The closing credits for Gil Kenan’s remake of the 1982 horror classic “Poltergeist” feature the band Spoon covering the Cramps’ 1980 punk classic “TV Set.” Spoon is a tasteful, studious yet largely anodyne indie rock outfit that has become an NPR staple; the Cramps were a scuzzy, unhinged psychobilly band whose most famous gig took place in an actual mental hospital. It’s hard to think of a more fitting postscript for this professionally executed yet bloodless film, itself an act of homage that hews reverently to its source material while missing the essential spirit and vitality that once powered it. Generally entertaining yet fundamentally unnecessary, this tribute-band take on one of the genre’s greatest hits should score decent opening weekend numbers before finding its way into the light.
In addition to being one of the most unsettling PG-rated films ever made, the original “Poltergeist” — directed by Tobe Hooper, with not-insignificant input from producer-scripter Steven Spielberg — touched a particularly sensitive nerve thanks to its grasp on the early Reagan era zeitgeist. Steeped in the consumer comforts of the upwardly mobile middle class, the film ingeniously turned its most innocuous status symbols — the brand-name appliances, the cookie-cutter planned communities built on seemingly virgin territory, the comforting hum of static coming from TV sets in every room — into nexuses of terror.
Now three decades later, Kenan and scripter David Lindsay-Abaire have made efforts to contemporize the story’s framework, but these new touches never dig anywhere near as deep. Rather than a successful real estate agent, for example, paterfamilias Eric (Sam Rockwell) has recently been laid off from his job; his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), is no longer simply a homemaker, but rather an unsuccessful writer who effectively functions as a homemaker.
Faced with financial pressures, the two have moved their three children to an idyllic yet permanently overcast suburban community. (Why they would choose the precise moment when they’re both unemployed to buy a new four-bedroom house is a question for another day.) These kids include bratty teenager Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), cherubic 6-year-old Madison (Kennedi Clements), and middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett), who is afflicted with a level of anxiety befitting an early Woody Allen character, and is the first to notice strange, ghostly phenomena in their new abode.
As one would expect, all three youngsters are chained to their phones, tablets and remote-controlled drones, which are employed to mildly novel use throughout. Yet the film is most thoroughly modern not in its embrace of technology, but in its rush to accommodate compressed attention spans. Substantially shorter than its predecessor, the new “Poltergeist” has hardly even established its characters’ names before the kids are already being attacked by demonic clown dolls and reanimated corpses, and Madison, magnetically drawn to a malfunctioning TV set, is quickly abducted by the house’s malevolent spirits. From here, Kenan mimics the story beats of the original almost exactly, as the family turns first to a paranormal academic (Jane Adams), and later to a flamboyant medium (Jared Harris) to try to rescue their little one.
Less a steadily escalating thriller than a guided tour through a county-fair-style haunted house, “Poltergeist” offers some quality jump scares, and Kenan has a knack for staging solid individual setpieces. But he proves weirdly incapable of modulation or mood setting here, stringing together loud noises and “right behind you!” jolts without much regard for pacing or buildup. His directorial debut, “Monster House,” actually offered a far more clever take on traditional haunting tropes, as well as an obvious model for the character of Griffin, whose role here has been greatly expanded from his counterpart in the original.
The cast largely acquit themselves well, even when deprived of much opportunity to really develop their characters. As he did in last year’s “Laggies,” Rockwell plays the slightly boozy, goofy father figure with great charm and likability, and Catlett makes for a believably wise, harried tyke of the Haley Joel Osment mold. DeWitt is unfortunately rather ill served by the film’s most significant divergence from the original, which robs the character of her great moment of maternal heroism. Harris, taking over for Zelda Rubinstein, has fun channeling another vintage Spielberg production, “Jaws,” as a rough, scarred, Quint-essential spook-hunter.
Visually speaking, Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography is solid — and while generally unnecessary, the 3D work sometimes adds an extra layer of claustrophobia to the creeping interior shots — yet the film’s attempts to illustrate the spirit world bring to mind Nine Inch Nails videos more readily than any otherworldly chthonian purgatory. Composer Marc Streitenfeld turns in a largely effective score, though it can’t help but pale in comparison to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated original.
Indeed, even when one is inclined to admire the cleverness with which the remake revisits and reincorporates “Poltergeist’s” themes, it’s hard to pinpoint a single moment where it improves on them, and the aura of inessentiality hangs thick over the proceedings. Some franchises die, but they don’t know they’re gone. And then some franchises just get lost on their way to the reboot.