A couple of things prompted this particular 3 Picture review: First off, I was lucky enough to recently stumble upon a Blu-ray copy of the original 1982 classic (which looks the best I’ve ever seen, obviously). Secondly, the inevitable remake is currently gracing a handful of screens (to somewhat ‘meh’ reviews), so I wanted to go back and watch the progression (or in this case, laughable regression, of the original ‘Poltergeist’ Trilogy). And Thirdly, I’d never seen #3, so my reaction for this review is nothing, but my actual kneejerkreaction, of course.
In many respects, the idea for this review stems from the ‘Exorcist vs Exorcist 2: The Heretic’ review I wrote up 2 years ago…and had a lot of fun with. SO…having said that…”They’re heeeeeere!”
This movie is a brilliant example of what can happen when an insanely talented filmmaker (Steven Spielberg) amasses enough clout to basically get anything he dreams up on a bar cocktail napkin made into a future film classic. By this point in time, Spielberg was The Man in Hollywood (has that REALLY changed?). He was riding high on critical and/or commercial success with ‘Duel’ (1971), ‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974), ‘Jaws’ (1975, the Inventor of the Blockbuster Concept, BTW), ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) and the unmissable ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981). This one escaped me on it’s initial theatrical release (I was 5 in ’82), but it was one of those taboo films that I eventually caught up with on VHS and when I did, it rocked my lil 8 year old world! Rewatching it, after a LONG stretch without, especially with a near-perfect high-def transfer, was great. This film works SO well, and should still stand (if it doesn’t already) as a clear-cut example of ‘How To Get Horror RIGHT’. For those who don’t know this one, as in pretty much anyone under 28, ‘Poltergeist’ follows the supernatural Trials and Tribulations of The ‘Freeling’ Family. These two ex-hippie-gone-conservative parents and 3 ‘individually-flavored” kids, after having recently moved into a suburban housing ‘development’ somewhere in Northern California, find themselves set upon by a malicious spectral entity. This nasty supernatural force zeros in on the ‘Freeling’s youngest daughter, blond Aryan test-tube child ‘Carol Anne’ (Heather O’Roark)…for some reason. After a somewhat playful intro via ‘Carol Anne’ and mother ‘Diane’ (JoBeth Williams); a scene that reminded me of the eerie (when you ponder it) introduction of ‘Regan’s imaginary ‘friend’ Captain Howdy in ‘The Exorcist’ (1973). But soon enough, the spectral shit hits the scary fan…and all hell breaks loose! An old, gnarled tree lurches to life and attempts to obscenely devour son ‘Robbie’ (Oliver Robins)! A VERY localized tornado sweeps through the backyard! Gravity turns 90 degrees and dumps lil ‘Carol Anne’ straight into the gaping, brilliantly-lit maw of her closet, apparently the doorway to a haunted realm, rending her nowhere to be found…except as a disembodied voice from the static-choked television screen!! From there, with the help of a small group of researchers and a ‘medium’ named ‘Tangina’ (Zelda Rubenstein), it becomes a race against time to find their youngest, and get her back into our world…alive.
One of the key factors in this films ‘critical’ success was that it gave us people to root for. Everyone, especially ‘Steve’ and ‘Diane Freeling’ feel like ‘real’ people in this world. Steve is a slightly immature sports n beer fan, who rolls doobs for his ex- hippie-but-hottie wife, while reading up on ‘Reaganomics’. They come across as likeable people, with them clearly having fun when it’s just the two of them. The audience warms to these two characters right off the bat and, by proxy, the 3 kids. Sure, ‘Carol Anne’ is overly sugary ‘cute’, ‘Robbie’ is a buck-toothed little wiener and ‘Dana’ (Dominique Dunne) is a shrieky, slightly irritating slut-in-training, but you don’t want to see anything bad happen to these characters.
Which most certainly does.
The effects in ‘Poltergeist’ are great! Of course, there’s a few that haven’t exactly withstood the Test of Time (face peel, tornado etc), but most of them are still effective today.
Having said that, the manner with which the effects are displayed, pacing-wise, is handled VERY well. It’s a bit of a ‘slow-burner’, with regards to how the stakes and tension build. The symptoms of the poltergeist activity start off very small (dead cannery, eerie weather in the distance etc), but smoothly run toward luminescent ghost-shapes and hideous monsters bursting forth from dimensional portals with a certain ferocity.
‘Poltergeist’ is ‘director-credit’d’ to Tobe Hooper (‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’), but the common theory is that Spielberg himself ran the show. It has Spielberg’s ‘fingerprints’ ALL over it! The pacing, the initial sense of light, clever humor, the shot compositions, the editing and sound design ALL belong to The Man. If I recall correctly (too lazy to look it up), Spielberg was either in pre- or post- production on ‘E.T.’ (1982) at the same time, but is listed as ‘Story By’, ‘Screenplay By’ and ‘Produced By’ on ‘Poltergeist’. As I understand it, Hooper was a ‘token’ director, but Spielberg was the Creative Force. It’s a ‘force’ you can feel when you watch the flick and I think that’s pretty much undeniable.
