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Poltergeist Trilogy Review

Updated on May 26, 2015

Poltergeist (1982)

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Written and Produced by Stephen Spielberg

Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’ Rourke, Dominque Dunne, Zelda Rubinstein, James Karen

MPAA Rating: PG

Runtime: 114 minutes

Poltergeist is a film that has left its legacy on pop culture and one that has left its imprint on typical “haunted house” movies such as Insidious. This movie gives a glimpse into writer and producer Stephen Spielberg’s nightmares about hulking trees, clowns and mischievous spirits; this is his first, and I believe, his only foray into the horror genre. In 1982, this movie along with Spielberg’s other significant hit, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, proved to be a critical and commercial hit. However, I hold mixed feelings towards this film as a whole. Poltergeist has some strong moments, but it is ultimately weighed down by campy performances, a muddled storyline and a plethora of special effects which tend to overshadow the much-needed tension-filled atmosphere of the best horror films.

We’re introduced to family of five, The Freelings, who live in an upper-middle class neighborhood called Cuesta Verda built upon the land of a burial ground. Out of the blue, the family begins to experience strange phenomena; their daughter, Carol Ann (Heather O’ Rourke) begins communicating to whom she calls the “TV people”, chairs are stacked into pyramid-like structures on their kitchen table, silverware bends by itself and random earthquakes occur in their home in which no one else in the neighborhood seems to be aware of. They initially dismiss this phenomena; Mrs. Freeling (JoBeth Williams) even goes as far as taking a jovial approach to the matter by giddily showing her husband played by “Coach” Craig T. Nelson how the kitchen table chairs and Carol skid across the kitchen floors pulled by an unknown force. Yet, all is fun and games until their son, Robbie (Oliver Robins) is almost devoured by an obviously hungry tree and Carol Ann is sucked into a spiritual portal in her closet, all the while oldest daughter, Dana (Dominque Dunne) stands by and screams in horror. Unable to locate Carol Ann in the physical world, The Freelings call upon a team of paranormal experts to investigate the haunting who conclude that it is a poltergeist. In addition to our paranormal experts, spiritual medium, Tangina, played by Zelda Rubinstein, is also called who explains that the spirits on the other side are attracted to Carol Ann because her “life-force”. What follows is a quest into a realm between the living and the dead to rescue Carol Ann from the clutches of a powerful spirit called the “Beast”.

There are two ways to view Poltergeist. You can either view it as a standard, haunted house horror film or as a satire aimed towards the excessive greediness characterized by the burgeoning Yuppie culture of the 80s where the concept of Reaganomics was beginning to take hold. I tend to agree with the latter approach when watching Poltergeist. As a standard horror film, Poltergeist simply isn’t a scary film with the exception of tense-filled scene towards the end where only son Robbie endures a terrorizing experience with an extra-creepy clown doll that would have given mass murdering, friend til the end Chucky, a quick physical jolt in horror. Other than that, there isn’t much else about this film that will cause you to leave a hallway light on before going to sleep at night.

The performances by the cast are over-exaggerated to an extent where the tone of the film is relegated from horror to pure camp. For instance, an early scene in the movie, Carol Ann’s pet canary dies and is laid to rest in a cigar box with a piece of licorice. Later on, after being inadvertently frightened by Carol Ann, Mrs. Freeling tells her something along the lines of, “You don’t want to see mommy buried in a cigar box with a piece of licorice, do you?” Or how about when parents assume that Carol Ann is drowning in the corpse-filled muddy water of a pre-dug swimming pool and Mrs. Freeling overdramatically cries, “She’s in the swimming pool! The swimming pool! The SWIMMING POOOOOOOOOOL!” This may be mere nit-picking, but these performances borderline on comedic melodrama.

