Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) (out of 4)
Directed by: Brian Gibson
Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Will Sampson, Zelda Rubinstein, Julian Beck, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Poltergeist III (1988) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Gary Sherman
Starring: Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Lara Flynn Boyle, Kipley Wentz, Richard Fire, Nathan Davis
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
The second and third Poltergeist films are textbook cases of the declining quality of sequels. With the success of the first Poltergeist, followups were inevitable; unfortunately, they take on the appearance of rush-jobs, and while there are certain notable scenes to be found in them, they are overshadowed by a larger display of mediocrity. Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III take place in vastly different settings but share commonalities like psychics/medicine men speaking Yoda-inspired dialogue, silly/unfinished effects, very messy conclusions and general incoherence. Whether this is entirely the fault of the dreaded “Poltergeist Curse” is debatable – sure, unexpected deaths of cast members must be worked around, but bad writing is still bad writing.
Most of the characters from the first film are back for Poltergeist 2. The Freelings, made up of Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) try to move on with their lives, temporarily shacking up with Diane’s mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who has a heart-to-heart talk with Carol Anne about her special gift (in another, better movie, they called it Shinin’) before passing away (of what? she didn’t look sick to me). By the way, the existence of older sister Dana from the first film has been dropped down the memory hole, since Dominique Dunne was murdered, but the line mentioning that her character was away at college has been inexplicably removed. Kind of an insult to the poor girl’s memory, but we haven’t even gotten to Poltergeist 3 yet. In the meantime, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) and her Indian friend/medicine man Taylor (Will Sampson) discover another group of bodies underneath the Freelings’ old swimming pool and get bad vibes. It turns out that one of those bodies was a man named Kane (Julian Beck) who was an evil cult leader that has now returned to possess Carol Anne. Tangina later tells us that Kane has been possessed by “The Beast” or maybe he is the Beast; no matter – the attempt to tie in the plot to the first film is tenuous at best.
In one of the movie’s better scenes, Kane (walking around in late 1800s garb, singing God Is In His Holy Temple) pays a disturbing visit to the Freelings, attempting to sweet talk his way into the house (Those Mormons – can’t they just leave a pamphlet?). Julian Beck brings his avant-garde experience and creepy mannerisms to the table; the fact that he was dying of cancer at that time only helps his portrayal of the bug-eyed, almost skeletal preacher. But the movie drops the ball on Kane – first off, Poltergeist 2 later shows us that Kane can pretty much do what he wants, so I questioned the need for him to even try to get “invited” in the house. It also gives the threat away too early – we can already see people walking through the guy before he even says a word to little Carol Anne, thus the element of surprise is removed. By the time the ending comes, Beck had already passed away and we have to deal with a hastily-arranged H R Giger-monster that is barely seen. Speaking of monsters, the other standout sequence in Poltergeist 2 involves a possessed tequila worm, which Steven ingests when he hits the bottle, causing him to traumatize Diane a little bit before vomiting up a rather impressive slug monster (supposedly also designed by Giger, played by Noble Craig, and looking very Cronenbergian).
Sadly, the parts are much greater than the whole. Whatever goodwill is generated by the actors is practically thrown away in a anticlimactic ending, where Diane and Carol Anne are (rather quickly) sucked into the “other side”, a silly whirlpool of Mary-Poppins-like effects. Blink and you’ll miss the glimpses of the Lovecraftian beastie (the whole scene itself seems ill-thought out and thrown together quickly). Continuity has long been discarded, too – find Tangina as a simple spectator in the ending sequence and then watch her disappear without notice just before the credits roll. The rest of Poltergeist II: The Other Side devotes itself to the stereotypical mystical Indian who can summon powers of “Smoke” against evil spirits while simultaneously showing Steven how to be a good warrior/patriarch and teaching the Freeling family how to be a family. It’s your basic Magical Native American trope wrapped in silly humor (“Your car – it is angry!”) There are nice moments in Poltergeist 2 (a good score from returning composer Jerry Goldsmith, a stylish moment involving raindrops on a ringing toy phone) but the end result is still, overall, a disappointment.
