Here’s a little cinematic fact that is going to blow your minds, so buckle up: not all sequels are necessary. I know it’s hard to believe, especially in the context of the horror genre, but believe it are not, many of the movies that feature one of your favourite titles with a roman numeral next to it that are completely commercial ventures with little to no artistic appeal. For example, in 1982 Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg joined features to make one of the great haunted house films in Poltergeist. The suburban scare picture was an instant classic, serving for generations as an ideal Fisher Price: My First Horror Movie. It was also a massive hit and so two sequels hit screens by the end of the ’80s. They aren’t nearly as good and often feel downright gratuitous. However, they do occupy as strange place in genre history thanks to the infamous “Poltergeist Curse” and heaping handfuls of ’80s nostalgia. So, they’ve become minor cult kiddie horror pictures and Scream Factory have been kind enough to release them both on Blu-ray, so let’s discuss these sequels’ oddball charms, shall we?
First up, Poltergiest II a sequel four years in the making in no small part as a result of the unexpected murder of Dominique Dunne (aka the eldest teen daughter). Spielberg distanced himself from the production and Hooper was too busy with his 3-picture deal at Cannon to care, so the sequel continued with only screenwriters Michael Grais and Mark Victor (Marked For Death) retained from the original creative team. Unsurprisingly, Poltergeist II is a bit sloppy and completely lacks that Spielberg magic. The story has a certain level of desperation to keep things going, the dialogue isn’t nearly as natural, the cast aren’t quite as committed, director Brian Gibson (What’s Love Got To Do With It?) isn’t hugely interested in horror, and the whole thing feels rushed. However, the effects budget was remarkably high for an ’80s horror flick, so there are a few fantastic effects sequences and scares that have left a mark on a generation of Amblin kids.
For the most part the additions to the Poltergeist mythology in the sequel do nothing but over-explain the mysteries that made the first flick work and slide straight into racism with all of the awkward native mysticism shoehorned in (although Will Sampson does his best to retain his dignity in the process). However, the sequel does introduce the psychotic ghost preacher Kane played by Julian Black, who is an absolutely terrifying creation in a handful of scenes that play brilliantly in isolation. Had the movie been better, Kane would be a horror icon because of his ability to turn every line of dialogue into the stuff of childhood nightmares. Sadly it wasn’t.
The effects are a bit hit and miss, especially when the filmmakers were forced into an underwhelming afterlife finale (and the less said about the haunted braces the better). However, H.R. Gieer designed the ghosts and when they appear they are brilliantly twisted. In particular there is a scene when a woman monster emerges from Craig T. Nelson’s mouth and crawls across the floor that might be the most frightening moment in the entire series. So, there are a couple of great scares, some nice Jerry Goldsmith music, and the original cast returning to make it feel like Poltergiest. There are worse horror sequels out there. At least there are great moments in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, even if the whole silly sequel doesn’t quite hold together and at it’s weakest moments even undermines the success of the first film thanks to some deeply unnecessary mythology expanding.
Next up comes Poltergeist III, the most troubled of all the flicks in the franchise. Only Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne returns, this time living with her aunt (Nancy Allen) and uncle (Tom Skerritt) in a Chicago high-rise when Reverend Kane (Nathan Davis) shows up with some pesky poltergeists. Tragically, the young O’Rourke died before production was complete, leading to an awkward body double finale. Julian Black also passed away between the sequels, so he was replaced by Davis in heavy prosthetics and he never quite matches the iconic presence that Black provide in the creepy role. However unlike Poltergeist II, the film was made by a genuine horror auteur with a skill for the genre. Gary Sherman remains a deeply underrated horror director, despite his brilliant one-two punch of 1972’s Raw Meat and 1981’s Dead And Buried. Both are now adored cult films, but made so little money on release that Poltergeist III was the biggest production he was handed and the tragic troubles behind the scenes meant that the studio barely released it.