Yet, perhaps there is cause for this, because maybe, just maybe, this was Spielberg’s attempt to produce a satire on the greed of over-zealous real estate developers stopping at nothing to develop property even if it is on top of a what used to be a gravesite; the always fantastic James Karen makes a cameo appearance as Mr. Freeling’s boss who makes a proposition to develop property on top of a nearby cemetery. This sets up the scenario of a well-to-do, upper-middle class family facing the consequences for their unwitting actions of angering the spirits buried beneath their homestead. Beyond this, there also seems to be social commentary regarding the dependency that we hold towards television. TVs are featured prominently throughout Poltergeist and represent the medium in which a spiritual world-Carol Ann communicates with those in the physical, living world. Reviewer James Gracey commented that Poltergeist was released during the height of the debate where television negatively interrupted the social dynamics of family life where interpersonal communication had been replaced with technology[i]. In any respect, both of these points do tend to lean more towards the notion that Poltergeist may work more effectively as a satire and social commentary on early 80s yuppie-ism than as a horror film.

Although technically directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas ChainSaw Massacre, Salems’ Lot), Poltergeist is predominantly a Stephen Spielberg film. Hooper known for his indie, documentarian approach to movies was more than likely overwhelmed by the big-budget nature of this film. Although, that’s not to say that there aren’t any Hooper-like elements associated with Poltergeist (the disgusting, flesh-tearing from the face scene for instance), but as a whole this is a Spielberg movie. It’s even been suggested by the cast, that Spielberg had a large role in regards to the direction of Poltergeist. We’re given big-budget laden special effects, overly saccharine and sentimental moments between characters and several Spielbergian camera shots. Watching this film it’s easy to imagine Spielberg hovering over Hooper informing him of how to shoot this movie. Both directors are completely different in their respective styles and what we were left with is a muddled mix of both styles with Spielberg’s being the larger of the two. There are trademark special effects associated with Stephen Spielberg’s vision which take up a vast amount of the latter of Poltergeist, and this basically muddles the storyline into one that more dependent on special effects than it is on storyline. In reality, the second half of the film seems to discard all forms of storytelling and relies more heavily on a string of special-effect laden scenes which are geared more to Wow the audience rather than captivate them with tension-filled storyline about a family faced with an extraordinary phenomenon.

I am in the minority on this film as I don’t see it as the horror masterpiece as so many claim it to be, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. It has its moments both good and bad, and it has left a legacy on the world of pop-culture and film. A film that comes to mind that was definitely influenced by Poltergeist is James Wan’s Insidious which borrowed heavily from the plot of Poltergeist from the child being sucked into a spiritual world to the team of paranormal investigators employed to extract the child. Ultimately, I think it is best to approach Poltergeist as not a horror film, but as a satire and social commentary on the state of affairs in which it was primarily influenced.

RATING: 6.5 out of 10


Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Directed by Brian Gibson

Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’ Rourke, Oliver Robins, Will Sampson, Julian Beck, Geradline Fitzgerald & Zelda Rubenstein

MPAA Rating: PG

Runtime: 91 minutes

First, let me say that this film showed some promise. It dives more into the element of spine-tingling terror that I felt the first Poltergeist lacked and there was some real potential here to produce a film that could have topped the first when it comes to foreboding horror. But, what we’re given is essentially an unfinished film. It’s runtime at one point in time was supposed to clock in at somewhere around two hours, but due to rushed production and heavy cuts, we’re given an uneven and non-engaging film. That being said, The Other Side, does offer us what I found to be one of the most intense, unsettling scenes of the film series.

The Freeling family returns minus oldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne was tragically murdered shortly after the release of the first Poltergeist) in which no explanation of her absence is given. Shortly after the events of the first film, the Freelings are now living with Mrs. Freeling’s mother portrayed by Geraldine Fitzgerald who shares a telepathic connection to youngest daughter, Carol Ann. All seems peaches and cream, until the death of Fitzgerald’s character and the ghastly Reverend Henry Kane played with frightening intensity by a cancer-stricken Julian Beck comes to tear the family apart. To keep the family away from the sinister clutches of Kane, spiritual medium Tangina propositions Taylor (“Big Chief” Will Sampson), a Native American shaman, to protect the family from this new evil which serves as the general plot of The Other Side.

