Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard// Film Critic
This originally ran on VeryAware.com
With this weekend’s release of director Gil Kenan’s POLTERGEIST modernization, many of you are probably wondering why anyone even bothered remaking the sufficiently scary 1982 original. For thirty-three years, director Tobe Hooper’s PG-rated horror classic has existed and made us afraid of closets, new housing developments and clowns. Over those years, however, the collective American Dream – an ideology the original film was commenting on – has morphed into somewhat of a nightmare with this countries pestilence of foreclosures, layoffs and, yes, clowns. It’s for that reason and assumedly the studio’s need to retain the rights to property that have birthed the remake.
Is it any good? Sorta. Let’s break down the similarities and differences. Though I’d like to remain as spoiler-free as possible, in order to do an in-depth examination, I must divulge some third act details (of which I’ll give ample warning).
Building the American dream vs. the crumbling of the American dream. In the Mark Victor, Micheal Grais and Steven Spielberg-penned original, the Freeling family of Cuesta Verde are putting in pool – the ultimate height of eighties luxury. The neighborhood is awash in families, kids and suburban friendly warmth. In the David Lindsay-Abaire-penned update, the Bowen family are downsizing after Dad (Sam Rockwell) lost his job at John Deere. Their new home of choice is a “shithole” located in Willow Point, IL, a subdivision in the midst of a recession with many homes abandoned due to foreclosure and a mall that were’ told has been boarded up (though Dad manages to shop there later for an iPhone and remote control drone). Point: 1982
That terrifying tree. In both iterations, the tree symbolizes protection and putting down family roots – and in both those pure intentions get perverted. In the original, Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson) purposely built their family home next to the old decaying tree. In the new version, it’s already there and it’s super creepy with its skinny branch tentacles. Only it just tosses middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett, who’s this film’s MVP) around and doesn’t try to eat him like the other tree does with Robbie (Oliver Robins). Point: 1982
The paranormal psychologist’s monologue about death and the afterlife has been cut. Hooper’s original is a little over twenty minutes longer than the Kenan’s remake. It takes a giant dip in forward moving momentum when Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) speaks with Robbie and Mom Diane (JoBeth Williams) about spirits and the afterlife. The slow moving conversation adds nothing to the narrative. Kenan’s iteration at least has a snappier, livelier pace. Point: 2015
In the original, the rest of the Freeling kids are sent away whilst mom and dad battle the beast. Robbie and the family dog take a cab to grandma’s and Dana (Dominique Dunne) stays over at her friend’s home. In the new iteration, the family stays together, battling the spirit underworld a strong cohesive unit. Point: 2015
The line is “they’re here,” and not “they’re coming [pause a few seconds] they’re here.” This matters. Why waste time on superfluous dialogue? Point: 1982
#ThisHouseIsClean. Baby-voiced clairvoyant Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein) says this line in the original that’s now been turned into a hashtag in the remake. It’s the update’s most harmless fun homage. Point: Tie
The Bowen parents don’t smoke pot, but do attempt having sex. In the original, The Freelings were busy getting high (a horror movie no-no) when their scurred son interrupts them. In the remake, they are almost about to get it on (again, a horror movie no-no) when Griffin bursts in complaining about noises in his attic room. Point: Tie
Almost innocuous details yield the same effect. The kids noticing bent silverware plays the exact same. However, instead of Diane spotting their kitchen chairs stacked, it’s Griffin spotting his comic books stacked. Point: Tie
Tangina vs. Carrigan Burke. Not only is her explanation of the spectral universe is handled better, but her character by in large is much meatier. Jared Harris, who plays the ghost hunting reality TV star, is dealt a bit of a disservice. He’s got the chops but is relegated to caricature. At least Rubenstein’s role was unflinchingly serious. Point: 1982
