Releasing one week after Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Poltergeist (2015) represents an altogether different resurrection of a decades-dead film franchise. Whereas Fury Road is a loose sequel to the three Mel Gibson-led Mad Max films (1979, 1981, and 1985), Poltergeist is a more-or-less direct remake of the 1982 film of the same name. Furthermore, Fury Road’s Rotten Tomatoes score stands at 98%, nearly triple the 33% score that Poltergeist has received.
Both films, however, are typical of the contemporary Hollywood trend of attempting to breathe new life into film franchises, both beloved and not-so-beloved. The idea is that making films related to other films that carry name recognition and brand awareness represents less of a financial risk than a film based on an original idea. Film series continuation forms include the direct sequel or prequel, the loose sequel, the reboot, and the remake.
The idea of film series continuation, of course, isn’t a recent phenomenon, nor is the idea of making new series installments decades after the last one. The 1980s and 1990s, for instance, saw several direct sequels and prequels to older films, such as Psycho (1960)’s 1983 and 1986 sequels and 1990 prequel. Of all the series continuation strategies, the direct sequel or prequel would seem to earn the least amount of ire from critics and fans, as it respects what came before by – hopefully – bringing more to the story. However, this is not always the case, as recent poorly received examples such as Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008) and Dumb and Dumber To (2014) demonstrate.
Instead, it is the loose sequel that allows for the best of both worlds, as it continues the story while also not being completely beholden to the original. This is where Mad Max: Fury Road comes in, as it takes place in the same narrative universe as the three preceding films without relying on audience knowledge of those films.
Remakes such as Poltergeist, though, often please no one. To be more specific, Poltergeist follows a similar – but not the same – story as the original film, but its differences add little to this story. To update the film for a contemporary audience, the main family moves into a less-than-desirable neighborhood after the husband lost his job during the Great Recession. The film’s other major update is that it features modern technology, such as a flat-screen TV, an iPhone, and a drone. Why does any of this updating matter? It doesn’t. These superficial updates merely call attention to the specter of the original film whose presence is felt throughout this new version.
Whereas a reboot suggests bringing new ideas to a series (as Batman Begins  and Casino Royale  demonstrate), Poltergeist and other remakes tend to be more iterative than innovative. After the screening of Poltergeist that I attended, for instance, I wasn’t surprised to overhear other dissatisfied audience members remark, “The first one was so much better” and “What were they thinking?” Like me, these people were compelled to see the remake because they admired the original, and, also like me, they probably knew that the new one would be disappointing. Why, then, do we continue to come to these remakes?
Series continuations are attractive to audiences because they promise to offer more of what we liked in the first place. Of course, not all remakes are as iterative as Poltergeist – which features unimproved versions of the original’s iconic moments – but they remain the least appealing type of series continuation compared to sequels, prequels, and reboots. Because remakes tend to so slavishly follow their original, the ghost of the original tends to haunt each frame. As blockbuster-budgeted films not related to a previous film continue to disappoint both critically and commercially more often than not (such as Disney’s Tomorrowland ), series continuations are here and won’t be going away. What we can hope for, though, is that these continuations follow the more promising paths of the sequel, prequel, or reboot rather than the remake.
James Fleury is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. In addition to serving as Co-Editor-in-Chief for Mediascape, he is currently researching the industrial practices of Hollywood film studios’ video game divisions. A former high school English teacher and forever a fan of video games, comic books, and film, he is also interested in media literacy, superhero franchising, and D.I.Y. YouTube culture. Previous work for Mediascape includes co-editing “Columns,” “Meta” and “Reviews” and writing the essay “Revenge of the (Angry Video Game) Nerd: James Rolfe and Web 2.0 fandom”.