Poltergeist (2015)


A show of hands.

A show of hands.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox/MGM) Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow, Doug MacLeod, Eve Crawford, L.A. Lopes, Soma Bhatia, John Stoneham Jr., Kathryn Greenwood, Molly Kidder. Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a movie is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to horror movies. The trick is to stay true to the original material while making it fresh and original enough that fans of the original feel like they’re seeing something new as opposed to a shot-by-shot rip-off. Add to the mix that it is an iconic film like the 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist, which was originally directed by Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper and produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and you’ve got yourself a tall order.

Taller still because most of your target audience will have seen the original except for maybe a few disdainful Millennials who don’t watch “old” movies, and yet it is that crowd who may enjoy this movie the most as they will see it without the baggage that the rest of us take into the multiplex with us. It is hard not to compare the movie to its source material, and yet it is at the same time somewhat unfair until you remember that the filmmakers knew what they were getting themselves into.

Many of the original elements remain; a modern family in a modern suburban home (in this case, in Illinois) that has a bit of a history, beset by paranormal activity of increasing malevolence. A little girl disappears and can be heard from the television set. Paranormal researchers who are blown away by the level of phenomena they witness. A psychic who may well be the only hope to get the little girl back.

Gil Kenan was a pretty odd choice to direct this; he has mostly directed family-oriented fare like the Oscar-nominated Monster House and the kid-centric fantasy City of Ember. The original Poltergeist had kids in it of course, but the focus was on the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Kenan chooses to make the middle child, Griffin (Catlett) the focus and to enhance his character with all sorts of neuroses and anxieties. The kid needs some Valium, or at least some therapy which his mother actually vocalizes at one point. Having a kid who jumps at every bump in the night in a house that is haunted by angry spirits seems a little cruel.

Rockwell and DeWitt, who play the parents, are underwritten compared to their two youngest, Catlett and Clements (the Heather O’Rourke of this movie). There are tantalizing bits of business; DeWitt’s character is a writer working on a book, but we never see her even attempting to write. Rockwell’s character has been laid off from John Deere and at one point there’s an indication that he has a drinking problem, but that’s never explored. They seem to be good parents and decent people but we don’t really get to know them very much.

Rockwell in many ways carries the movie; he’s a rock-solid actor who can be as likable as anyone in Hollywood, although he tends to portray characters with a collection of tics and quirks that are largely absent here. In the one scene that he and DeWitt get to show some intimacy (before kiddus interruptus, something every parent is familiar with) they display genuine chemistry together but for the most part they are reduced to reacting to one scare or another. DeWitt is likewise a terrific actress who is in my opinion somewhat underrated. Once again, she doesn’t really get to show what she can do in a role that is more cliche than character.

Harris and Adams play the psychic and the paranormal researcher respectively and unlike the original they have a past. Harris in particularly with his Irish accent is entertaining, which considering he has to fill the late Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes is a considerable achievement. Mostly, though, they – like the parents – are second bananas to the kids and the CGI.

There are some decent enough scares here, a few of them telegraphed by the trailer but they don’t come close to living up to the original. See, I’m doing it too – and everyone involved had to know that there was no way in figurative and literal Hell that this was going to live up to the original, right? Which begs the question; why remake this at all?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a way that a remake of Poltergeist couldn’t be a terrific film on its own merits or even live up to the original, but this one flatly doesn’t. The pacing is weak, the scares aren’t as scary and it simply isn’t a thrill ride like the first one was. There are certainly some things that are worthwhile about the film; they modernize it nicely although I suspect that will date the movie somewhat in years to come. Some of the CGI effects are nifty. The adult cast is solid; I sympathize with Rockwell, Harris, Adams and DeWitt who give it a good college try, but making a family friendly film out of a horror classic which seems to be what the studio and the filmmakers were shooting for is a half-baked idea at best. This is one movie that should have been one of those Cedar Point roller coasters that turn you upside down and backwards and dropped us down insane hills and into dark tunnels; instead, we got a kiddie coaster.

REASONS TO GO: Sam Rockwell is solid. Some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Haunted by the original. Relies too much on Clements and Catlett.
FAMILY VALUES: A bunch of frightening images and scary moments, some foul language and a sexually suggestive scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Adams previously starred together in the 1998 indie film Happiness.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING; 6/10
NEXT: Lawless

Fright Night (2011)


Fright Night

Colin Farrell doesn't take kindly to Anton Yelchin putting an explosive ketchup pellet in his Gatorade.

