for grittier stuff like the Hazel O'Connor tour de force 'BREAKING GLASS').


This rebooted POLTERGEIST does lack some spirit in the family unit. It's full of fantastic actors, including Sam Rockwell as dad Eric Bowen, Rosemarie DeWitt as mum Amy and Saxon Sharbino as daughter Kendra - all not given enough to do. The film's runtime is dead on 90 minutes, but could easily have been stretched. The brilliantly broody, attitude-drenched Sharbino is most annoyingly wasted in a supporting role mostly spent staring at screens and gawping at C-list celebrity in the house (but again - maybe that's the point!). She's have made a good lead and the film could have been twisted into a teen horror.

This isolation and lack of cohesion between the family members does make their defence against the evil dead weaker than the family's 'love power' in the original that was a big reason Carol Anne's brood were able to get her back safely. So maybe this new movie is deliberately changing the stakes and not having that kind of security for young Madison - or at least, having to find it by the end of the movie if they hope to survive. This family don't hate each other. They just don't work together as well as they should (represented, perhaps, by the dad's present buying for everyone being rebuffed and gawped at, instead of being accepted as a gesture and a first step towards renewed unity and new life).

"It's the squirrel. He's baa-aack!"

Sam Rockwell tries his best to grab hold of the screenplay's best bits, such as a descent into depression after losing his job and having his credit card repeatedly declined (in a well-conveyed sequence at a department store till) or when he acts all dippy and possessed in a hallway after running away from a squirrel (a comedic sequence that this film, even though a horror at heart, could have leaned far more towards to wrong-foot the familiarity) but is never given full permission to let loose completely, as he seems to be straining to do.


The paranormal investigation team, led by Jane Adams as Dr Powell, is quite boring but Susan Heyward as team member Sophie really shines. But - like Sharbino - she is only used fleetingly and a bit dismissively. Let's hope we see more of Sophie the super savvy ghost hunter in the POLTERGEIST sequel (if there is one!).



The usually brilliant Jared Harris as TV ghosthunter Carrigan Burke, doesn't seem sure whether to go for outright laughs or deadpan seriousness (but at least he's giving it his all and trying to do something different). Is that rather outrageously off-target accent and steely-eyed, stupidly grizzly charisma deliberate? If so, it's potentially a smart move. But if accidental, then - "HEY!" - step away from the holy water slowly man . . ! 


The family home is the main location of the film. The local town is as dead as the spirits in the bedroom cupboard and the cast rarely interact with the outside world or the people within it (unless they happen to be paranormal investigators). This does conjure up a decent sense of unreality and vulnerability, but in the original movie you always felt the family were very much within a slightly hostile community; even when things were getting weird inside the house, it could be just as challenging on the outside (the team of local builders leering at teenage daughter Dominique Dunne and then being given a suitably feisty response back, being a good example of the original's playful character development for the supporting cast).

One of the most memorable moments of the remake (in terms of character development) is that aforementioned sequence with the dad in a department store getting increasingly flustered with a failing credit card and putting on a brave face; the scene allows the character to have a sense of identity and freedom away from the expected scares to come (even if that freedom is simply that this guy has a really shit life at times - just like we all do!).

It's often more effective for subsequent threats to the family unit in horror movies when the individual members of that family go out and about and interact with 'normal' people - whether family, friends, teachers, lovers or shopkeepers. Their daily, perhaps safer, lives contrasted with increasing threat and chaos at home that's not of their own making or even the domestic kind but supernatural (and still a threat, in reality, that social services would most likely quickly pass on to the local plod: "Kids beaten up by the garden tree, you say, sir? Daughter abducted by the telly? Weird old preacher man hiding in the bedroom closet? Right, get in the car, son - you're nicked!").


In STEPHEN KING'S CUJO, the mother's affair at the start and subsequent entrapment within a car along with her son, represents a kind of punishment at first and eventual liberation (being the only one who can save her child - no boyfriend and husband to help her, and the men in her life now redundant). Interaction between girl and friends, family and teachers in KING's other classic horror - CARRIE, made the final terror especially traumatic and liberating, and this was also the case in the more recent DARK TOUCH where neighbours and teachers, as well as family and friends, are the catalyst for all the subsequent terror and payback.


