A 3D reboot of the 1982 supernatural horror is full of cheap but effective thrills

1982’s original Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper under writer-producer Steven Spielberg, was always chiefly a commercial concern: a funfair Exorcist that ditched its predecessor’s spiritual agonies for more material, Reagan-era concerns. It’s hardly an untouchable property, so we need not whine unduly about Fox retooling it.

It helps that the director charged with renovating this ghost train, Gil Kenan, sets about his task in the manner of his fantastic 2006 digi-mation Monster House. Lights flicker, things go bump in the night and – thanks to 3D – much of it lands inches from your face. Again, it’s reasonable fun while it lasts.

Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt, a couple you instinctively warm to, play the Bowens, setting out on a fresh start by installing themselves and their three kids in suburbia. Their new home, inevitably, has a few glitches, with the electromagnetic disturbances attributed to nearby power lines. Yet youngest Madison (Kennedi Clements) still winds up pressed to the (newly widescreen) TV, and son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is unsettled by a cache of toy clowns – a reminder the original just pipped Stephen King’s remake-ready It to coulrophobia. (Were we being warned about children’s entertainers even back then?)

Around these holdovers, Rabbit Hole playwright David Lindsay-Abaire scatters tantalising flickers of subtext. Where the first movie’s Freelings were upwardly mobile baby boomers, the Bowens are subject to recognisable austerity-age stresses and tensions – not least trying to raise three kids on a diminishing income. Within a brisk, two-shows-a-night running time, there’s also room for a little character: since no one person was ever likely to match Zelda
Rubinstein’s inimitable work as the original’s psychic, we instead get chewy parts for Jane Adams and Jared Harris as the academic and Derek Acorah-like investigator running tests for paranormal activity.

Mostly it’s a scare machine, and in this respect Kenan’s is the more efficient telling, its VFX lubricating all that now creaks about the original: the 3D enables such shameless jolts as comin’-atcha drill bits, but also reimagines Madison’s haunted closet as a completely enveloping black hole. The Poltergeist phenomenon has never been more than just a ride, inviting us to pay over the odds for some pretty cheap thrills; adding a 3D surcharge scarcely addresses that. Accept it, however, and the remake has been engineered in broadly the right carnival spirit. It should shift a lot of popcorn, if nothing else.