Buying a new house is a big decision. Prospective home owners would do well to ask some important questions before signing the contract: Are there good schools in the neighborhood? Is there a community covenant? What are the property taxes? Is there any chance that the house is built on an old cemetery full of tormented souls?
The Bowens fail to ask that last question. And it comes back to haunt them.
It’s not like the family was that excited about the move in the first place. Eric, the dad, had recently lost his high-salary job at John Deere, and the family is seriously downsizing as a result. Meanwhile, Amy, the mom, is taking time off from her career to write a book and be home with their three children: moody teen Kendra, perpetually fearful Griffin and constantly curious Madison.
Little Maddie’s precocious personality means she’s always talking to someone: to herself, to her stuffed animals, to her imaginary friends. So when Griffin catches her talking to the closet as they look at their soon-to-be new home, he doesn’t think much of it.
This time, though, Maddie’s friends aren’t imaginary. And they're not friends either.
Odd things begin happening immediately after the Bowens move in … mostly to Maddie and already-always-afraid Griffin. A baseball has a rolling mind of its own. A gardening session unearths a human bone.
Then there are the clowns.
Griffin’s spooky attic bedroom (complete with a skylight staring at an equally spooky willow tree) has a crawlspace attached to it. A crawlspace, Griffin discovers, full of seriously creepy vintage clown dolls.
“Where did all these clowns come from,” he asks his dad. “Why would somebody have a box of clowns?”
“People collect weird things,” Eric answers.
The weirdness amps up exponentially when Mom and Dad go out to dinner, leaving the three kids at home. By the time they return, the cemetery’s spirits have begun their assault on the family in earnest. Kendra’s been grabbed by a rotting hand reaching out of gurgling, sewage-like sludge in the garage. Griffin’s left dangling by the branches of that willow tree in a pouring thunderstorm.
And Maddie? Well, she’s just … gone.
Well, not entirely gone. She still talks to her family … through the TV set.
Suffice it to say none of these problems are covered by the standard home warranty. And the Bowens are going to need some serious ghostbusting help if they ever hope to bring Maddie back from the dark and dreadful side.
Good parents don’t take kindly to vengeful spirits kidnapping their daughter. And the Bowens are good parents. After Maddie goes missing—apparently through a supernatural portal in her closet—the Bowens go looking for help.
The first specter-evicting brigade consists of paranormal researcher Dr. Brooke Powell and her two young assistants, Boyd and Sophie. It takes about five minutes of film time for them to realize that, well, they’re in over their heads. So they call in the cavalry: famed ghost hunter Carrigan Burke, a crusty reality TV spirit exterminator with scars to back up his crazy stories of vanquishing preternatural predators.
Together, the Bowens, Burke and the other researchers courageously confront the malevolent spirits lurking in the house. Arguably no one shows more courage than young Griffin, however, who’s desperate to redeem himself after having left Maddie alone in her room when the spirits nabbed her. Indeed, Griffin plunges into an inky, scary world full of rotting ghoulies to try to rescue his sister from their clutches.
Elsewhere, Amy coaches her husband on the importance of appearing strong even if he’s not sure what the outcome will be. She tells him, “If I say, ‘It’s not going to be OK,’ you have to say, ‘Of course it is, sweetheart.’” Later, Eric follows her instructions nicely.
Before it’s all said and done, Burke also makes a brave choice to confront the stubborn entities in an attempt to deal with the problem once and for all.
The convoluted spiritual reality predicated by Poltergeist goes like this: a housing development was built atop a graveyard, an event that apparently disturbed the slumber of the souls buried there. As a result, they’re in torment and angrily longing for release from what’s labeled “purgatory.”
Their anger results in these rotting, zombie-like creatures infesting the Bowens' house. They haunt the willow tree above Griffin’s bedroom. They animate those creepy clowns. They cause all manner of inanimate objects to take on a life of their own.
That’s all pretty obnoxious stuff. But it’s nothing compared to their real goal: finding a pure soul to, as Burke says, “lead them to the light.” They apparently need a human guide with an unsoiled spirit to help them escape their suffering. Someone “without judgment or cynicism,” Burke says. Someone like … Maddie.