The Freelings vs. The Bowens. Even though Kenan and screenwriter Lindsay-Abaire (RABBIT HOLE) show us the Bowens have a real and resonant bond with barely any sibling squabbles and a modest clash between teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) and her father, the cast don’t have any cohesive chemistry. It makes it hard to believe they’re a family when there’s no bond between the actors. Point: 1982
Eighties Clown vs. Modern Clown. Let’s face it; clowns are scary. The major difference between the two film is how each of the scenes plays. In the 1982 version, it’s pure horror. The clown is one demented demon. In the modern version, from moment one, its appearance is wisely played for its humorous undertones. From Griffin asking his dad, “who keeps a box of clowns?!” to the way the clown toys plop themselves around his room, it goes beyond tension-relief humor into a joke that’s genuinely a lot of fun. Kenan made clowns fun again! Three Points: 2015
Carol Anne vs. Maddy’s abduction. Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is pulled in by extreme force as if she were being kidnapped by brute force. This seems to prey on the eighties fear of the rampant child abductions. In the remake, Maddie (Kennedi Clements) is lured in, thanks to help from her covetable half-pig, half-unicorn toy “Piggiecorn.” This seems to prey on the parental fear that toys and commodities are seducing kids. Point: 1982
Marty vs. Boyd. In the original, Marty (Martin Casella), Dr. Lesh’s tech-savvy assistant, has a memorable clash with the spirits when they interrupt his midnight meat snack and make him believe his face is melting off. In the new film, Boyd (Nicholas Braun), Dr. Brooke Powell’s (Jane Adams) tech-savvy assistant, combats the spirits with a power drill. It’s a memorable sequence and one of the few heightened thrills. Point: Tie
Sorry Marc Streitenfeld but… nothing is as iconic and off-setting as Jerry Goldsmith’s original score. The strings, the swells, the sounds of the children’s choir’s laughter that eerily closes the original. Though this is still a compliment, you’ll barely Streitenfeld’s score. Point: 1982
Even with a more extreme PG-13 rating, the 2015 version is not nearly as bone-chilling, palm-sweatingly intense as the original. What’s with the ratings system in this country? Was it broken in the 80’s or is it broken now? Despite all the shocking and scary imagery, the original film was PG. It preyed on personal fears – fear of the unknown, of death and of nightmarish imagined scenarios like being trapped in pool with corpses bubbling to surface or a never-ending hallway when trying to rescue the kids. A husband betrayed by his company and now his friends and family can’t trust him. In the new film, we never get any sense of scope and scale of these kinds of terror. Point: 1982
The graveyard twist. In the 2015 iteration, it’s revealed in the second act and then it’s like the filmmakers do a collective shrug with that revelation. They actually might make it worse because characters do that maddening thing where no one shares crucial information with each other. Point: 1982
The rescue from the spirit world. In the original, Mom saves Carol Anne. Lindsay-Abaire admirably diverts from this, having brother Griffin enter into the void to save lil’ sis Maddie. Griffin saving the day is a much stronger choice as it follows through a solid character arc. He’s timid and terrified at beginning and this marks a huge leap of bravery for his character. Plus, it shows Catlett acting skills to be the film’s greatest strength. Though I would have liked to have seen the entire film carried from his perspective, he’s utilized perfectly. Point: 2015
The incomplete quest. It’s a small, but significant moment when Maddie points out she didn’t actually help any of the in-limbo spirits on their quest. Ultimately, it’s a better, more logical move rather than the audience having to think that as they did with the original. Point: 2015
The final five minutes. Sadly, for all we go through with the rote remake, the final five minutes are incredibly weak. They try to go for a laugh, but can’t quite stick the landing as perfectly as its predecessor. That TV set being kicked out of the Freeling’s motel room is a helluva magnificent and memorable stinger to end on. The new one is much more flat. Point: 1982
Tally —1982: 10 points vs. 2015: 7 points
POLTERGEIST 2015 is now available on DVD/ Blu-ray, as is POLTERGEIST 1982.