All in all, the original ‘Poltergeist’ is a great, well-structured and well-crafted example of an intense PG-rated (not these days!) genre flick that boasts some terrific effects and ideas, while giving us a group of likable protagonists to root for, as they take on all the terrifying shenanigans the clever and energetic script throws at them. If you haven’t seen it…do so, regardless of your age. And if you have seen it, albeit a while ago…check it out again. I recommend the Blu ray, hands down. It looked and sounded great, and was the presentation a flick of this calibre deserves.
And here’s where things start to slip.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
As in ‘The Other Side of Good’. I’d only ever seen this one once before in its entirety, and that was about 20 years ago, so it was almost liking hitting it fresh. And what a hit it was! ‘Poltergeist II’ gets off on the wrong foot right away. It wastes no time letting you know that it’s NOT going to be the clever and creepy example of True Film-making that the original was. This one fires up with a silly scene of immediately heavy-handed Native American mysticism. Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem at all with traditional Native culture and art, but given the admittedly Anglo-Saxon ‘suburb’ vibe of the first film, this seemed at odds with the lingering after-taste of the first part of the ‘Poltergeist’ story. And it was just silly. Teleporting Indians, crazy blue bonfires and nostril ghosts all culminate on one of the worst, most embarrassing matte-paintings I’ve EVER seen. It was clear that Spielberg had left the building…and taken his cash with him. We then get into the ‘story’, with the introduction of a concept that I would’ve LOVED to see as the main plot of this movie. We’re introduced to the Native shaman dude we saw in The Demo Reel of Shitty Effects that opened the flick. His name is ‘Taylor’ (Will Sampson) and we watch him slowly drive into the neighborhood that once was home to The ‘Freeling’ Family. As he sidles through the ‘hood in his pick-up, we see that the effects of the haunting from the first film have resonated. The area’s population is packing up and trying to get the hell outta Dodge. I guess a full-sized house devouring itself one night on your block MAY compel you to seek housing elsewhere. I love the idea of an examination of the spoiled earth emanating from the haunting site, affecting the neighbors and homes, and any researchers that come a callin. But nope. Not here. ‘Taylor’ seeks out the site’s previous human residents, ‘The ‘Freelings’ who, for the last year since The Incident, have been holed up with ‘Diane’s (JoBeth Williams) mother across town. ‘Taylor’ believes that the evil entity, who showed it’s ugly self previously, was not defeated and is now gunning for lil ‘Carol Anne’ (Heather O’Roark). This proves true, as a grim and cadaverous-looking bastard named ‘Kane’ (the creepy Julien Beck, in his last film role) shows up and immediately sets his nasty sights on the small blond girl. And thus begins that supernatural tug of war for ‘Carol Ann’s soul!
This movie lacks all the charm that made us root for the family in the first one. It’s like the new screen-writers missed all the ‘selling points’ of the original, and blundered on with a script that ‘sillies’ up a creepy concept, and doesn’t make much sense. Sure, not everything made sense in the first one either, but there it was handled in a way that led to intriguing ambiguity about the motivations of the poltergeist phenomenon.
It doesn’t help either that, with the obviously reduced budget, the effects are noticeably cheap and laughable. No shit…my girlfriend and I, at a couple points, pretty much pointed and laughed directly at the screen. Especially the ‘climax’. Good gawd, it’s hilarious! The whole ‘Freeling’ Family, with the obvious exclusion of eldest daughter ‘Dana’ (due to actress Dominique Dunne’s tragic murder-by-strangulation, by her ex-boyfriend, after the first film’s release), are pulled into the spectral realm beyond…and (Cue Hysterical Laughter). It’s just the actors badly suspended before an obvious ‘blue screen’, with a bunch of stupid-looking psychedelic designs slowly pulsing away behind them. The Big Save at the end comes up out of nowhere (dead granny floats up in a glowing bed-sheet and returns ‘Carol Ann’, with no explanation beyond some Love of Family bullshit), and there is no attempt to ‘connect the dots’ in the screenplay.
There is SOME (not much) cool stuff here. SOME attempt was made. I did like the new manner with which the evil spirits communicated with ‘Carol Anne’; this time via a toy phone (as opposed to the static of a TV screen). There’s one sequence where rain drops pitter-patter onto the phone, giving rise to the phone’s bell-like ringing. A little creepy. There’s another scene where ‘Carol Ann’ takes a call from Granny, only to discover minutes later that the ole bird croaked in her sleep. That worked for me. There’s also the attempted murder of son ‘Robbie’ via his braces going haywire and homicidal. Oh, and the notorious (at least it was when I was a kid) marauding ‘Tequila Worm’ scene. Fairly nifty.
