Poltergeist 2015 is to Poltergeist '82 what today's shipped-frozen-to-the-store Pizza Hut dough is to the kneaded-on-site pies the chain's stoned cooks tossed in the Reagan era. It's the same kind of thing, with the same shape and some shared ingredients, but the texture's gone limp, and there's no sense of occasion about it, and there's some unpalatable goop stuffed in the crust. In a pinch, it beats pizzalessness — but just barely.
The corporate strategy is straight-up remake: In this new Poltergeist, a family moves into a suburban development, grooves to some supernatural oddities, loses a kid inside a TV and then spends too many scenes hollering at lights in a closet. The story's been given a minor tech upgrade — you know that drone the son gets as a random gift will pay off later — but don't expect major surprises. It's not like they try to DVR the ghosts in the flatscreen or anything.
Sometimes this Poltergeist plays as if Throwback Thursday were a movie. Many of the scares are the same, which means fans of the original likely will be preoccupied comparing them: The scary clown doll is now a full box of scary clown dolls, which is remake logic distilled to its essence. The body-horror sink grossout is dialed way back, because a 2015 PG-13 would run home bawling if it ever saw a 1982 PG. The spirit realm in the closet is here fully realized, first as an Under the Skin–style void and later as a marvelous corridor of bones and souls. And the killer tree? That's a groaner on both sides of the millennium, with computer effects somehow less persuasive than the practical work of 33 years ago. (In the pizza metaphor above, CGI is the cheese in the crust.)
The filmmakers — director Gil Kenan, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire — fare better with some new stuff, especially a bit involving a grad student, a drill and the closet of horrors. And they make a go of honoring the original's attention to suburban life as it's actually lived. A fitful, amusing Sam Rockwell plays the father, an ex-jock who introduces himself to a Realtor by announcing the job from which he's been laid off: “John Deere, corporate,” he says, unsure what he is now. The movie mostly avoids winking at us about Poltergeist history, but his wife — played with warm wit by Rosemarie DeWitt — suggests he consider taking a job at the high school as a coach, which must count as 2015's sneakiest Craig T. Nelson joke.
DeWitt's character is less well drawn: She's an author of some sort. But like Nelson and JoBeth Williams in the original, she and Rockwell share a frisky, vibrant connection. The movie peaks with Mom complaining about her worn-out undies and Dad hopeful she might take them off — these two are so funny that it's a shame the ghosts have to arrive.
The early scenes have some old-fashioned snap and rigor to them, with multiple ideas often communicated within a single shot. Kenan does good work establishing the layout of the home, suggesting that something's not quite right, stirring that childhood sense that the mundane world has edged up against something darker. But the remake grows less interesting as it goes, with final scares dipping into surprising lameness. I started checking my watch around the time Jared Harris turns up as a reality TV ghost-hunter. The good news: We're spared parodic scenes of celeb ego and fraudery, but those might have made more sense than the truncated arc he's given, which builds to an act of muddled redemption. If this guy has been faking it on TV, as the film alleges, why is he the one who immediately groks the rules for this particular haunting?
Eventually, during one of those FX climaxes it's easier for the mind to wait out than to assemble into meaning, Harris chants some go-away-spirits boilerplate at the house. It's tepid, and entirely unconnected to any particular strain of spiritualism, and I couldn't believe it when the movie insisted that the poltergeist would stop to listen.
Much more interesting is Jane Adams as an academic brought in to investigate the house and the inevitable missing child. The movie makes no time for her character, but Adams crafts a memorable one anyway, playing grave and perceptive and just a dot flighty, all at once. She fully measures up to the Joyce Carol Oates glasses she wears in her final scene — and if we must have a sequel, doesn't that sound like the one to root for, Joyce Carol Oates: Ghost Stomper?
One other thing this Poltergeist has in common with its predecessor: It's not directed by Steven Spielberg. Yes, his fingerprints and sensibility are all over Tobe Hooper's original, which Spielberg produced, and they're here, too, especially when, Close Encounters–style, toys and iPads flicker to life in the middle of the night. That sequence, with the camera roaming from master bedroom to the TV downstairs, boasts a shivery wonder, especially when the son, a slip of a boy, descends to the living room, his silhouette a dead ringer for the skinny grays who took Richard Dreyfuss to the heavens. But that original Poltergeist is no more Spielberg's film than Raiders of the Lost Ark is Lucas'. The best evidence is right there on the screen: Steven Spielberg directing a story with a loving, attentive, constantly present father in it? That's as crazy as expecting a horror remake that transcends its source — or a well-pounded pie from a Pizza Hut.