Successful horror movies will forever produce a handful of sequels. The reason for this is because they are relatively cheap to make, thus providing film studios with a fruitful profit margin. However, just because a sequel can be made doesn’t mean it should. There are plenty of horror movie franchises that have over-stayed their welcome. And now that it is becoming an obsession for studios to revive franchises that have long since passed, it is most definite that whatever spooked us in cinemas over thirty years ago will surely come back for (at least) one last scare.
Now, as a case in point, Poltergeist is back to the big screen in the form of a modernized remake. Because of this, I revisited the original trilogy and now bring to you my retrospective reviews of each of the three installments.
In 1982, director Tobe Hooper brought to life an original story by Steven Spielberg entitled Poltergeist. The film, which centered on a family whose home is invaded by ghosts, became a genuine success, later earning three Academy Award nominations as well as the status of being one of the scariest movies ever made. While some question how big of a role Spielberg played on set, the film has nevertheless developed a strong legacy that has undoubtedly influenced many of today’s supernatural films.
Living in a quiet California suburb, Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) couldn’t be happier. They’ve got three charming children, a beautiful home, and no unaverage reason to be overwhelmed with life. That is until their youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is kidnapped by ghouls of another dimension and trapped within that plane of existence by a demon referred to as the Beast. After enlisting the help of Tangina, a spiritual medium played by Zelda Rubinstein, the family attempts to rescue Carol Anne and escape the Beast’s mayhem.
Just by that synopsis itself, it’s easy to see how outlandish this movie appears on paper. But it’s nothing to shy away from because this film is iconic for a reason. Right away its eerie tone is established through Mathew F. Leonetti’s carefully deliberate cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s hauntingly beautiful and sometimes extraterrestrial musical score. While the film becomes increasingly effects-heavy, the central theme of family holds strong as Nelson and Williams provide convincing performances that allow for the Freeling family unit to be very relatable. It is the compassion and intelligence of these characters that makes this film frightening and enjoyable; if you suspend your disbelief just enough, you can imagine how your own family would deal with such circumstances.
I originally saw this movie when I was a kid and I recall that it left me more than a bit spooked. While the film is rated PG, I don’t necessarily recommend it for children. But then again, I think it was more effective to me at that age. That’s not to say the film is no longer effective. It certainly holds up better than its sequels. If anything, it’s more fun and nostalgic nowadays than it was freaky and disturbing during preadolescence. As a side note, I think it works very well as a double feature with Gremlins.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
Like most sequels, Poltergeist II: The Other Side focuses on answering any lingering questions posed by the first film by developing the mythology a bit further. It is about one year later and the Freeling family is now living cautiously in Diane’s mother’s house. Meanwhile, Tangina and her shaman friend Taylor (Will Sampson) investigate an underground cave discovered at the site of the Freeling’s previous home. In doing so, they come to realize that the Beast is once again after Carol Anne. This time, however, the Beast is in its true form: a crazy preacher named Rev. Henry Kane (Julian Beck).
To me, this film contains almost as much fright as the first film. The reason for this is because Beck’s performance as Kane is legitimately terrifying, as are his cult followers that come in the form of swampy corpses. There are a lot of great practical effects applied here, which come across more menacing than the ghostly figures from the first film. However, there is an overuse of visual effects that dislocates the relatable horrors with otherworldly spectacle. It’s very reminiscent of Ghostbusters; but whereas the dated effects make that film more humorous, here things just seem clumsier.
Still it’s not as bad of a sequel as it could be, especially when compared to the third film. Luckily Nelson and Williams are back because it’s really the family that drives these films, which is actually the primary reason why the third film is such a disappointment.
Poltergeist III (1988)
Poltergeist III relocates the series to Chicago, as Carol Anne is sent to live in a brand new skyscraper with her with aunt and uncle (Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt). After an arrogantly skewed school psychiatrist attempts to uncover Carol Anne’s idiosyncrasies, Carol Anne’s recollection of her past ghostly experiences triggers Rev. Henry Kane back from the afterlife. As a result, Carol Anne is once again snatched up into the other side and her family is forced to deal with the aggressive climate change hauntings of the beast and his zombie cult. Let it be known that while all this chaos ensues, the remaining occupants of the 100-story building are completely oblivious to what’s going on. This must be a testament to Kane’s belief in the “leave no trace” set of principles. See, he’s not so bad after all.
The problem with this third installment is that it doesn’t sufficiently establish its characters before pushing them into hellish circumstances. Unlike how the first and second movies balanced the family relationships with the horror and effects, Poltergeist III changes beats too rapidly to establish any care for the newly introduced characters (which is everyone aside from Carol Anne and Tangina). Layer this with some malevolent concepts and annoying characters and you have yourself a film that is more meddling than entertaining. On a positive note, if anything is successful in this movie it is Skerritt’s performance and the practical effects. The latter of which is refreshing given that the second film was overloaded with poorly aged visual effects (see above Ghostbusters comment).
The Poltergeist Trilogy is a series of films that starts off strong and declines in quality with each installment. In comparison to other horror franchises, it is more succinct yet still unnecessary. With the exception of Julian Beck’s portrayal of Rev. Henry Kane in Poltergeist II, the world would have been perfectly fine with just the first film.
To read Phillip’s review of the 2015 Poltergeist remake, click here.