(2011) Horror Comedy (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Reid Ewing, Will Denton, Sandra Vergara, Emily Montague, Chris Sarandon. Directed by Craig Gillespie

In these modern times we generally don’t get to know our neighbors very well. We live in isolation, insulated by walls and fences and the Internet. Our neighbors could be the kindest, sweetest, gentlest people on earth…or the embodiment of evil.

Charlie Brewster (Yelchin) is a high school senior with a hot girlfriend, Amy (Poots). His mom Jane (Collette) is a real estate agent and lives with her son in a nice development on the edge of Las Vegas. Charlie has transformed himself from being a geek to being one of the cool crowd. In this sense, he’s leaving behind old friends like Adam (Denton) and Ed (Mintz-Plasse) whom everyone calls “evil” for unspecified reasons.

He also has a new next door neighbor, Jerry (Farrell) who works nights doing construction on the strip. As a day sleeper, he blocks his windows and gee, there’s an awful lot of construction debris and apparently nothing going on in the exterior or the yard. He is, however extremely hot as both Jane and Amy notice, not to mention flirtatious.

Evil Ed isn’t convinced. He’s been noticing that several kids have been missing from school and he believes that Jerry is at the heart of it. In fact, Ed thinks Jerry’s a vampire, which bemuses Charlie no end. However, when Ed threatens to publish some nerdy pictures of Charlie, he reluctantly agrees to join Ed to find out what happened to Adam, who’s among the missing.

Unfortunately, it turns out Ed was right and when Ed disappears, Charlie goes up to Ed’s room to see the “proof” he had of Jerry’s vampire-ness and when he does, Charlie becomes a believer. So much so that when Jerry invites a beautiful sexy blonde neighbor (Montague) who happens to be a stripper over, he calls the cops. Thus the war of cat and mouse games begins.

Charlie enlists  the aid of Peter Vincent (Tennant), a stage magician at the Hard Rock Casino who is a self-professed vampire expert. Charlie’s going to need all the help he can get against a demon that’s over 400 years old and is an expert in self-preservation. Charlie is horribly overmatched but he’s got to find a way to prevail if he wants to see his mother and girlfriend alive again.

This is based on the 1985 Tom Holland movie of the same name which had William Ragsdale and Chris Sarandon in the Charlie and Jerry roles, respectively. That one was appeared on cable regularly for years; it was actually a different kind of vampire movie with enough camp and gore to counterbalance themselves and certainly a refreshing relief from all the slasher movies that were all the rage then.

The acting is pretty solid here. Farrell is playing a role he was really born to play – a bad guy who can do horrible things with abandon, but all with a twinkle in his eyes, a drink in one hand and a woman in his arms. Come to think of it, maybe Farrell didn’t have to do a whole lot of acting.

Yelchin has yet to impress me – until now. He does a bang-up job as the heroic lead, a part he may not be used to. He did buff up a little for the role, although not to the point of ridiculousness; this is supposed to be a skinny high school kid going up against the undead, but you don’t want the fight to be unbelievable or TOO uneven. Yelchin succeeds in avoiding those pitfalls.

To me, Tennant – a former Doctor Who – is the show stealer here. He plays Vincent as a cross between Criss Angel and William Powell, liquored up and a bit of a self-important jerk and outwardly a coward but when it counts he has the heart of a lion. There’s a rock star quality to Peter that is nicely counterbalanced by his inner nerd.

Poots, Collette and Montague are all beautiful, sexy and smart in their roles. I guess it doesn’t hurt that the script was written by a woman – in this case, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Marti Noxon. She brings the same hip quotient, quip repeatability and smarts to the movie that she did to the TV show. I don’t know that Joss Whedon, busy filming The Avengers at the moment, has seen this movie but if he has I have no doubt he’s proud of his protégé.

This is a highly entertaining vampire movie that may not go over well with the kids who love sparkling brooding vampires, but it does have nods to most of the vampire classics in one form or another – even in a backhanded way to Twilight. There is a crapload of CGI which varies in quality from seamless to noticeable.

