The original Poltergeist is a film that, while being iconic to a degree, is just obscure enough that it could have been remade properly without a problem. While certain elements of the film stick out in the memories of filmgoers, the exact plot is definitely dated enough that some modern renovations could work tremendously. While the final result of the 2015 remake still effectively brings Poltergeist into the 21st century, it does so at too great a cost to the film's integrity.
After moving into their new house, the Bowens (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt) notice some strange happenings occurring around the home. Objects are moving at their own will, electrical devices are acting funny, and their youngest daughter, Madison (Kennedi Clements) seems to have made some interesting imaginary friends. These friends are so interested in her that they'll do anything to hang out with her... even terrorize her family. As tensions mount and the interactions between the family and these invisible forces grow more violent, it looks like it'll take a specialist to truly clean house.
While Poltergeist isn't a horrible horror remake, it isn't a particularly memorable one. Casting Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as the Bowen parents is a good choice, but the script doesn't leave them, or their fictional children, with any chance to truly shine. The groundwork was laid, as details such as Rockwell's character being unemployed and possibly an alcoholic are seeded into the story, but are never followed through to their full potential. You'd think that the scare factor of the film would have been the focus if that were the case, but even the horror component of Poltergeist chooses to rely on a lot of jump scares and loud music to fool the audience into thinking it's terrified.
That's not to say that Poltergeist is a complete waste of time, as it does still have the basic components of what could have been a great movie. Despite being a bit two dimensional, the entire family ensemble is believable as a functioning unit. This makes their scenes together some of the strongest in the entire film. Also, while the scares aren't terribly new or creative, there are some really strong visual choices that work extremely well – elements like the depiction of the spirit realm, and the usage of cell phones and tablets as further conduits to broadcast creepy vibes. But the ultimate standout of Poltergeist is Jared Harris' Carrigan Burke, the film's updated version of Zelda Rubenstein's spiritual medium from the original.
Much like David Tennant's Peter Vincent revamp in the Fright Night remake in 2011, Harris' character is an irreverent spin on an outdated concept – brought to life by the actor's undeniable charm. With the limited screen time Carrigan Burke has, he somehow commanded the film and got more of a reaction out of me than any of the “main” characters did throughout the rest of the film, and that's the greatest sin Poltergeist commits against its audience. The remake is 21 minutes shorter than the original, but in those 21 minutes, the promises made involving both the characters and the threat against them could have been built into solidly executed concepts, putting this film in the rarefied airs of artistically successful remakes before it.
Sadly, Poltergeist doesn't aspire to anything greater than being a decent first draft of what had the potential to be an impressive remake. It's not a painful watch, and it's enjoyable enough that in the right mindset you could have fun with it. In the end though, the potential it teases its audience with throughout the film is like the orbs of light that summon Madison into the back of her haunted closet. I'm not mad at Poltergeist for not living up to its full potential, I'm just disappointed that it got so much wrong for all of the things it did right.