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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Poltergeist, Review: Respect the dead, or…

Poltergeist, Review: Respect the dead, or…

Dictionary meaning of Poltergeist: A ghost or other supernatural being, believed to be responsible for physical disturbances, such as making loud noises and throwing objects about.

Mid 19th century: from German ‘Poltergeist’, from poltern= to 'create a disturbance' + geist 'ghost'.

Poltergeist 2015 is a reboot and remake of producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg's and director Tobe Hooper's 1982 film of the same name. The success of the film spawned two sequels: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988). Now comes a remake of the original tale, about noisy, telekinesis possessing ghosts, reportedly based on a true story, in 3D.          

Out of work Eric (Gary Rockwell) an aspiring writer Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) Bowen want to move into a new house with their three children, eldest daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and youngest daughter Madison/Maddie (Kennedi Clements). They are shown a house that fits in their low price range. After moving in, they begin to hear strange noises in the walls. Griffin, afraid, decides to investigate what's causing the noise and finds that something is moving around in a small storage space in his attic room. While looking into the space, he is frightened by a box full of clown dolls that fall in a cascade. Griffin tells his parents. Eric goes with Griffin to investigate what happened, and while looking around in the storage space, they see a squirrel darting around, which startles them both.

In the middle of the night, lights and electronic devices start turning on and off, as some unseen force appears to move through the home. The lights and the noise wake Griffin up and he goes downstairs, after hearing Maddie talking. He finds her standing in front of the TV talking to static electronic waves, and asks what she's doing. Maddie has her hand on the TV, while from inside the TV, a hand presses back, followed by many more hands. Maddie says, "They're coming." The house alarm goes off, bringing everyone downstairs. Maddie turns to the family and says "They're here."

It was always a tough act to follow. A reboot of a hit and two sequels, attempted 33 years after the original and 27 years of the third part of the trilogy. New actors, new names for the characters, a new director…all of which meant strong odds to beat. There is something in common with the 1982 version, though. Steven Spielberg co-produced and co-wrote numero uno, and, like Spielberg, a writer-director of great merit has co-produced the 2015 venture: Sam Raimi (Spider Man, I, II and III). Raimi’s faith in Gil Kenan (Monster House) is not misplaced.

David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay) is a playwright who adapted his play Rabbit Hole into the film version starring Nicole Kidman and wrote Rise of the Guardians. Both understand the medium of cinema well. Sound effects, animation and visual effects are the life-blood of any horror film, and they are by and large well-executed. Occasionally, the film falls prey to tools of the trade kind of horror tricks—the camera tracking towards an object/person which is not visible, and when it is finally visible, it turns around and turns out to be someone/something unexpected. Using electricity, and mainly the TV, as the conduits of communication, is a novel idea, and the vortex inhabited by the ghosts is an innovation too. Not all events are logical and much of what the ghosts do seems pointless. But then, who would expect ghosts to be logical? Watch out for the clown’s nose scene, the repeated shots of the tree, and the skillfully crafted vortex that sucks in humans.

Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens, A Case of You) has been around for ages, but hasn’t aged as much. Besides the shocks and the jolts, he also gets to convey a moment of sexuality and a scene showing his comic ability. Rosemarie DeWitt (Promised Land, Your Sister’s Sister, Kill The Messenger) makes a loving mother and has a homely, mother’s face too, though in the ‘sexuality’ scene, she reveals a desirable body as well. Saxon Shabiro plays a slightly disturbed teenager, though the reasons for being disturbed are never clear. In the first few scenes, it is suggested that the main player in the saga would be Kyle Callett, though it turns out that Kennedi is moving centre-stage. Kyle does have an extended role, and does well right through. Kennedi (TV’s A Family Thanksgiving, Home for Christmas and the Canadian series, Rogue) is the focus of all attention, and rightly so. Firstly, hers is the most important character, and secondly, she is a revelation, at the age of just 6 (now 8)!