There is an amazing chase scene in which Jerry pursues the Brewsters in their SUV which contains a lovely homage to the first Fright Night and contains some of the best stunt work in the movie. It’s a scene that obviously required meticulous planning, which is something I always appreciate from a filmmaker and so rarely get.

Fright Night is dying at the box office which is a shame. Hopefully people will pick up on how good this movie is on home video. It’s actually a clever movie that deserves a better audience than it’s apparently getting. Maybe if they’d only gotten Colin Farrell to sparkle…

REASONS TO GO: Smart, well-planned out and well-written. Very sexy where it needs to be. Great mix of horror and humor.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore gets kind of mind-numbing after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of blood, gore and horror violence. These vampires don’t sparkle after all; there is also a good deal of sexuality and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original Fright Night and its sequel (via flashback) makes a cameo as the driver of the car that rear-ends the Brewster’s car and thus is the only actor to appear in all three Fright Night movies.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this is one to watch at home on a dark and stormy night.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT WEEK: The Last Station

The Fog (2005)


The Fog

Driving Miss Daisy, this ain't!

(2005) Supernatural Horror (Columbia) Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, Selma Blair, DeRay Davis, Rade Serbedzjia, Kenneth Welsh, Adrian Hough, Sara Botsford, Matthew Currie Holmes. Directed by Rupert Wainwright

One of the most underrated of John Carpenter’s movies was his follow-up to Halloween, 1980’s The Fog. Although there were cheesy elements to it (heck, that wasn’t uncommon for any horror film of the era), it still was a genuine creepfest and still gives me the chills whenever I watch it even now, a quarter of a century later.

When they announced the remake of it, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. I’ve found most of the horror movie remakes of classic ’70s and ’80s scare flicks to be uneven at best – few have really done little more than to update the stories for a more modern audience. I didn’t hold out hope for much better from this.

Antonio Island is celebrating the centennial of their founding, but there is a terrible secret harbored by the remote Northern California seaport and it is born on the fog. Nick Castle (Welling), a charter fishing boat operator, has to put up with a ne’er do well first mate named Spooner (Davis) and a boat that has seen better days. Still, they manage to make ends meet, but while on a charter their anchor dredges something up from the bottom – artifacts of a bygone age that have been at rest for a hundred years.

Back on shore, Nick is surprised to encounter an old flame, Elizabeth Williams (Grace) walking to town from the pier. She had left suddenly five years ago without really resolving things between them, and he had been hurt by it. He was just now beginning to get involved with the pretty single mom DJ Stevie Wayne (Blair) but now he is torn.

In the meantime, Spooner has taken out Nick’s boat to party with a couple of bikini clad girls and Nick’s cousin Sean (Holmes). But a heavy fogbank is headed their way unbeknownst to them, and moving against the wind. Before you can say “bad things are going to happen,” bad things happen.

Spooner survives the mayhem, but is considered primo suspect number one for the murder of the other three. His story is completely whacko about ghost ships and fog banks, so his friend Nick goes out to find out what’s going on. He and Elizabeth discover a startling truth – that the town was founded on blood money stolen from a colony of lepers who were then burned alive on the ship that they thought was going to take them to a new home. That kind of thing can piss a ghost off.

The effects are much more sophisticated than in the original fog, but then again they don’t use nearly as many effects as you would think they might, director Wainwright wisely allowing the natural setting of the fog-shrouded town to create an atmosphere of creepiness that carries the film. The problem is that the characters are a bit faceless. Welling is a good-looking lead, but he doesn’t really carry the film like you think he might. He does better in his role as Clark Kent in “Smallville,” but here he seems a little bit passionless.

Grace and Blair are both lovely to look at, but Grace is given not a lot of character by the script; she exists mainly to move the plot along. Blair has a bit more to chew on as a character, and takes advantage of it. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more of her in the movies – she was certainly marvelous in Hellboy.

There are a lot of plot holes in the script – for example, they clearly state that they are celebrating the hundred year anniversary of the town’s founding, and they clearly link the founding of the town to the nefarious acts with the lepers, but they also clearly state that those events took place in 1871 and it is even more clear that the movie is set in contemporary times, not in 1971 which would be accurate. Whoops.

