Last week, news of the Poltergeist remake set fire to the Internet, and not in a good way. In an interview with Collider, Sam Rockwell, who has been cast as father figure Eric Bowen in the remake, dished out details about the new film. And what he shared may give pause to some fans of the original, including myself.
I should probably disclose that the 1982 film Poltergeist is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love it. I’ve loved it since I was a small child and I love it now. Every time it comes on TV, I drop everything and let myself get sucked into the world of the Freeling Family—mother Diane, father Steven, and children Dana, Robbie, and Carol Ann. Poor, sweet Carol Ann. It’s utterly compelling—well-acted, scary, and an incredibly well-balanced story. It’s amazing and awesome and you can’t convince me otherwise. It doesn’t need to be remade.
So it’s not surprising that my immediate reaction to news of a remake (an unnecessary remake) was to make this face:
But then, there are the details of the remake itself. According to Sam Rockwell:
—The remake is going to be in 3D. (um…ok)
—The remake is going to be more of an adventure film than a horror film, specifically, it will be “more of a kids’ movie.” (OMG WHY?)
—The remake will be told from the point of view of one of the children, and not include the parents’ point of view. (………!)
This specific quote made me wrinkle my nose in disbelief: “The 10-year-old boy is really the protagonist this time. JoBeth Williams was the protagonist for the most part in the first one and now the kid, it’s really through his point-of-view. So it’s more of a kids’ movie so I don’t know if it’s gonna be like rated-R scary.’”
When I read that, I’m pretty sure I made this face:
All of this is to say that Sam Rockwell’s comments have caused me to critically evaluate why I love the original. I can appreciate that this remake is taking a different route by trying to be imaginative with the source material. I just feel that the strength of the source material rests on its multiple points of view, from the family’s point of view. That’s what made it so good.
In fact, the film takes great care to invite the viewer into the life of this family, which it accomplishes with an incredible attention to detail as it moves through the perspectives of the family members. As a child, I played with the toys that Robbie and Carol Ann play with—the remote control car, the star wars figures, the baby dolls. Every kid has been scared of that creepy doll in her room or the ominous tree outside his room. Every kid identifies with the scene where the Freeling children tease each other at breakfast. Every kid sympathizes with Carol Ann when her pet bird dies and it must be buried. Every kid knows that there are toys to return to, and the bird is quickly forgotten.
And every grown-up who watches this movie sees the children through the Diane and Steven’s eyes—the messiness at breakfast, the general disarray of the children’s bedrooms, the struggle to keep the living room clean and orderly, and the relative sanctuary of their bedroom.
I watch the parents move through their day-to-day activities, like managing the house or dealing with a definitely sleazy boss. I see that sometimes their children exasperate them. I see their hard work. I see them balance real world expectations with their children’s innocence. And I also see how they take refuge with each other in their relationship.
The point being, the film works incredibly hard to show the audience exactly who the family members are. The children love their parents, but their lives are those of happy kids—they play, they tease each other, they roll their eyes at their parents. They want for nothing. They have no real worries. They are safe and warm and loved. And Diane and Steven love their family. They’ve worked hard to build a life together and create a comfortable, warm home. They have a good relationship with their children—Diane is appropriately stable and nurturing and Steven is appropriately stern and caring. They’re also still in love, playfully ribbing each other, sneaking a joint now and then, and generally enjoying their relationship.
Before the paranormal activity begins, before Carol Ann vanishes, every character feels that life is balanced.
Consequently, when I watch this movie, I feel what the characters feel, what the family feels. I am emotionally invested. The film exploits my vicarious instinct to slot myself into the family unit. And when the ghosts take Carol Ann, I care about every single character. The disappearance of Carol Ann happens to each of the five family members, and they happen to me five times over.
As a child, I couldn’t help but see myself as a Freeling kid, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to have Diane and Steven as my parents. I was terrified. I felt helpless. I didn’t really grasp the nuances of the story—all I understood was that Carol Ann was in danger. But I had to wait. I had to trust that the Diane and Steven would figure out what to do.
As an adult, I’m closer to the parents’ point of view because of my age and the fact that I am in a committed relationship with someone I hope to have children with someday. So I experience a whole new level of fear when I put myself in Diane and Steven’s shoes. When the ghosts take Carol Ann, I know exactly what’s at stake. Everything Diane and Steven have together—their children, their safety, their sanity, their lives—could be destroyed. What if it was my life? What if my spouse and I couldn’t save what we built? I feel their struggle to keep control. I feel them fight to find strength, for their children, for each other.
Using the children’s point of view, the film makes clear the awful dependency and helplessness of being a child. Using the parents’ point of view, the film illuminates the terrible fear that everything you have in life could be destroyed by powerful, incomprehensible forces that you may not defeat. The stakes are incredibly high.
And at the end of the film, when Diane and Steven use their relationship as strength to bring Carol Ann back from the spirit world, they reaffirm the foundation of the whole family. They hold the world together. It’s cathartic for everyone—the children, Diana and Steven, and for me. The family pulled together in the face of a horrible event and survived, intact. Each family member is changed, but they are stronger for it.
It is these nuances, these layers of storytelling, that I fear will evaporate in the remake. I’m worried that by removing the parents’ point of view, the stakes won’t feel as high and the danger won’t feel as great. It might be something like The Goonies, which is a great film, but did anyone ever doubt that the children wouldn’t succeed or that the bad guys would be defeated? I don’t know about you, but Poltergeist still scares me. Even though I know the ending, there’s always a part of me that worries they won’t get Carol Ann back.
If the producers of the Poltergeist remake wanted to make an adventure movie about ghosts, why not find a new script? A new story? It doesn’t make any sense to take a classic and strip away an essential aspect of the film, thereby fundamentally altering the story.
Who knows? Maybe this will be a new adventure classic. What do you think? Will you go see the new Poltergeist remake?