Two other actors come in towards the second half: paranormal activities consultant Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and her estranged husband, ghost-buster and TV host Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris). Adams is a theatre veteran and was seen in films like Happiness and Songcatcher. Now 50-ish, with a slim frame, she shows depth in a relatively minor role. Jared Francis Harris, 54, is British and the son of Welsh actress Elizabeth Rees-Williams and veteran Richard Harris. Rex Harrison later became Harris's step-father. You might recall having seen him in Extraordinary Measures and The Ward (2011), and, of course, as the notorious Professor James Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. More recently, Harris portrayed Ulysses S. Grant in the Steven Spielberg biopic, Lincoln. His is a raw, earthy character, completely deglamourised and hard-nosed, considering he has dealt with violent ghosts. And yet he remains a very human person, in spite of the company he has to deal with. Susan Heyward and Nicholas Braun are Powell’s assistants. Heyward has little to do and Braun oscillates between being cynical and an energetic novice.

Moving into a new house and finding it haunted has since become a played out formula, not only in Hollywood movies, but in Indian cinema too. So that is déjà vu. Nevertheless, there are scares aplenty, some fist-clenching, others merely startling. The frights will not make you scream in terror, nor will you laugh out at the goings on. It’s a largely in-between experience, and along the way, you might even develop some sympathy for ghosts who want respect.

Rating: ***


True story?

In 1958, the American Hermann family was in the news for the paranormal experiences they reported in their New York home. They claimed that furniture began to move on its own, and a globe that belonged to the Hermann’s young son flew around the house. In 2012, in an interview for the documentary: Real Fear: The Truth Behind the Movies, the (then) 53 year old daughter, Lucille Hermann, who was just 14 when the events took place, opened up about her experiences.

“All of a sudden, you’d hear this loud noise, like a popping bottle sound, and you’d look around and find a bottle that was 12 feet away from where it was supposed to be, and all the contents were missing, and the bottle was hot to the touch,” she said. She went on to explain that the family desperately wanted to keep things normal for the children, which was hard with objects flying all over the house. Her father eventually had enough and called police.

The case received national attention and made it to the cover of the reputed Life magazine, popularising the term “poltergeist,” but there was never any explanation for the events. The family believed that the Native American graveyard, located close to the home, played some part in the haunting. Eventually, the Hermann family moved away and the paranormal events stopped. Many believe that Spielberg was inspired by this case while writing Poltergeist, which is, at least loosely, bases on the Hermann family’s trauma.

Paranormal activity on the web

Fox 2000, distributors of the film, has launched, an interactive map of over 5000 locations of documented poltergeist and paranormal activity in the US. It highlights residencies, hotels, museums and other locations in each major city. For more information about a specific location, a user can visit and enter the promotion code POLTERGEIST.

In addition, they have an exclusive infographic that displays the most haunted places around the world. From possessed fortresses and historic battlefields to grisly legends of suffering, and unexpected death, this is the collection of the world’s most chilling supernatural stories.

The Poltergeist deaths

Within weeks of the 1982 film's release, Dominique Dunne, who played possessed Carol Anne's (Maddie in 2015) big sister Dana (Kendra), was strangled by her boyfriend outside her West Hollywood home. She died days later in hospital.

Heather O’Rourke’s character was easily the most important in the 1982 film, as the young Carol Anne. O’Rourke suddenly became extremely ill, in 1988. What started as stomach cramps soon took a turn for the worse and she went into cardiac arrest. She suffered from septic shock and died on the operating table, only 12 years old.

Lou Perryman was a small-time actor who played L.G. in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Pugsley in Poltergeist. In April 2009, the 67-year-old was viciously murdered by an axe-wielding, mentally ill drug-addict named Seth Tatum.

Shortly after finishing shooting for Brian Gibson's film Poltergeist II (1986), in 1985, actor Julian Beck, 60, who played preacher Henry Kane, died of stomach cancer.

In the same film, the man who played the shaman, Will Sampson, a native (Red) Indian medicine man of sorts in real life, attempted an exorcism one night, following a shooting stint, in the hope of getting rid of the curse. He died less than a year later, after complications from a kidney transplant.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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