There was never really a need to sequelize 1982’s Poltergeist. It told a complete story. It vanquished the evil spirit haunting the house by film’s end. Heck, it even vanquished the house itself. But because the original movie was a hit and it was the ’80s, the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg collaboration got not just one sequel but two, despite the fact that it does not lend itself to being a franchise. New villains and new mythology—and eventually even new family members—were introduced to keep the story going, albeit with mixed results. And while the sequels have their fans, they’re hardly among the most beloved horror films of the decade. Thanks to Scream Factory’s new Collector's Editions of both, horror fans now have the chance to reevaluate them in the best possible format.
Though released four years after the 1982 original, Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up only a year after the events of the first film, with the cast returning (save for oldest daughter Dominique Dunne, who was murdered shortly after the original movie came out in 1982) and the Freeling family relocating to Phoenix, Arizona after their house was attacked by evil spirits and imploded into the ground.
When it is discovered that there was a series of caves under their old home and that the evil spirit of Reverend Kane (Julian Beck) is now coming after youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), the Freelings enlist the help of a Native American shaman (Will Sampson) and returning clairvoyant Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein) to protect themselves against demons (or monsters… or ghosts… I’m not totally sure what they are) who will stop at nothing to take control of Carol Anne and return to this realm.
While I know the movie has its fans, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is, in so many ways, the same kind of cynical sequel that plagued the horror genre in the ’80s. It tries to do more of the same—house/family is haunted—but it thinks that adding endlessly to the mythology is the way to do that, whether it’s the reveal that all the women in the Freeling family are magically clairvoyant (which detracts from the “regular people” charm of Tobe Hooper’s original) or the disastrous decision to show “the other side,” which was only suggested to much greater effect in the first movie. The family dynamic, such an important part of Poltergeist, is completely ignored in the follow-up in favor of lots of exposition. What Hooper and Spielberg understood the first time around is that we would care about the Freelings because they seemed so believable and authentic—we could see so much of our own families in them. Poltergeist II expects us to care about the Freelings because we probably saw Poltergeist.
While Kane is a creepy villain in the execution—mostly because of Julian Beck’s performance—I don’t think he works conceptually, ringing too much like an attempt to invent a new Big Bad whose function is more or less the exact same as the phantasmal forces of the previous film. The addition of a bunch of Native American mythos only muddies the waters further, pushing the series away from what once made it special without moving closer to something genuinely original or exciting.
Where the movie does excel is in its practical and visual effects, which alone make it worth seeing for horror fans. The film utilizes the talents of a number of masters, including Steve Johnson, Richard Edlund, and H.R. Giger, who all help to create scenes and set pieces that are incredibly inventive and unique. The film’s most famous scene, in which Craig T. Nelson pukes up a tequila worm that transforms into a monster, is amazingly constructed and presents a creature that is truly scary and cool—one of the very best of its type. Pity it’s not part of a movie more worthy of its inclusion. Whenever the sequel stages a “horror” moment, it comes to life in a way that honors the first film in its darkness and intensity; the sequel, like its predecessor, isn’t messing around when it comes to the scares, despite its PG-13 rating.
The third movie in the series, 1988’s Poltergeist III, moves the action to a Chicago high-rise, where Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her uncle (Tom Skerritt), aunt (Nancy Allen), and cousin (Lara Flynn Boyle). As she undergoes therapy for what is perceived as emotional troubles, Carol Anne is once again located by the spirit of Reverend Kane, which also gets Tangina to spring into action once more and cross the country to help protect Carol Anne. As the entire building experiences supernatural activity, Kane systematically takes possession of each of the family members in the hopes of finally getting Carol Anne.
Here’s the thing about Poltergeist III; it’s a pretty cool movie that would be much better had it been allowed to stand on its own. With just a few (albeit major) changes, the sequel could actually have been made as a standalone horror movie about a haunted high-rise, and I think it would still be remembered fondly today. But with the inclusion of Heather O’Rourke (who also died tragically at age 12 just before the movie was released in 1988) reprising her role as Carol Anne and the continuation of the “Kane” storyline, the movie shoehorns in more of the mythology that weighed down the previous installment. By renaming both Carol Anne and Kane, this film could have existed outside of the Poltergeist franchise and stood on its own.
Because aside from the film’s need to remind us it’s another Poltergeist movie, Poltergeist III is a pretty cool horror movie. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as it’s directed by the perpetually underrated Gary Sherman, the same man responsible for underappreciated gems like Raw Meat and Dead & Buried. Sherman jams the sequel with wall-to-wall effects, many of which he designed and achieved on set (as opposed to adding them in optically after the fact). There are few that stand out to the degree as those in the previous installment, but it’s so endlessly imaginative and visually interesting that it works even better than Poltergeist II.
The characters still aren’t up to the standards of the first film, but they’re more than the faint sketches of II; at least there is an attempt by Skerritt, Allen, and Boyle to create human beings who are flawed and compelling. And given some of the production challenges the film underwent—the ending had to be reshot after O’Rourke had passed, requiring the use of a body double—it’s impressive what Sherman is able to achieve with this sequel.
While I prefer Poltergeist III to Poltergeist II: The Other Side, both are fairly far cries from the first movie. You wouldn’t necessarily think so watching Scream Factory’s new Blu-rays of both films, though, as they’ve been given impressive upgrades and great new bonus features. Although they were previously available as both standalone releases and a double feature Blu-ray from Fox, Scream Factory has put together new 2K scans for the sequels and they look really great. The 1080p HD transfers (in their original 2.35:1 widescreen) boast natural color reproduction, bring out a great deal of fine details, and show no visible signs of wear or damage. The supplemental content is where the discs shine, though, in particular Poltergeist II, which is the weaker film but the better disc overall. There are two new commentary tracks, the first with producer Michael Grais (moderated by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures), and the second with David Furtney, the editor of a Poltergeist II fan site.
Perhaps recognizing that the movie’s visual effects are its strongest selling point, Scream Factory has included a great featurette with comments from Steve Johnson, Richard Edlund, and Screaming Mad George. It’s great. There’s also a piece on H.R. Giger’s designs and what it was like working with him, as well as an interview with the now-adult Oliver Robins, who plays Robbie in the first two movies. Rounding out the bonus features on the disc are a collection of archival featurettes, the original trailer, some TV spots, and a slideshow of excerpts from the original shooting script for the movie.
Poltergeist III isn’t as jam-packed with extra material as the Blu-ray for the first sequel, but it is equally worthwhile for fans of the film. There are two more new commentaries, the first with director Gary Sherman and the second with David Furtney, returning again to talk about the third movie in the franchise. Screenwriter Brian Taggert and co-star Nancy Allen sit down for new one-on-one interviews, as does special effects creator John Caglione, Jr. Maybe the best bonus feature on the disc is the original alternate ending, which is presented with subtitles instead of audio, but presents a different finale whose existence has long been debated. Also included is the original trailer, some TV spots, and a gallery of marketing and production stills.
Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is a horror classic for good reason. Its sequels are not, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to recommend in either one. Both movies have bright spots, mostly as a testament to the magic of 1980s practical effects. With excellent transfers and a heap of cool bonus features, these discs are a worthy investment for even casual fans of the Poltergeist franchise. It’s all the fun of puking up a tequila worm demon without even having to drink any tequila.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5
Poltergeist III Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5