Maddie communicates with the spirits before they take her. Then, in a conversation with her mom, she says of them, “They’re lost.” After Maddie’s abducted, we see her in the spirits’ dark, foreboding world. It conforms to the same rooms and hallways of the house, but at every turn there are ghoulish arms, legs and faces—partially decomposed—reaching and clawing and grabbing at anyone unlucky enough to end up in this realm (which eventually includes Maddie, Griffin and Burke). They make lots of nasty gnawing and scratching noises, too.
Brooke explains that there are overlapping layers of physical and spiritual reality, describing the place where the entities live as an “astral plane” and a “spiritual place.”
Twice, Burke confronts the spiritual beings (who, collectively, become the film’s titular poltergeist). The first time he’s trying to rescue Maddie, and he tells them, “This child has done you no harm.” The second time he commands and promises, “Release your hold on this family and you yourself will be released.” It is, for all intents and purposes, an exorcism-like confrontation—except that it’s completely devoid of any Christian understanding of God, Jesus, crosses or the devil.
As the Bowens get ready for bed, we see Amy in panties and a tank top. She and her husband kiss, clutch and are about to have sex when they get interrupted.
As you've already figured out, poor Griffin gets assaulted by all those creepy clowns and by the willow outside his window. Maddie is grabbed and dragged through the air and along a wall by her abductors. Kendra is likewise gripped by a goopy arm reaching out of the muck in the family’s garage. People get roughly yanked at through walls and dragged along the ground. One guy almost gets a drill bit run through his head.
A van flips over, and a house quite literally is leveled by a supernatural explosion. Playing a video game, Griffin fights zombies in a cemetery. Jump scenes abound from start to finish.
Crude or Profane Language
Five s-words. One use of “effin.'” God’s name is misused about 10 times, once with “d--n.” Jesus’ name is abused a couple of times. We hear “h---” and “dumba--” three or four times each, “p---” and “b--ch” once each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Adults drink wine at a meal. Eric pours mugs of hard liquor for himself and his wife in their bedroom. Later, he drinks straight from the bottle—but ends up dumping it down the sink after he has a horrific hallucination.
Other Negative Elements
That hallucination features, among other things, worms crawling from his mouth and eyes. Kendra becomes increasingly angry with her parents, acting out in rebellious ways. When they tell her she has to get a job if she wants a cellphone, she responds to her mom, “I’ll get a job when you get a job.”
The first (and most obvious) thing to do when evaluating Poltergeist is to compare it to its predecessor. Co-written by Steven Spielberg, the original debuted in 1982 and is widely considered one of the scariest movies to come out of a decade chock-full of scary movies. But as is so often the case, this spook-filled retread fails to provoke the same sense of lurking, gestating dread that its ancestor did.
Oh, there are plenty of jump scenes, to be sure. And the specter of a little girl getting dragged off to a decomposing underworld remains utterly unnerving and disturbing. That should prompt us to go a bit deeper than just making a superficial aesthetic comparison, sifting and sorting this story’s spiritual worldview as well. It’s an odd one, that's for sure, capped by angry spirits of the dead lurking in a gloomy parallel world where they require someone—a pure child—from the realm of the living to lead them to the light and somehow emancipate them.
The whole idea of needing to be freed by the light has vaguely Christian undertones to it. Yet God is utterly absent here, save for misuses of His name. In fact, there’s no obvious, overarching spiritual belief system present at all. The only thing we really know for sure is that these demented specters need to be released from their “purgatory” (a word the movie uses). It's a fate that’s randomly befallen them because … well, why exactly? Oh yeah, a few houses were built on top of a few graves.
It all starts to feel rather arbitrary and a bit silly. Why, after all, should these super-powerful spiritual beings be compelled to obey Burke when he commands them to leave? It’s a de facto exorcism, but without any spiritual authority to back it up. And yet they respond. Is he just that good of an orator? Do they like the cut of his coat? Can they not refuse the pleading look in his eyes?
Of course there's absolutely nothing silly about the way a movie like this hints at important spiritual truths … then distorts them, twisting faith and truth into a tangle that's serves only to rehash a hollow, spooky "thrill."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Sam Rockwell as Eric Bowen; Rosemarie DeWitt as Amy Bowen; Saxon Sharbino as Kendra Bowen; Kyle Catlett as Griffin Bowen; Kennedi Clements as Madison Bowen; Jared Harris as Carrigan Burke; Jane Adams as Dr. Brooke Powell; Susan Heyward as Sophie; Nicholas Braun as Boyd
20th Century Fox
May 22, 2015
September 29, 2015