Given the extreme budgetary issues, time, and cast restrictions that Sherman faced in mounting his unwanted Poltergeist sequel, it’s actually rather amazing what he was able to deliver. In particular, the first half of the film can be downright terrifying, with Sherman using all sorts of creative, low budget scare techniques quite literally involving smoke and mirrors. It’s genuinely unsettling and unnerving stuff, with the high-rise location proving to add extra levels of claustrophobia and danger to the ghostly spook outs. Unlike the wonkily structured Poltergeist II, the flick grabs the audience by the through early and can feel relentless in it’s scare tactics (well, by the standard of silly kiddie haunted house standards). The only downsides are the often cheese dialogue (the shear volume of times that character’s shout “Carol Anne” is unreal) n’ acting that came from the rushed production and an underwhelming finale that Sherman didn’t even particularly want to direct under the circumstances. The film has by far the worst reputation of the series, but really shouldn’t. It works far better than it should and at least for a while shows off the significant genre skills that Gary Sherman has behind the camera and has all too rarely been allowed to show off. This ain’t Sherman’s best movie, but it is his biggest and most elaborate (while still being the cheapest and smallest flick in this franchise).
The Poltergeist sequels might be a mixed bag artistically, but there’s nothing negative to be said about these discs. The transfers are absolutely fantastic, showing off the scale and production values of these big ol’ scare flicks with impressive new HD transfers. Sure, some of the rushed effects work on the back end of both flicks aren’t done any favours by the bump up to HD, but that’s part of the creaky nostalgic charms of the films at this point. The lossless sound mixes are absolutely spectacular though, with the iconic Jerry Goldsmith music and nightmarish sound designs enveloping the speakers of any home theater system. These are great discs, so good that some unkind folks might even say they are better than the movies themselves. I wouldn’t dare say such a thing though. That’s just cruel.
The special features sections certainly aren’t lacking though, for either feature. Poltergiest II kicks off with two audio commentaries, one from writer/producer Michael Gais (filled with jovial memories of his involvement in the original production and this sequel) and one with Poltergiest fan site web master David Furney (which is just as overwhelmingly filled with factoids as you’d hope and as dry as you’d fear). Better yet are the interviews, first a 15-minute piece with Oliver Robins (who played Robbie in the first two Poltergiest movies) that’s very sweet and very brief because childhood memories of having fun on set only go so far.
Even better are the two 20-minute features on the special effects featuring interviews with Richard Edlund, Steven Johnson, and the great Screaming Mad Geroge (Society). The first feature is a nuts and bolts discussion of the best effects scenes that offer a fascinating look at old physical effects tricks. The second feature covers the relationship the effects artists had with H.R. Gieger, who provided inspirational paintings but was quite unhappy with the final film. Giger’s longtime friend/agent Les Barany also pops in with even more recollections of the genius artists’ frustrations. So anecdotes about cranky reactions from the Swiss genius pile up fast and are damn amusing as well as a little melancholic (Shout Factory specializes in uncomfortably honest making of features and I applaud them for it). Toss in some vintage promotional docs, trailers, TV spots, and the original screenplay (just in case you want to read it on your TV), and you’ve got a damn fun disc for a film that at least has sequences worthy of the lavish attention.
Poltergiest III kicks off with a trilogy of 15-minute interviews all worth a look. First up comes screenwriter Brian Taggart who has nothing but nice things to say about working with Gary Sherman. Next up is Nancy Allen who is quite fond of the film and open about the tragic nature of the production. Finally, John Caglione Jr. pops up to discuss the effects work that he did under Dick Smith that’s absolutely fascinating (especially the goopy details of a particular rotted corpse gag). Next up the original ending appears after years of speculation. It’s…unfortunately not great, but still nice to see. Finally, there are two commentary tracks, the first with Poltergeist superfan David Furney just as dry and info-packed as the first. The best feature by far is a commentary with Gary Sherman, which is bot enthusiastic about all of the fantastic haunted set pieces that he pulled off (all of which were achieved using in-camera effects) and surprisingly honest about all of the trials he endured during production. Toss in the usual trailers, TV spots, plus the screenplay (for more TV reading, yay!) and you’ve got another fantastic Scream Factory disc, arguably even better than the Poltergiest II disc. Overall, these are some great releases well worth the lavish attention (especially Poltergeist III, which holds up incredibly well). Go get em’ already. Perfect for children of the 80s and the increasingly large population of people who like to pretend that they are.