Movie Review: The Whole Damn Poltergeist Franchise

IMDB, PoltergeistIMDB, Poltergeist IIIMDB, Poltergeist III
“Poltergeist” on IMDB (Horror, 114 Minutes, 1982)
“Poltergeist III” on IMDB (Horror, 98 Minutes, 1988)

I was 11 years old in 1982 when “Poltergeist” came out. Not only does that make me very old now, but it also means that that the MPAA hadn’t gone quite as monkey-slapping-crazy as they are now and gave this movie a PG rating. Tobe Hooper [IMDB] and Stephen Spielberg [IMDB] could have easily gone for a hard “R” (studios still hadn’t decided to be horribly afraid of it). Instead they tossed out one of the hands-down scariest experiences of my childhood and still brought it in with a PG.

Rewatching it recently, I was surprised at how well it has held up. Sure, many of the scares are tame by today’s standards, but the emotional kick has remained just as powerful. In fact, being a parent now myself, the plight of a missing child has taken on disturbing new layers. Heather O’Rourke’s [IMDB] Carol Anne was dangerously cute and the perfect victim. The chemistry between JoBeth Williams’ [IMDB] hopeful yet desperate mother and Craig T. Nelson’s [IMDB] strong but impotent father was perfect.

Even after three decades the special effects have, with very few exceptions, held up wonderfully. Even so, the simple things still worked the best. I had to explain to my digital children what a TV station “going off the air” was and why it produced white noise, but it was still incredibly effective. The flickering TV, the trusting moppet having her intense, seemingly one-sided conversation, the foreboding dread: it all still works. The gnarled, creepy tree right outside the window and then there was that god-damned clown!

The movie is a well-deserved, unequivocal, classic. It works on every level it did when I was 11, with an added kick from thirty years experience. It remains, and is likely to remain, one of the best slumber-party movies ever made. The second movie… wasn’t.

Poltergeist II was released four years after the first. It continued the story of the Freeling family, but minus a member. Daughter Dana, originally played by Dominique Dunne [IMDB], who had been tragically killed in 1982, was simply erased from the family without comment.

The story is also given more depth, literally. In the first movie we learned that the family home was built on a cemetery. In the sequel we learn that the cemetery was built on the mass grave of a 1800’s cult. The leader of that cult, Kane, played by the exquisitely creepy Julian Beck [IMDB], is back from the grave to steal Carol Anne a second time.

The magic munchkin, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein [IMDB]), returns to aide the family and brings along Will Sampson’s [IMDB] Indian Shaman as back-up. We also learn that the Freeling women are all psychics. Compared to the direct, approachable simplicity of the first film, these threads and layers muddle and confuse the story giving the audience less time to empathize with the family.

It’s not a terrible film by any stretch, but it is a step down. The overly saccharine ending, rushed effects, often sloppy editing and complex story all work to pull the movie further towards mediocrity. That said, apart from the avoidable technical issues, it’s difficult to see how a sequel could have stood up to the original. Sadly, that lesson wasn’t taken to heart.

A short two years later, in 1988, the studio released Poltergeist III. The attrition of the Freeling clan is complete: only Carol Anne remains, having been sent to live with her aunt in a Chicago high-rise because… you can hide from ghosts? Tangina and Kane make appearances as well, rounding out the only returning cast members.

Sadly, Heather O’Rourke died from Crohn’s Disease, while the film was in post production and much of the ending is the result of clearly half-hearted re-shoots with body doubles. The story wanders between traditional jumps scares and squarely enters the “teens in trouble” genre of horror that the first film so studiously avoided.

The movie is a sad, forced shadow of the original and likely should only be tackled by obsessive completionists (like me). It squanders all of the warmth and empathy that the first two films were able to garner in a paint-by-numbers horror show that fails far more often than it succeeds.

The downward spiral of the sequels say absolutely nothing about the quality of the first film. The movie is iconic and, not surprisingly, is getting the Hollywood remake treatment in July of 2015. While I would normally roll my eyes, the news that the legendary Sam Raimi [IMDB] is producing gives me hope. The trailer, at least, doesn’t raise any obvious red flags (besides the minor annoyance of changing every character’s name):

This will be only be director Gil Kenan’s [IMDB] third film, but his first two 2006’s Monster House [IMDB] and 2008’s City of Ember [IMDB] both embody the kind of effective, but still family friendly, scares that were the hallmark of the original film. If they smartly stick with what made the original so successful, it might very well end up a worthy addition to the series.

Update August 15, 2015: My review of the 2015 film is available. In short, don’t get your hopes up.

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