Poltergeist III (1988)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: January 31st, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
If Poltergeist II hinted that it might be a bit hard to stretch this premise into a full-blown franchise, then the follow-up—released only two years later—all but confirmed it. Perhaps sensing that this story really had nowhere to go, the producers promptly moved the series out of the suburbs and into a Chicago high-rise. Seriously, that’s pretty much the pitch here: “Poltergeist but in a lavish apartment building.” As you might imagine, it’s a very long way from the original film, so much so that it barely even feels like it should belong alongside the other two. Many franchises eventually depart from their origins, but few mange to do so as swiftly as Poltergeist did in terms of both direction and quality.
It’s both of these factors working in concert that compound the issues with Poltergeist III. With Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubenstein serving as the only returning, familiar faces, the whole premise feels completely alien to the franchise, and it doesn’t help that it’s not exactly the most reinvigorating change of pace. In an apparent attempt to explain Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams’s reticence about returning for a third outing, this sequel ships Carol Anne Freeling (O’Rourke) off to Chicago to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen) and uncle (Tom Skerritt). Her parents haven’t just ditched her, as it turns out Chicago is home to a special school for gifted children—including those with psychic abilities like Carol Anne. As her therapist (Richard Fire) tries to reckon with and comprehend her abilities, he (and everyone else) remains oblivious to the return of Reverend Kane (Nathan Davis), who has come to claim Carol Anne’s soul.
What’s really amazing about Poltergeist III is that it didn’t have to be such a drag. So many terrific elements were in place that it wouldn’t been much of a surprise if they had managed to pull it off. Trading Nelson and Williams out for Skerritt and Allen isn’t a downgrade by any means, and director Gary Sherman’s oeuvre boasted the likes of Raw Meat, Dead and Buried, and Vice Squad. And the setting, while completely weird for a Poltergeist movie, at least lends itself to a wall-to-wall spook show. Considering what previous films did with one house, imagine what could be unleashed on an entire high-rise.
Unfortunately, the answer is “not much” since MGM slashed the budget considerably, at least when compared to the film’s predecessors. It’s sort of ironic: MGM practically settled on this idea because of the location, and then promptly skimped on filling said location with anything interesting. Even worse, Sherman doesn’t provide a much of a spark for what he did have to work with: perhaps the most pressing issue here is that Poltergeist III is just lethargic as hell. You can almost sense what Sherman was up to by imposing a style that feels like the antithesis to the previous films: gone is the candy-colored suburban funhouse of horrors, here replaced with a deliberate slow burn unfolding between sterile high rise walls. Poltergeist III is a cold, unfeeling film that lurches along before springing the occasional effect to assure viewers that, yes, this is a Poltergeist movie.
But again, it must be reiterated that Sherman had very little to work with. He and co-writer Brian Taggert only had about ten days to write the script, so it’s no wonder the film never quite coheres into much of anything interesting. Nothing reflects the threadbare nature of the plot more so than the fact that roughly half the dialogue involves characters calling out another character’s name. In most cases, it’s everyone calling out for Carol Anne, so much so that the film is notorious for this—it’d be funny if it weren’t so damn grating. By resorting to this so often, the film all but announces how it has no real direction—just listless characters aimlessly trudging through a pretty dull haunted house with all the enthusiasm of someone stuck in traffic. You know you’re in trouble when like 80% of the climax involves two characters taking multiple elevators and lifts.
Even worse, the strongest arc of the film is an absolute bummer. It turns out that Carol Anne’s aunt doesn’t really want to be stuck taking care of her niece. I don’t know what kind of monster decides to make Nancy Allen play such a callous, unfeeling asshole, but they were seriously misguided. What does it say about your film that its emotional arc involves a maternal figure deciding “You know what? Maybe I should rescue my niece from the clutches of a demonic spirit hell bent on taking her into the afterlife?” At one point, she literally urges her husband to just pack up their shit and let Carol Anne rot in the Other Side, which is just about as irredeemable as it gets—this is some wicked stepmother shit, not the plot of a decent Poltergeist movie. I mean, compare this to the palpable, desperate urgency of the Freeling clan, whose familial warmth defined the first two films. Here, you wonder why Tom Skerritt would even bother, which is shame because his dad vibes are on point.