Whatever faults are “possessed” by Poltergeist 2, the film is the quintessence of logic compared with the completely incomprehensible Poltergeist III. Michael Grais and Mark Victor, who wrote the first two pictures, bailed, along with Nelson and Williams, who knew a trainwreck in the making when they saw one. Poor Heather O’Rourke, however, stayed on, despite the fact that she was suffering intestinal stenosis (at the time, it was misdiagnosed as Crohn’s disease). Either way, the girl shouldn’t have been involved in this goofy haunted-skyscraper picture, which moves Carol Anne to a new setting (Chicago high-rise), with a new family (Diane’s supposed sister and brother-in-law). The building is new, so all the kinks have to be worked out, which means that when the poltergeists drain the heat away and entire mirrored walls start cracking, nobody seems too concerned. Carol Anne is staying with Aunt Patricia (Nancy Allen) and her hubby Bruce (Tom Skerritt), along with his older daughter Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), while she attends a special school for gifted children with emotional problems. Carol Anne has a session with the skeptical Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire), who witnesses a ghostly hand flinging a mug across the room, but determines that it was Carol Anne’s doing – he thinks she has the ability to induce mass hallucinations. Yeah, it’s completely absurd, especially when he sticks to his story in the face of all sorts of supernatural events like people’s reflections coming alive and a girl clawing her way out of someone else’s body (I guess she’s just that good!)
It would appear that the evil Reverend Kane has returned, but only in the vaguest of recognizable forms (wearing extremely silly makeup), given that Julian Beck passed away during the filming of the previous sequel. To get around this, the writers (Gary Sherman and Brian Taggert ) replace him with Nathan Davis, but Davis doesn’t get much to do or say, unless it’s canned lines like “Give me the necklace!” and “Carol Anne! We need you to lead us into the light! Carole Anne! Carole Anne!” Lots of people speak Carol Anne’s name, many times, maybe hoping that she would jump through a mirror or something, like in the old Bloody Mary games. Seriously, the character’s name is spoken about 120 times in this picture – it’s like Chinese water torture for the ears. Then we have Zelda Rubinstein showing up, looking even more ridiculous than she did in the previous films, which certainly must have taken a lot of effort. The constant mirror effects, while expertly handled (I couldn’t see any cameras), wear out their welcome because of repetition (is the whole building made of mirrors?). Skerritt and Allen do their best with what they are given, which is mostly a thankless task of running around the building dealing with frozen, possessed automobiles, out-of-control elevators, or running after a red PJ-wearing Carol Anne like Donald Sutherland in Venice.
There’s a neat shot involving the “evil” reflections of Donna and her boyfriend Scott (Kipley Wentz) coming into the real world (the logos on their shirts are backwards). The special effects money shot is probably the one where Tangina is turned into a charred corpse from which Lara Flynn Boyle bursts forth in some kind of freaky birth. There’s also a running subplot involving Pat’s struggle with accepting/not accepting the “little brat” into her yuppie family (first off, I find it hard to believe that Steve and Diane would just dump Carol Anne off at the in-laws; secondly, I found Pat’s plea to Carol Anne about her loving intentions laughable – I sensed she would have been happy leaving the girl over on the other side so she can return to her art installations and condo lifestyle). I suppose that the messy, unfinished ending could be blamed on the “curse“, but then I read that O’Rourke was around for the original ending, but after she passed away the studio demanded re-shoots. The original ending couldn’t have possibly been worse than the new one, which finds Tangina sacrificing herself so Kane can get to the “light”, even though he had no intentions of doing so in the last two movies. Finally, not one to disappoint in the ongoing trend of forgetting characters, Poltergeist 3 brings everybody back home safe, except for poor Scott, stuck somewhere on the other side. I hope they at least have a TV for him.
Poltergeist 3 doesn’t look anything like the other two movies – it stands out like a sore thumb, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view. Despite the change of setting from the “warm” suburbs to the “cold” city tower (steel, mirrors, and ominous, empty hallways), the movie carries over the ongoing theme from the first two movies about using the family unit as a weapon of good. However, this attempt fails because we don’t really know these characters well enough and can’t imagine why there would be any bonding between them similar to that of the Freelings (Patricia’s sudden attachment to her niece seems forced). On the plus side, the film is competently shot – it’s B-movie schlock all the way, of course, but I think there is some fun to be had with it. I think there is also some fascination to be found in the so-called death curse – thinking about poor Heather O’Rourke (and Julian Beck and Dominique Dunne and recently, Zelda Rubinstein) adds a bitter note of sadness underlying the whole enterprise. There certainly are a lot of mirrors in Poltergeist 3 – perhaps the executives at MGM should have taken a hard look at themselves in one. In the end, at least we have Heather and Zelda immortalized on film, and if that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the Tequila worm monster.
- Bill Gordon