'Poltergeist': A splendid remake without depth of original

No more TV for you: Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as parents battling to hold on to their youngest daughter (Kennedi Clements), who has been targeted by terrifying apparitions, in "Poltergeist."

Director Gil Kenan's (City of Ember) enjoyable remake of Poltergeist, which opened Friday, has all the makings of a decent hit. The cast is wonderful. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are the perfect married couple, while Jared Harris is a scream as an Irish ghost hunter. And Kennedi Clements is aces in the role first assayed in 1982 by Heather O'Rourke as the little girl taken by ghosts into a parallel universe from which there seems to be no escape.

What's more, the screenplay - about a family that struggles to get their child back from a gaggle of very angry ghosts - is strong. The structure is sound, the photography superb (especially in the 3D edition), and special effects solid.

It's not exactly a scary film, but it does provide an enjoyable ride. It's good fun.

But it left me befuddled. A little sad. And a little angry.

Why would anyone want to remake Poltergeist in the first place?

It was hardly the most shocking film of its time, but Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist remains one of Hollywood's most memorable and enduring ghost stories because it had that one thing missing from other genre films - poetry.

Chalk it up to the influence of producer Steven Spielberg, who reportedly butted heads with Hooper throughout the production. They may not have enjoyed each other, but their conflict created a unique movie that was as much a classic fairy tale as it was a horror flick.

Take the procession of ghosts near the third act. Against Jerry Goldsmith's music, the specters, each lit like an otherworldly firefly, make their way down the staircase with a subtle majesty that's hard to forget. The reaction shots - JoBeth Williams' weeping face, Beatrice Straight's wide-eyed epiphanous smile - bring the scene home.

Take the shot of Williams as she describes how her daughter's essence has just moved through her.

There are no such moments in the remake. The original had a sense of fun that's also missing.

Take the kitchen scene near the top of the first story. Dad (Craig T. Nelson) watches with awe and pleasure as the house's ghost power sends his kids sliding from one side of the room to the other. One nice touch completes the effect: Both children are outfitted with football helmets. You know, just in case.

Even the ghosts in that film had character, individuality, personality. In the remake, they are amorphous, skeletal beings indistinguishable from one another.

While it's not exactly without heart and soul, Kenan's version doesn't go in for the little magical touches that fill the first. In one scene in the original, the little boy (Oliver Robins) has a terrifying encounter with a ghost-possessed toy clown. There is a palpable sense of existential dread here.

The new film streamlines the same scenes for maximum efficiency and effect. It squeezes out all the lyricism that made Poltergeist such a special treat.


Poltergeist ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Gil Kenan. With Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams. Distributed by

20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense frightening sequences, some profanity).

Playing at: Area theaters.




Directed by Gil Kenan. With Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Nicholas Braun, Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Kyle Catlett, Rosemarie DeWitt. Distributed by MGM.

Running time: 1 hours, 33 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language).