*PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Alison De Souza In Los Angeles
The Straits Times
Jun 17, 2015
It is always risky remaking a classic and those involved in the new Poltergeist movie knew it would be hard to live up to the hair-raising, Oscar-nominated original from 1982, which often appears on critics' lists of the best horror movies of all time.
"There are so many reasons to not make Poltergeist in 2015," says Gil Kenan, director of the latest version, which stars Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, 2010) and Rosemarie DeWitt (Mad Men, 2007-2015) as parents of a little girl abducted by the evil spirits terrorising the family's new home.
The actors remember the lasting impression left on them by the original, which was produced and co-written by the now-legendary director Steven Spielberg, and spawned two sequels in 1986 and 1988.
"When I saw it, it really just blew the top of my head off, like any of those great classic films," Rockwell, 46, tells reporters at a press event in Los Angeles. "It was an incredible film, very moving and beautifully made."
DeWitt, 43, agrees, and says this made her hesitate to sign on to the reboot.
"It was kind of daunting to know how much you loved the first one." "So yeah, that's a good question - why remake it?" Rockwell adds.
"But why do Hamlet over and over again? It's because these are great parts and great stories to tell, and you can't resist that."
So high was the bar set by the first film, however, that this retelling was a long time in the making, with different scripts tossed around before producer Sam Raimi - who was behind the Evil Dead horror franchise (1981-2013) and the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007) - came on board.
Kenan says: "As Sam tells it, there've been several attempts to remake Poltergeist and none of them felt right or lived up to the standard of what a Poltergeist film should be. When Sam got involved, he brought in David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote a screenplay that had enough of the right elements and human story that it felt like it had its own pulse."
The movie updates the story with new technology such as cellphones, aerial drones and GPS trackers, but keeps many core elements of the original, including a family moving to a new home, a little girl who starts talking to a static-filled television screen, and a creepy clown doll. The clown doll, in particular, seems as terrifying as ever - perhaps because the Poltergeist franchise helped establish children's toys as a horror movie trope.
"It's a chicken-and-egg thing: did Poltergeist make clowns scary or were clowns always scary but we pushed them on children without stopping to think if we were ruining their childhood?"
Kenan muses. As with other children's toys in horror films, "there's something about freezing an expression in plastic or porcelain", he says.
"It's human, but it's dead and it's worse when it's smiling forever - the eyes catch just enough light to connect with you across the room."
One of the more subtle updates to the original is the physical environment and economic backdrop: Instead of the idyllic suburban setting of the 1982 film, this version sees the family downgrading to a lower-income neighbourhood and struggling with finances after Rockwell's character is laid off. Kenan says this "felt like a way to examine how 30 years have changed the American dream or the dream of a modern family".
"I grew up in a house that looks almost exactly like the house in the original Poltergeist film and this was an opportunity to explore how 30 years have taken a toll on that, and see how that change affected the characters."
One thing that has stayed the same: Like the cast and crew of the original, Kenan and his actors were a little spooked by the supernatural storyline, and perhaps by the franchise's reputation for being "cursed" after the untimely deaths of two actresses from the 1982 film (Heather O'Rourke, who played the little girl, died at age 12 from a misdiagnosed intestinal problem, while Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend shortly after the movie came out).
A few strange things did happen on the set of the remake, its director reveals.
"We had lights that were blowing up on their own and I brought some thermal imaging gear and may or may not have seen footsteps walking on the hardwood floor of my 1830s Victorian house."
But it may simply have been a case of becoming extra sensitive to the unexplained during the course of making a film such as this.
Says Kenan: "I think I speak for all of us when I say that part of the joy of telling a supernatural story is that it opens you up to the possibilities of there being weird stuff out there.
"Everyone probably had his own terrifying experience and I think a part of this was a heightened awareness on all of our parts to the unknown, occult or unexplained, which perhaps we are surrounded by on a daily basis, but just unaware of."
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