Despite its reputation, and a nice slow buildup to the ghostly arrivals (“They’re here!”), the 1982 original Poltergeist is not a very scary film. Ask any real horror fan. Written and supervised by Steven Spielberg, though technically directed by Tobe Hooper, it had a few frightening moments: the approaching storm sequence, the instant-rotting snack, and the finale with pop-up skeletons. But its real appeal was its Spielbergian sense of wonder — the haunted room with objects spinning through the air like a toy-box kaleidoscope and the child-eating closet, all set against the cookie-cutter banality of its suburban setting down the street from E.T. It was a ghost story drenched in Simi Valley light.
So you might imagine a remake would imply scarier, or, failing that, some deeper significance for the family who buys a tract home built by cynical developers (the only kind) on top of a graveyard. But no. There are frightening incidents, but this shorter version squanders them: the clown doll, a closet that eats power tools and children, and comic books that build themselves into a pyramid. Really the scariest moment of all is when Sam Rockwell (as dad Eric Bowen) goes to the hardware store and two of his credit cards don’t work. The drone piloting through the underground populated by staring ghouls — well, that’s Spielbergian.
It’s not a total waste of time, though. Most of the remake’s appeal comes from the attractive cast beginning with Rockwell and his costar Rosemarie DeWitt, so good in Your Sister’s Sister as the seducer. Little girl Kennedi Clements is spooky eating cereal, but that’s not a special effect. There’s a weird subplot concerning college exorcist (Jane Adams) and TV ghosthunter (Jared Harris, son of Richard Harris). But a new cast and a concise plot hardly seem like recommendations unless you’re thinking of buying a short-sell house in a Spielberg suburb with bad credit. If it’s too good to be true, go looking for clown dolls. Then, at least, you’ll know who to call.