I don’t think 20th Century Fox likes Poltergeist very much. They dumped their NYC press screening on literally the same night as the film comes out, which wasn’t a good sign. Typically, for larger movies, the press screenings happen a few days or even a week or so in advance, so that positive buzz has some time to wing its way through the ‘net. If there’s virtually no time between when reviewers see the movie and when it opens, it usually means the studio thinks their movie won’t get positive buzz… because they think it sucks.
And, to be fair, with a 46% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, reviews for Poltergeist haven’t been great. All signs point to this being a mediocre, forgettable, unecessary horror remake.
Because Poltergeist is actually pretty damn good. You already know the basic plot: Family moves into house. House is over cemetery. Poltergeist poltergeistnaps young child. Shenanigans. Nothing unexpected there. What took me by surprise is how damn fun this movie is. Sam Rockwell, blessed be his name, has a tendency to be in some really shitty movies (Better Living Through Chemistry, Iron Man 2) among the Moons and the Seven Psychopaths (Psychopathss?). Here, he shines as Eric Bowen, an awkward suburban father of three who drives a minivan and has slight snarky jackass tendencies. (In a scene with wife Amy, he toasts his three children: “Here’s to little jerks.”) He and Rosemarie DeWitt, playing Amy, have great chemistry. The Bowen family feels like a real family, one you’re happy to watch for a slim 93 minutes (hey, look, a movie that’s not 2+ hours!) while they deal with some supernatural shit.
There’s a scene involving a box of clown dolls that the previous tenants must have left in the house. (“Who would have a box full of clowns?!,” asks a panicked Griffin, the anxiety-prone son of the Bowen family.) There is no reason, in the plot, for there to be a clown scene. Clowns have nothing to do with the plot. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire and director Gil Kenan put it in there because it’s creepy and it’s fun. And it is. Suck it.
Poltergeist’s biggest problem is that, honestly, it’s not that scary. There were a few scenes that had me hiding behind my hands (Clowns. A drill.), but for the most part there were more chuckles than gasps. That’s fine for me, because I’m a wimp when it comes to horror movies, but I understand how it may be a sticking point for horror aficionados and uber-fans of the original film.
In fact, the trailers did Poltergeist a huge injustice by presenting it as a straight horror movie, forcing comparisons between it and its predecessor. Really, what Fox should have done is highlight the differences: “We know the original’s great, and you’re probably scoffing at the idea of a remake, but this its own movie with its own vibe. Sam Rockwell mock-fights a squirrel.”
I’m not a hardcore horror fan, so I can’t say whether hardcore horror fans will like this movie. But I can say that I think Poltergeist has potential outside the group of people who normally see horror movies. It’s scary, but not too scary. It’s PG-13. There’s no gore. Jared Harris is there, swanning around as a reality TV ghosthunter with an Irish accent up to 11. “Oh, her!” actress Jane Adams kills it as a paranormal researcher. All the characters are the sort of people I’d want to hang out and shoot the shit with, and there’s clever dialogue a’plenty.
And Sam Rockwell: