Saturday, January 23, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Poltergeist (2015)

There's a certain film criticism that goes along the lines of 'there's no real reason for this to exist.' You see it a lot with remakes, where the person making the comment is announcing their displeasure at a beloved property being rehashed. It's an argument I've made a few times myself, but I've recently come to the conclusion that I should stop saying that. Art, even crassly commercial art, doesn't need a reason to exist beyond its own existence. Movies exist to, first and foremost, entertain. I think people forget that sometimes when they gravitate towards challenging arthouse fare, and they begin to look down on more blatantly commercial endeavors. But they forget that even the most glacially paced, abstractly plotted, cerebral thinkpiece is still meant, at least on some level, to entertain you. What people find entertaining is highly subjective, and there's no reason a superhero movie or a horror movie isn't as worthwhile a way to spend 2 hours as your average Fellini film. I've seen the 'why does this exist?' comment in almost every Poltergeist review I looked at, and yet the movie does exist, it's here, so might as well not bother complaining about that basic fact. And so I will talk a bit about the recent remake of Poltergeist, and I will be critical of it, but I will never question it's existence.

That being said, I have to admit that this film did mostly inspire fond recollections of the original film, and never quite improved on the original formula. In fact, as the film went along it seemed to become more and more slavish to the original material. I will say this much; I enjoyed Poltergeist for most of its running time, though I felt it all fell apart in the film's final minutes. A lot of that was the casting; Sam Rockwell is great as the unemployed father who has to downsize his family into a less desirable (though still enviable) neighborhood, but he's great in everything he does, and Jared Harris, in the Zelda Rubinstein roll, though this time he's the host of one of those cheesy cable ghost hunting shows, is always a treat, although most films tend to underuse him, as this one does. But a lot of it also comes down to the tone established by director Gil Kenan, who captures a lightness, and a sense of fun, that is sorely missing from a lot of horror films these days. On the other hand, he also foreshadows the horror elements way too much in the early stretches of the film, during which anxious middle child Kyle Catlett wanders around the family's new suburban home and stares forebodingly at objects and rooms that will become important later on.

As I said, Poltergeist becomes less original as it goes along, and by the middle stretch of the film is basically following the plot of the first film beat for beat, with only minor tweaks. Thought that clown doll in the original was scary? What if this time there were a dozen of them? This wasn't too horrible, actually, and actually had a few fun moments. The scene in which the ghosts finally make themselves known (to the audience if not the family) came with a neat visual, as lightbulbs would turn on and then flare out just as the next one in line started to flare up. Also some of the ghostly white orbs had a neat old school look to them, complete with Spielbergian lens flares. If the film had actually carried on in this manner, I may have enjoyed it more. However, about 15 minutes until the end of the film, everything falls apart.

Throughout the film the big problem with it is that the reasons behind the paranormal activity is a little vague. Sure, the basic premise is the same as the original film;cemetery was moved, but really they just moved the headstones and left the corpses in the ground, which when you think about it makes no sense. Surely the construction of such a large suburban neighborhood would have required a lot of digging, somebody must have noticed those bodies. So I understand why there are pissed off ghosts, the film just never defines what the ghosts can do, why they're doing what they're doing what they're doing, or why they kidnap the youngest daughter. There's some throwaway line about how she can see ghosts, and is at the height of her purity (which comes across as creepier a sentiment than much of the ghostly activity), and yet once the ghosts kidnap her they don't appear to be very interested in her, and she just wanders around the ghost version of their house.

If the film is a bit fuzzy on the specifics of its own mythology, the finale is inexplicably vague and confusing, with the paranormal rules of the film seemingly changing at random with no visible rhyme or reason. Characters  make sudden decisions that apparently help save the day, but it's not clear how or why those decisions work, or even why anybody thought to make them. It's also impossible to determine the fate of many of the major characters, with at least one person appearing to die before the credits roll, only to show up alive and well with no explanation in a post-credits tag. Really, it was surprising how confusing the ending was, and I suspect some studio notes may be to blame. Or perhaps the film was rushed into development before the script could be fixed and they just never figured it out. Whatever the reasons, the ending was enough to drop my rating by half a point or so.

Final Rating: 2.5(out of 5)

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