This new version of POLTERGEIST, perhaps needs that same kind of interaction with the outside world to truly ground the special effects and poltergeist activity within a framing monotony of daily life in the unfamiliar, oppressive suburbs (a plot device effective for the daughters terrorised in 2012's THE POSSESSION where the outside world was brought in closer to the horror through the taking of the two girls to sitting outside listening to music, within an open garage arena - their neighbours now more like an audience to the approaching threat).



WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT was also a film especially effective at linking poltergeist activity with interaction of the protagonist (an isolated girl and her new best friend within a beautifully shot 70's suburban neighbourhood and a hostile school environment when the haunting story gets out). This girl has a clearly defined independent role outside of the family which intensifies the subsequent 'lonely' haunting of the individual. Similarly, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films were, especially early on in the franchise, quite content to very effectively focus on a family facing paranormal threat from within a very isolated four-walled setting.

So this POLTERGIEST is less interested in the Spielbergian (and Hooperian) propensity for creating vividly realised family lives (ok - Hooper's Texas family was completely demented, but they really did seem to care about each other!) and is perhaps more focused on conjuring up numerous bursts of wild energy to do the required shock and jolt jive - and when it really lets rip, the film does the required scary stuff with some relish. But there's an occasional subtlety to all the expected fear as well - a sequence involving the young brother and sister having fun with static from the handle of the bedroom cupboard is naturalistic and convincingly acted, and the missing warmth finally comes through. It's also decidedly unnerving, but keeps the clearly approaching horror cleverly subdued (for now).

Cinematography from experienced Javier Aguirresarobe also works magic in moodily-lit night sequences and neon-bright paranormal storms, his trademark unholy concoctions of light in shadow and bright in shade adding dreamy realism to harsh reality.

In no way is POLTERGEIST a sub-par remake and for many horror fans, especially those who haven't seen the original, I know there is a good amount of love out there for this film. Maybe seeing the original spoils the experience for the less enthusiastic as all you can really do is compare. Would you let loose a witness on an identity parade who has been told what the murderer already looks like and what he is wearing?

I felt like the witness.
I expected to see a girl with a fringe in this film's identity parade - sitting in front of a TV and telling us that the ghosts are coming. Or a possessed tree trying to grab hold of a young boy getting chased by a jumping clown. And that's the problem with watching a fairly faithful remake as gooey seconds - you always know what's coming. There is nothing much new to be truly scared of here, despite attempts to update the film to a modern setting (the aforementioned drone in the spirit world being a highlight) instead of just having an ancient evil poke some bony hands out of a square box telly (which is now, of course, a bloody massive widescreen 3D one). A more interesting development could have been to let the spirits loose inside social media and have young Madison chased by a demon right across Twitter!

But as days pass, after watching this film, I remember things: the weird static and the children's genuine laughter; the failed credit card horror; the squirrel being chased and then chasing back the terrified dad; the floating drone in the spirit world linking modern technology with the afterlife . . There could be something here that grows up into  something of a cult movie one day. At first I wondered if something wasn't gelling. Now I wonder if the fractured scenario is more deliberate than I realised.


I actually quite enjoyed this POLTERGEIST after all, and I will watch it again when the sizzling ectoplasm settles down. Horror master Sam (original EVIL DEAD) Raimi is in the producer's chair and maybe that explains the quite oddball, languid touches that can be easy to dismiss as uncertain film-making rather than provocative. 


On a final, and especially positive, note - the casting of Kyle Catlett as the Bowen's son 'Griffin' is brilliant. This young actor treats the script and situations with deadly, jaw-dropping seriousness and adds some real intensity to the scenes he appears in; he takes on the updated role of local hero with clear and effortless glee.

Maybe it takes a young mind to truly believe in ghosts to lift a film into something a bit more special. Then again, maybe he's the only one of the cast who has never seen the original and the only one not intimidated by one of the best known and most loved horror films of all time!

It's probably too easy an assumption about sequels to make - I absolutely loved the updates of both CARRIE and LET ME IN (almost as much as the originals). I'm also looking forward to next year's SUSPIRIA with Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton. So I'm in no way remakist. But if they ever remake JAWS, I'm going to go ape. I mean shark. Or something.


We reviewed this disc! Includes original theatrical version, alternate ending and extended "extreme" cut . . 



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