But beyond those, this movie is something of an embarrassment to the first one. All in all, it’s a cash-grab attempt to continue the highly successful plot of the original, without knowing what worked, or having the money to pull off the effects needed to properly propel a narrative in this ‘universe’. To it’s credit, they did manage to lure almost the entire cast of the first one back, which does give it Legitimate Sequel Status, but they’re really badly used. There are some moments where they’re genuinely unlikable (especially ‘Steven’), and that meshes badly with the positive resonance of the characters, from before. The script does have an interesting idea where the character of ‘Kane’ and his doomed sect of religious followers was concerned, but it didn’t feel right, as the explanation for the supernatural hi-jinks of ‘Poltergeist’. On it’s own, sure…that COULD make a grim horror movie. But here it just adds to the laundry list of miscalculations that plague this unfortunate sequel.
Which now brings us to THIS piece of shit.
Poltergeist III (1988)
It’s a shame the ‘Carol Anne’ actress Heather O’Roark died of a nasty-sounding intestinal impaction, at the age of 12, during the tail-end of filming. It’s even more of a shame that this pile of garbage is dedicated to her memory. Because this is one of those films in a series that actually manages to legitimize the questionable sequel that came before it, like what ‘A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) managed to do for ‘Live Free or Die Hard (2007), or how people perceived ‘Robocop 2’ (1990) after being shat upon by ‘Robocop 3 (1993). THIS movie is awful! It shares almost nothing in common with the previous two films, with the exception of the characters of ‘Carol Anne’ and the diminutive ‘medium’ ‘Tangina’ (Zelda Rubenstein). Apparently Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams got wise after what happened with the second one and ran screaming for the hills when the script hit their agent’s desk. Wisely so.
Now, I can’t help but to wonder if the so called story for the 3rd film suffered due to them running, or if it was just such shit quality to begin with that they bolted on natural instinct. It HAD to have originally been a different story (too lazy to look it up…again). That’s all there is to it. Regardless, we have to judge the movie what it IS…not what it could’ve been. And this one IS bad.
We catch up with ‘Carol Anne’ a few years after the events of the last film. For some inexplicable reason, her parents have opted to cast her off to ‘Diane’s sister ‘Patricia’ (Nancy Allen) and her rich, building designer (I think) husband, ‘Bruce’ (Tom Skerritt), who reside in a new high-tech high-rise (with automated cameras the size of shoe boxes!), in downtown Chicago. Supernaturally, the malicious spectral scourge of ‘Kane’ (this time played by someone else, due to Julien Beck’s death from stomach cancer) is back and seeking ‘Carol Anne’s soul…again…for some reason. This time, cheap effects (usually involving reflections somehow) rear their ugly heads and we’re off to the ghostly races!! Only not really. There is NOTHING scary here. Just shitty dialogue, unexplained motivations, a 12 year old girl who runs around in a ‘onesy’ FAR more suited for a kid half her age, and endless ‘filler’ shots of Skerritt and Allen running around an empty building, calling out “Carol Anne!” “Carol Anne!!” “CAROL ANNE!!!”. Seriously, if there was a drinking game that called for a 1 oz shot of booze every time some yells out her name, you’d die. No shit. Death would happen to you. They whisper, say and yell “Carol Anne’ something dumb, like 120 times, throughout the movie’s 98 minute run-time. It grates on the friggin nerves!
So does the nonsensical script. Seriously, I can’t really tell you what happens…because it makes no sense! (much like that shit-show abomination ‘The Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (1977)) This COULD be blamed on O’Roarks untimely passing, but apparently the only thing a ‘double’ was used for was a series of ‘pick-ups’ to help bolster the shock of the climax (Haha!!…FAIL). So that tells me the movie was essentially complete. The narrative didn’t really need a ton of tweaking to make up for the ‘lead’s absence. I’m sure that it also didn’t help that the actress playing the character of ‘Tangina’, who always provided timely and needed expository dialogue and actions, jetted half-way through production due to the death of her mother, but still.
All in all, there is NO concrete explanation or resolution in THIS movie. EVERYTHING about it is cheap, and devoid of cohesion, logic or thrills. It truly stands as a bona-fide embarrassment to everything that made the original SO great, and the sequel somewhat passable (only barely so). There’s really not much more to say, ‘Poltergeist III’ sucks. It’s a badly done film that’s a humiliating mark on the filmographies of all involved, and an unfortunate film legacy for Heather O’Roark, who passed away FAR too young. At least she’ll always have the first one.
And so will we.
‘Poltergeist’ is a horror movie classic from a time when Spielberg was at his peak (or one of them), and the Hollywood Film Industry was experiencing an exciting resurgence in quality and craftsmanship. ‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’ was a miscalculated mess that had a handful of sortakinda effective scenes, but was largely a barely-worthy attempt to continue the intriguing story of the first film, all the while disposing of just about everything that made its predecessor so intriguing. The less said about ‘Poltergeist III’, the better. Awful waste of a movie…and your time, if you brave it (don’t).
I don’t have high hopes for the remake (I never do), but I’ll be sure to check it out (and review it) at a time that doesn’t require me to waste Theatre Money on it.
And there ya have it…my ‘kneejerkreaction’ to my suffering at the cheaply ghost-like hands of the 3rd movie in the series, for the first (and certainly last) time ever. Ugh!