This movie succeeds on presenting its viewers with the sinister villain, Reverend Henry Kane who resembles a cross between Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps and the Quaker Oatmeal Man. While alive in the physical world, the Reverend Kane had a devoted group of followers who followed him into a cave underneath the haunted house of the first Poltergeist film under the false pretense that the “end of the world” was imminent. After Kane’s suggested doom-date had come and gone, he forced his followers to remain in this cave until they died. He is then revealed as “The Beast” stalking the family whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc on the Freelings in an effort to tear apart their family unit. A spine-tingling scene where Kane is attempting to gain access into the Freeling household which is ultimately thwarted by Mr. Freeling probably ranks as one of the most unsettling, creepy scenes associated with this film series.

But, even with the success of bringing a worthy antagonist in Kane to the series, The Other Side simply isn’t a good film. The horrific components of this movie are weakened again by the comedic and sometimes campy nature of this film. The ending where the Freelings are stranded in their old neighborhood by Taylor driving their car away which was affably given to him by Mr. Freeling and the family chasing him clownishly down the road shouting towards him to “Wait for us!” is guaranteed to make viewers of this film roll their eyes in annoyance. There’s also one scene in particular that is disgustingly cringe-worthy where Mr. Freeling vomits up a tequila-worm possessed by Kane which I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh at or be revolted by. More, watching this film is an utterly unsatisfying experience mostly due to the “unfinished” feel of the film. As a frightening and seemingly powerful villain, Kane is defeated relatively quickly in an unsatisfying conclusion.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side does deliver some scares, but for the most part, this film is a misfire as well as an unnecessary and unsatisfying sequel. I’d say if you do watch it, fast forward to the aforementioned scene involving the confrontation between Kane and Mr. Freeling. It’s a shame that this film couldn’t have approached its subject matter with as much concrete eeriness as this one scene exudes.

RATING: 4 out of 10

Poltergeist III

Directed by Gary Sherman

Starring: Tom Skeritt, Nancy Allen, Heather O’ Rourke, Lara Flynn Boyle, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Fire

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 98 minutes

Oh, how I feel bad for Heather O’ Rourke. Not only is her character is chased once again by the dreaded Reverend Henry Kane, but this ungodly piece of garbage floating aimlessly in the air like the plot of this film is dedicated to her memory. Poltergeist III should have come with the subtitle “Carol Ann” because her name literally makes up about half of the dialogue in this film. If you took a shot of lite beer every time the name Carol Ann is mentioned in this movie you’ll be dying of liver failure by the time the end credits are rolling. There you go…A new drinking game.

There is nothing redeemable about this film with the exception of the glossy improved special effects and, at times, there are unsettling moments. The characters are all vapid and unlikeable, especially the “Aunt” portrayed smarmily by Nancy Allen and the ego-centric shrink played to a snobbish perfection by actor Richard Fire. Heather O’ Rourke’s Carol Ann was the only character I remotely sympathized with in this trite film. First, she’s abandoned by her parents to live with her out of touch aunt and uncle, analyzed by an egotistical psychiatrist who haughtily dismisses her previous experiences with the supernatural, indifferently designated a “brat” by both her cousin (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Aunt and coaxed back into the spiritual world by Mr. Quaker Oats himself, Reverend Henry Kane. At one point in the film, she laments that nobody loves her except for the Reverend Henry Kane and that she is fine living on the other side with him. That’s terrible given that this is the otherworldly asshole who forced his followers to die in a cave and the force that attempted to tear her family apart in the previous film. Yeah, she’d much rather live with Wilford Brimley’s hero than with her own family who makes her feel like a soul-draining pariah.

The plot is laughably dumb with Carol Ann’s psychiatrist acting as the figure who unwittingly leads the spirit of Kane back to where Carol is at. You can take the steering wheel of the plot from here and guess where it goes meandering off-path. Of course, Zelda Rubinstein returns to the fold to once again to rescue Carol Ann from the ghosts in the realm of the dead eventually meeting her fate which involves walking hand-in-hand with the Reverend Kane into “the Light”, which I guess is some sort of heaven. The climax is long and stretched out and mostly involves Tom Skeritt and Nancy Allen running around uselessly wide-eyed in fear and over-reacting to every “pow”, “bang” and “thud”…Look, it’s just bad.

Towards the end of this film, young Carol Ann is told that her nightmare is over. Well, so was mine and I’m assuming countless others’ when the end credits of this movie began to roll. Don’t bother with this movie.

RATING: 2 out of 10


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