New To Blu: Poltergeist III

Despite its bad rep, Chris Jordan decides to review the last in the original Poltergeist series. 

"Hi little girl.
Want some preacher candy?"
With the remake of Poltergeist finally reaching the light this weekend, the complete original trilogy is belatedly making its HD debut. While the original Poltergeist has been on blu-ray for five years now, and Poltergeist II: The Other Side followed shortly thereafter, this week sees Poltergeist III join its predecessors on the format for the first time, both as a stand-alone disc and in a double-feature package. It is no secret that the Poltergeist sequels are not especially loved among horror fans, so it isn't surprising that it took a new remake to inspire this release. That first movie is a really, really hard act to follow, and after the first sequel's unenthusiastic reception, it's quite possible that not too many people were clamoring to add the second sequel to their blu-ray collections. But this is a film that deserves another look; it is a lot better – and a whole lot more fun – than it often gets credit for. I'll happily admit it: I really like Poltergeist III. Is it a worthy successor to the original, which remains one of the greatest masterpieces of the haunted house subgenre? No, not really. But it stands on its own quite well as a very entertaining, well-made, and visually-impressive '80s horror flick, and it really does attempt something new with the formula. If it was an unrelated one-off movie that wasn't burdened with the baggage of being Poltergeist III, I can guarantee you that its reputation would be much, much better.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side was a decent, but uninspired and not terribly memorable, sequel. In most ways it simply failed to escape from the shadow of its predecessor, and it tried so hard to re-capture the first film's Spielbergian dynamic that it never branched out to find its own identity as much as it should have. And in striking contrast to the original, it was very long on exposition and short on wild special effects sequences; a noble storytelling effort, but a letdown after the original's insane funhouse feel. It's not bad; just not Poltergeist. What it did do really well, though, was create a very memorable and creepy villain: the ghostly Reverend Kane, played perfectly by Julian Beck. Equal parts Phantasm's Tall Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes' Mister Dark, he was definitely one of the sequel's strongest points. So it was a good decision for Poltergeist III to keep Kane and dispense with just about everything else: aside from the villain and recurring protagonists Carol Anne and Tangina, this third film makes an aggressive effort to break away from its predecessors and be its own movie. The result is easily the stronger of the two sequels.

"Hello. I'm Tom Skerritt."
This time around we have a new setting and a mostly-new cast, as Carol Anne is sent to live with some relatives (Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, and Lara Flynn Boyle in her first film role) in their swanky, extremely modern and trendy Chicago high-rise. The plot is nothing new – Kane and fellow ghosts haunt the building and torment Carol Anne, Tangina gets very philosophical about the reasons why – but this is partly a deliberate choice. After the second film got too bogged down in exposition to recapture the fun of the original, part three is clearly trying to get back to basics: simple plot, lots of crazy effects sequences, wild haunted funhouse all over again. And while the change of scenery from suburban home to high-rise apartment complex may sound gimmicky, it's honestly all the formula needed to set itself apart. Since this is the late-80s we're talking about, “trendy modern high-rise” naturally means mirrors all over every available surface, so the ghosts can have a field day doing creepy things involving reflections. It makes for some really cool, creepy visuals and “Through the Looking Glass”-ish set-pieces, and makes the funhouse concept very literal as mirrors constantly distort reality. Granted, the movie eventually comes awfully close to leaning on this visual trope too often, but for the most part it works very well. Plus, there is something oddly unexpected and effective about setting a haunted house story in a brand-new and very modern structure. Sure, the houses in the original Poltergeist were new also, but they were at least still traditional homes of the variety that we imagine ghosts haunting; Poltergeist III is the first time I ever saw spirits take up residence in swanky downtown apartments. Well, except for Gozer in Ghostbusters...

Of course, the film's “maximum haunting action, minimum exposition” attitude is not entirely a good thing: while it is a lot more fun than Poltergeist II, it is neither as good or as fully-developed a film as Poltergeist; not by a long shot. It isn't terribly concerned with character development, and fleshes out the characters just the minimum amount required for us to care about them; a far cry from how strongly-developed and fully-human the Freeling family from the first film were. Skerritt, Allen, and Boyle all do the best they can with what they are given, and make perfectly fine protagonists we have no problem rooting for, but we never really feel like we know them. Plus, Lara Flynn Boyle's character brings with her a gang of generic vapid '80s teenagers who look like they dropped in from a Culture Club music video, and who are looking for a place to party when the ghosts turn up. No real attempt is made to develop their characters at all; they are strictly there to add to the list of potential victims, and to make the film appeal more to the Elm Street or Friday the 13th crowd.

Those things aren't deal breakers, though: I present those facts mostly to give an accurate sense of the type of movie Poltergeist III is trying to be. It has no desire to re-capture the Spielberg style of the first two, and instead seems to want to be the post-Nightmare on Elm Street reinvention of the franchise: self-consciously modern (ie, delightfully 80s), with more of an emphasis on teenage characters and trippy special effects. It is very telling that when the MPAA originally rated it PG, MGM demanded reshoots to give the film more teeth and earn a coveted PG-13. And this is exactly why I said it would have a much better reputation if it wasn't a Poltergeist sequel: it really needs to be watched as a genre movie with an entirely different attitude. A more shallow attitude, perhaps, but it's a whole lot of fun. It's all about visuals and atmosphere, and it provides both in spades. For the most part, the effects (by writer/director/special effects director Gary Sherman and effects guru Dick Smith) look great, and they provide a few genuinely startling moments. Turn your brain off, adjust your expectations a few notches down from the greatness of the original, and have a good time.

"Will this stuff give me herpes?!!!!"
Of course, there is one elephant in the room that must be addressed when it comes to this film. Superstitious film fans love to say that this franchise is cursed, due to the sad coincidence that one lead actor died shortly after the production of each installment. And while I certainly don't think the films are actually cursed, it is hard to deny that death hangs rather heavily over Poltergeist III. In part II, Reverend Kane's gaunt, deathly appearance wasn't all makeup: Julian Beck was actually dying of cancer, and passed away shortly after making it. As a result, this film has the unfortunate task of trying to hide the re-casting of Kane using stylized images of doubles made up to look like Beck, and the results can sometimes be pretty conspicuous. And then there's the tragic fact that Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne in the trilogy, died suddenly at the age of twelve just months after the end of production. Knowing this casts some sadness over the whole thing – especially since she does look rather pale and sick in much of the film, although her cast members have said no one had any idea she was so ill. She demonstrates once again what a good child actor she was, and you can't help but wonder what sort of a career she might have had.

Still, Poltergeist III remains quite an enjoyable sequel, and one that certainly deserves another look now that it is on blu-ray. Is it a masterpiece, or even a very good film? Not really. But I approach it in the same way I approach the Elm Street sequels: entertaining horror thrill rides with some memorable scares, atmosphere, and effects sequences. And I must say, the nostalgic appeal of its distinctly '80s-horror aesthetic has only made it more fun with time. Could there have been a better Poltergeist sequel? Sure. But this is easily the better of the two sequels that we got, and it offers way more than it usually gets credit for. One can hope that this new remake will dethrone part III as the second-most-enjoyable Poltergeist film, but this remains quite a cool flick from a decade that was undeniably awesome for horror. Give it another look.

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-Christopher S. Jordan