Poltergeist

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Between this new Poltergeist remake and the upcoming Jurassic World, I guess 2015 is the year we collectively set aside to lavish Steven Spielberg with tongue baths. I mean, I’m glad we can all agree that Spielberg is a great director, but is there such a drought of new ideas that we have to go about recycling like this? Of course not! It’s just that if it doesn’t carry enough name recognition to make a guaranteed return on investment during opening weekend, then the cynical, ponderous Hollywood mechanism wants nothing to do with it. So then we get soulless, transparent cash-grabs like this.

From a critical standpoint, the film shot itself in the foot from the word “go” by having the temerity to call itself Poltergeist, necessarily inviting comparisons to Spielberg’s original film from 1982—a far superior movie, incidentally; but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you? For those of you out of the loop, the original Poltergeist was a surprisingly intelligent little supernatural horror flick with an undercurrent of satire aimed at the shallow, superficial suburban decadence that consumed the American middle class in the 1980s, and perhaps still does today. Vitally, that theme was an essential element of the plot, whereas in the new Poltergeist, the “blind consumerism” angle is replaced, in a rather conciliatory way, with an “over-reliance on technology” angle, and even this half-hearted nod to the original is quickly dropped when the writer can’t think of anywhere to go with it.

And speaking of writing, the one responsible for this floundering, go-nowhere knockoff is none other than David Lindsay-Abaire. “Who?” you might ask. Well, he’s the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole, since you’re so curious. I’m told that it’s actually pretty famous as plays go, but that being said, it’s baffling how tepid and all-around bland this screenplay is, considering the acclaim of the author’s previous work. Not even Sam Rockwell, who really hasn’t had a bad performance to date, can save the script from being just generally drab and uninspired.

My main problem with the film is that it’s so overwhelmingly safe. It takes no risks and pushes no boundaries; you know, exactly what you shouldn’t do if you plan on remaking a beloved staple of the horror genre. That new Evil Dead that came out a few years ago—also produced by Sam Raimi, incidentally—was at least something that took a few chances, regardless of it’s overall quality. But what we have here is basically the same points as the first Poltergeist with vastly worse execution. No anthropomorphic trees, no dead-body swimming pool hijinks, no apparitions, no “gotcha” twist ending because the pacing was all wrong, no classic Speilbergian face-melting, and perhaps most importantly, no Tangina Barrons (or equivalent).

While we’re drawing parallels between the two films, allow me to draw another. Remember that little old lady in Poltergeist who came to “cleanse” the house? The lady with the high, squeaky voice and a face like an English bulldog’s? Well, what if I told you that the eccentric medium in question, Tangina Barrons, was basically Spielberg’s answer to Lucas’s Yoda; that is, a physically small and frail being possessed of immense spiritual power. Needless to say, that whole genre-subverting element is lost when you cast someone like Jared Harris in her place.

Likewise, the decision to show the interior of the iconic dead-world wasn’t one that should be taken lightly, as the decision to avoid showing it in the original film and simply portraying it a mysterious, cloying blackness afforded it a certain mystique. While the imagery they decided to go with in the remake is admittedly quite striking—a horde of bodies crawling over each other in a scrambling mass—but to immediately put pay to any good will the film may have built up, they decided to do it in fake-looking CG that comes across as more laughably low-budget that frightening.

Not helping matters at all is the fact that literally every single one of the film’s even remotely scares were given away in the trailer. See, I was always under the impression that a trailer was intended to set the tone of the film, maybe get the audience exited to meet the characters or intrigue them with a unique setting—not, as it’s apparently done nowadays, to serve as a substitute for the film itself.

Frankly, I don’t have much more to say about this disappointing mess of a film. On the bright side, it’s relatively short, so you won’t have to endure it for too long, and “endure” really is the right word. The film does nothing to set itself apart from the veritable stampede of similar “baby’s first horror movies” that get released periodically throughout the year. It’s disappointing because even with a metaphorical cheat sheet—the first Poltergeist movie—Abaire and director Gil Kenan seem to have decided to tackle a remake without a thorough understanding of what made it a good movie in the first place. Ah, but what’s artistic integrity when there’s the movie-going public to fleece, right?

Rating: 2 out of 5

 

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Netflix Movie of the Week #12: Grave Encounters

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As a self proclaimed film critic, I feel that it’s my obligation to force my favorite genres on the masses whenever I get the opportunity. With James DeMonaco’s The Purge hitting theaters this weekend, I thought I’d share with you a horror film that isn’t awful, in order to compensate for The Purge inevitably sucking like a vacuum-powered prostitute. With that in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to a film almost no one has watched, despite it’s being one of the better horror properties of 2011. Grave Encounters is a mockumentary style film directed by Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who are together known as ‘The Vicious Brothers’. The story follows a team of paranormal investigators as they shoot an episode for their reality TV show. Naturally, the mental hospital that the team is investigating turns out to be legitimately haunted and mayhem ensues.

Granted, the premise sounds like the quintessential cliched horror flick, and that’s because it is, but where Grave Encounters really shines is in it’s writing and it’s almost Blair Which-like suspense and tension. The film features a mostly ensemble cast starring people that you’ve never heard of, but performances are serviceable in as much as the actors know exactly what this film is supposed to be- a fun, scary, over the top stab at the horror genre. The dialogue is engaging and the banter between characters provides some welcome comic relief amid the teeth-gritting terror.

While the writing is very well done and the scares are fun and effective, what really stuck with me about this movie was the ending. I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that the vast majority of the cast ends up dead by the end, but the film ends with the host of the ‘Grave Encounters’ TV program, played by Sean Rogerson, trapped in a pitch-black tunnel with a crawling blackness closing in around him on all sides. By this time, he’s gone through so much that he’s started to become increasingly unhinged. In the final scene, his madness really comes through and the audience is left to question whether or not the protagonist has become delusional under the influence of the very mental institution that he’s been trying to investigate.

Surprisingly, the film has gotten fairly poor ratings across the board, presumably because horror films, by definition, cater to a niche audience. It’s my advice, however, to ignore the ratings, as people in general are not to be trusted. If you decide to give Grave Encounters a watch, be aware that there’s also a sequel, Grave Encounters 2, which takes a much more tongue-in-cheek take on the property, in much the same spirit as Evil Dead 2.

Rating: 4 out of 5