Still, despite all that, I liked the movie, I liked the atmosphere that was created, I liked Blair and I really liked the climax of the movie. It’s certainly far from perfect, but it’s a nice evening’s entertainment, particularly if it’s a dark and stormy evening. 

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric to the max. Blair is a particularly good performer and easy on the eyes, as is Grace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weilling is unaccountably bland. Cheese factor a little high for modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a little sensuality and enough bad language to be…bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debra Hill, the co-writer of the original movie and given a producer’s credit here, died shortly before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a nice feature on the special effects which show how good-looking effects can be accomplished on a tight budget.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.2M on an $18M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Country Strong

The Stepfather (2009)


The Stepfather

Dylan Walsh has a point to make.

(Screen Gems) Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Sherry Stringfield, Jon Tenney, Paige Turco, Amber Heard, Nancy Linehan Charles, Braeden Lemasters. Directed by Nelson McCormick

Family is at the core of our value system. Everything we do, all of our decisions are made for the benefit of our family, at least so goes the theory. Of course, there are families and then again there are families.

David Harris (Walsh) wants a family in the worst way. He seems a nice enough man and when vulnerable divorcee Susan Harding (Ward) wanders into the grocery store he’s shopping at, they strike up a conversation, which leads to romance. David is a widower whose wife and daughter died in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, something that gets Susan’s nurturing instincts going into overdrive. Everyone, from the neighbors to Susan’s kids, think David is a heck of a guy.

The only one who doesn’t is Michael (Badgley), the eldest Harding. He’s been away at military school for some unspecified troublemaking and has just returned home. Something about David just doesn’t ring true to Michael, whether it’s the fact that David can’t get his daughter’s name straight or that he seems to have a creepy unnatural fascination for Michael’s girlfriend Kelly (Heard). Either way, Michael’s got his eyes on David and it isn’t long before he figures out the terrible truth.

You see, David is actually a serial killer (not a spoiler kids – this is revealed in the movie’s opening moments) who insinuates himself into a family, then butchers them when they don’t live up to his high standards of what a family should be. He also has no problems offing anyone who gets in his way, whether it is a nosy neighbor or Susan’s boorish ex (Tenney). It isn’t long before David begins to think it’s time to take care of his new family and find himself another.

This is the remake of a 1987 movie that starred Terry O’Quinn (John Locke of “Lost”) in the title role. That movie attained cult status after a mediocre theatrical run due to word of mouth video rentals, enough to spawn two sequels (one with O’Quinn and the other without). Invariably, this is going to be compared to the original.

The makers of the remake also were responsible for the Prom Night remake, which bodes ill for this one. Part of the problem is that they’re going for an entirely different audience; rather than hitting hardcore horror aficionados, they’re going for more of a teen audience, which means that they have to go for a PG-13 rating. That makes for bloodless horror, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but this is the kind of story that becomes more effective when you are a little more visceral.

While the cast is made up of broadcast and cable TV veterans, some very good (Walsh is excellent in “Nip/Tuck” while Tenney is a standout in “The Closer”) and some less so (Badgley in “Gossip Girl,” Turco in “The Agency”), Ward excels as the mom who is blinded to her new man’s darker side. Walsh does his best, but in the end he isn’t able to carry the role of the evil stepfather as well as O’Quinn did 20 years ago; in defense of Walsh, he isn’t exactly handed a whole lot to work with.

The results here is a movie that doesn’t really have the kind of cachet to interest teens, nor does it have the scares and the gore to capture a horror film fan. It therefore becomes neither fish nor fowl, satisfying neither audience. If I had any advice to hand out to the filmmakers, I’d tell them that when handed a horror movie, don’t hide behind terms like “psychological thriller” to justify your decisions; just go for the gusto and you’ll not only make a better movie, you’ll get more butts in theater seats as a reward.

WHY RENT THIS: The young cast certainly looks good in bathing suits.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too bland and bloodless for its own good, it’s a psychological thriller with few thrills.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of sex, as well as a few naughty words here and there. Mostly, the problem here is thematic and the images which can be pretty rough on the sensitive or the immature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star of the original The Stepfather Terry O’Quinn was offered a cameo in the remake, but declined. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray comes equipped with the Sony movieIQ feature that periodically puts pop ups of trivia and factoids related to the scene you’re watching or the general movie overall.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World