The original Poltergeist is one of my favorite movies. The 1982 Spielberg* classic (*Tobe Hooper did not direct this movie. I don’t care what the credits or anyone says.) mixes equal parts fear and wonder and is anchored by stellar performances from Jobeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the embattled parents desperate to save their daughter Carol Ann from the clutches of other-worldy specters. The movie is enormously entertaining and boasts a fantastic script that keeps the story moving forward on the backs of the characters, not to move from plot point to plot point. It starts slowly enough for us to get to know, and like, the Freeling family so that when all hell starts to break loose you are rooting for them to conquer the evil and save their daughter. For it’s time the movie was a special effects marvel and still holds up well today.
The remake introduces us to a different family in a different neighborhood but the bones of the script are the same. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie Dewitt as Erik and Amy Bowen enlist the help of some paranormal investigators to save their daughter when she is sucked in to a spiritual netherworld and can only communicate with her parents through a TV. Once the investigators see the severity of the haunting they call in a ghost hunter TV star by the name of Carrigan Burke, played by Jared Harris. Sam Rockwell brings his default smart ass to the screen as Erik Bowen but once the terror starts the wisecracks stop. It’s a good role for him to show off his comedy chops but also some good drama scenes to dig in to as well. Rosemarie Dewitt is fine as the mom, Amy. She has good chemistry with the kids and Rockwell but can’t hold a candle to Jobeth Williams in the original.
A significant change tweaks the ending pretty significantly which lessens Amy’s role in the climactic rescue. Gone too is The Beast, the entity that was terrorizing the family – and all those trapped ghosts – in the 1982 movie. There is no evil force, it is just a bunch of extremely pissed off spirits that are trapped for some reason and unable to move on to the spectral light. The whole “they moved the graves and built the neighborhood but didn’t move the bodies!” reveal isn’t hit very hard. And the lack of the Beast preventing the spirits from going in to the light is a pretty big plot hole. What stopped the spirits from moving on when they were buried in the first place? The dialogue isn’t nearly as iconic this time either. “They’re here.” seems to be in the script so they can have it in the trailer because the line has no impact at all in the movie.
As a way of comparison, Tangina’s (Zelda Rubinstein) chilling line before entering Carol Anne’s bedroom at the end is: Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.
Carrigan’s similar line in the remake is…I don’t remember. I don’t think there was one. And that’s the primary problem with this version. It’s perfectly fine, it hits the plot points and is legitimately scary, but it just doesn’t have the elegance and event feel of the original. So you are left with the question of why did they remake Poltergeist in the first place. Other than to make money based on name recognition I can’t think of a single reason. That the movie ended up as good as it is for such a transparent nostalgia based cash grab is a testament to the game cast and the rock solid 33 year old script.