Most everything about Poltergeist III is just a bummer, from the wasted talent to the underutilized premise. An entire subplot involving Skerritt’s daughter Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and her friends threatens to take the film into the stuff of teenage splatter movies, a not altogether unwelcome turn of events, to be honest. The only problem is that this, too, goes unfulfilled—there are plenty of dopey teens just waiting to serve as fodder, yet we have to settle for Donna and her boyfriend falling through a puddle in the middle of a parking garage. Forget living up to Poltergeist, this movie can’t even keep up with the likes of Night of the Demons when it comes to staging rambunctious teenage slaughter.
When he does unleash some hell, Sherman’s commitment to in-camera practical effects is admirable enough. However, like just about everything else here, you wish it were a stronger, more sustained commitment. One show-stopping sequence admittedly supplies a hell of a jolt, if only because it’s a shocker consider the beloved Tangina’s revered status in these films. Showing little remorse, Sherman has her ripped apart from the inside, with Donna emerging from the Other Side directly through her corpse (that it later turns out to be Donna’s demonic doppelganger makes this scene all the more disturbing). It’s a rare moment where Poltergeist III genuinely unsettles and shows any signs of life—and of course, it comes at a moment that feels just a little too mean-spirited for this franchise.
I suppose that’s the best way to describe Poltergeist III: it feels as if it were made by folks with little to no understanding of what made the first two films really work. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this was a deliberate effort to run counter to the franchise brand still leaves one wondering how they could be so misguided. The end result is a film that feels like a knock-off take on Poltergeist, despite its thin connections, a notion that’s best reflected in Reverend Kane himself. Whereas Julian Beck (who sadly passed away shortly after filming The Other Side) portrayed Kane with an animated, deeply sinister desire to cling to life, Davis lurches along like a stiff mannequin, seemingly weighed down by the obvious makeup effects designed to make him more resemble his predecessor. He’s less frightening precisely because he seems less human: what made Beck’s performance so terrifying is that slightly perceptible, disarming bit of charm that lowers your defenses. He’s scary because he’s so obviously an evil man trying to play nice.
None of that translates to Poltergeist III, a film that similarly lurches along, unable to recapture the spark of life from the first two films. Two of the decade’s more riotous, spectacle-driven genre films yield to this dour, forbidding denouement, one that’s haunted by an icy specter of death. The tragic passing of O’Rourke during post-production casts a long, shadowy pall over the film; obviously, this is no fault of anyone involved, but it makes an eerie match for how the film turned out. There is something perpetually grim and foreboding about this film that’s difficult to shake—usually, that’d be a good thing, but it’s not exactly what you want from Poltergeist.
Like its fellow sequel, Poltergeist III has bowed on Blu-ray before, but it was hardly the most satisfying set of releases. Enter Scream Factory to once again do the honors, this time for an even more maligned sequel, once again proving the label’s commitment to films of all types. They’ve commissioned a new 2K scan of the interpositive and produced brand new supplements, including separate commentaries with Sherman and Poltergeist fan-site webmaster David Furtney. Three separate interviews were conducted with screenwriter Brian Taggert, actress Nancy Allen, and effects creator John Caglione, Jr. All three reminisce fondly for the most part, though Tagger is brutally candid about how badly the film was botched in many respects, going so far as to blame himself for many of the woes (especially the family dynamic here). Both he and Allen also have kind words about O’Rourke, whose death is now practically ingrained in the film’s narrative.
Speaking of which, fans will be curious to see the original ending presented on this disc. Because O’Rourke passed away before reshoots, she obviously wasn’t able to participate, thus necessitating the use of a double (as evidenced by how we never see Carol Anne’s face in the final film). This bit of footage reveals that the intending ending wasn’t too terribly different, though the ghastly image of a frozen O’Rourke was obviously no longer appropriate; it should be noted that it’s featured only with subtitles due to the lack of an audio track, though it’s still at least interesting to see, especially since Kane’s death is a bit more satisfying here.
The rest of the disc is filled out with the usual assortment of trailers, TV spots, and stills galleries, so it more than earns the “Collector’s Edition” designation Scream Factory has bestowed on it. Even though this isn’t my favorite franchise, it’s certainly someone’s, and they now have a couple of sparkling editions in which to delight. In fact, the two sequels now have more impressive Blu-ray releases than the original film, which only boasted a documentary about ghost hunters on its 25th Anniversary Edition. It’s a shame Warner Brothers won’t play nice with Scream Factory (or anyone, for that matter) so the entire franchise could be properly canonized with nice editions. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: