Revisiting Poltergeist II and Poltergeist III

When I was a kid, I loved the Poltergeist films. So much so they were mentioned in my best friend’s toast at my wedding. I wasn’t a monster; even as a child the first movie was my favorite. But I remember watching the sequels as well, and when I saw the sequels were added to hoopla this month I couldn’t resist revisiting. How do these iconic movies from my childhood hold up now? Let’s find out:

Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

From IMDb: The Freeling family have a new house, but their troubles with supernatural forces don’t seem to be over.

What I Remember:

I think there’s a scene where its very rainy, and one of the kids is dribbling a basketball. Then they encounter a ghost with no legs.

After Watching:

Okay I swear there is a movie I saw that involves rain, a basketball, and a ghost with no legs. If anyone knows what this scene is from, PLEASE tell me. Because it is apparently not the Poltergeist movies!

Wow is it different watching this as an adult versus a child. Poltergeist II: The Other Side takes place a year after the first. The Freeling family has moved in with Diane’s mother, but the spirit from the first film seems to still be trying to steal Carol Anne. It turns out, the improperly managed Christian burial ground from the first film was built on top of a cave where a Jim Jones like cult leader convinced his followers to wait out the apocalypse together, but they really just starved to death. That’s one way to build on a mythos I guess?

We start with a prolonged sequence where Taylor, a Native American Shaman (!), realizes the Freeling family is in great danger due to the particular spirits who were buried under the swimming pool of their previous home. Taylor seemingly doesn’t have anything else to do but serve as a Magical Native for white families. To the screenwriters’ credit, there are a few moments that even the movie makes fun of itself for this one. Namely when the father talks about how he isn’t discriminatory:

You know, look, I’ve got nothing against these people. You know, I mean, I read
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I got through most of the chapters. I got some Indian
in me, I think. A sixteenth, my mother will never admit to it.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Also, there is a bit of a twist at the end that plays against the selfless Magical Native stereotype. Over the course of the movie, Taylor repeatedly issues Steven solemn warnings that Steven’s car is “very angry”, and he could try to make it happy for Steven with magic. In a funny payoff at the end of the film, Taylor finally tells Steven in a deadpan delivery what he believes will make Steven’s car happy:

TAYLOR: Uh, your car.

STEVEN: Yeah, well, it’s happy.

TAYLOR: Not yet.

STEVEN: How are we going to make it happy?

TAYLOR: It wants to come home with me.

STEVEN: You asked it?

TAYLOR: Yes.

STEVEN: It’s sure? Okay, it’s yours. Take it.

To be fair, the man just saved Steven and his family. This part does give Taylor a bit more personality than just being a Magical Native, and shows he too can be playfully self-serving in a way that is still endearing. It is also interesting that despite the perception of the series, the Native American character and his spiritualism is a force of good, and a white reverend’s religious sect is a force of evil.

Beyond not being cognizant of stereotypical depictions of people of color as a white child, I was also thrown off by the weird emphasis on gender, and an ATTEMPTED RAPE that are in this movie. The theme of manhood is an undercurrent throughout the movie. It starts when Steven is clearly defensive and resistant to having Taylor around, which seems to usurp Steven’s sense of being the head of the house. The villain Kane uses this fear to his advantage, nearly hypnotizing Steven into letting him into the house.

At another point in the film, Diane catches Taylor drawing war paint and leaving scratch marks on her young son, and chastises Taylor. Taylor responds that Robbie wants to be a man, and she says that isn’t the way to do it. Taylor responds “how would you know? You’re not a man.” She responds that she is a mother, and it’s her job to raise and protect her children. Taylor simply agrees with her and says that is a good thing.

Later on, Steven goes to a sweat lodge with Taylor in order to try and restore his warrior nature in order to defeat Kane. Unfortunately, Steven drinks a possessed tequila worm.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (6/12) Movie CLIP - The Bottle ...
I can’t make this up but the screenwriters did.

The now Kane-possessed Steven tries to rape Diane which is extremely uncomfortable to watch as an adult. Yikes. She snaps him out of it by using the advice Tangina gave her: Kane hates the family’s love for one another, so she repeatedly reminds Steven she loves him.

Although Taylor is the force of good and Kane is the force of evil, they both reinforce the importance of gender roles in the family, and in particular the importances of a man protecting his family. When the Kane-possessed Steven attacks Diane, he shouts “I have needs too you know!”, implying that as a man he cannot help himself. Which again – yikes.

The biggest strength of Poltergeist II: The Other Side is how incredibly creepy Reverend Kane is as a villain. It is comical anyone would look at this guy and not immediately give a quick Charlie-style “that’s okay” is beyond me. If you don’t have a soft spot for this movie in your heart thanks to your childhood, save yourself 90 minutes and watch this incredibly effective scene:

As a child viewer vs. an adult viewer, the unsettling persona of Reverend Kane works in different ways. As a blonde haired, blue-eyed little girl like Carol Anne, sometimes strange adults would pay particular attention to me. I was an extremely shy child, and would sometimes cry when made to be the center of attention. Obviously those interactions were not nefarious, but as a child you just get a feeling when an adult’s attention on you feels uncomfortable. Carol Anne’s reaction to Kane really captures this sense of unease. As an adult, Kane’s attention towards Carol Anne feels predatory. The movie seems to play off this fear, such as when Diane takes her eyes off Carol Anne while shopping and the girl is briefly lost. The movie is scary on both levels when you can relate to Carol Anne and Diane’s unease regarding Kane’s fixation on Carol Anne.

Not a great sequel, but definitely fun if you really craved more from the story. It was nice that the cast returned (save for the actress who played the older sister Dana, who was tragically murdered), and it does up some of the stakes of the first while staying faithful to the feel of the original.

Poltergeist III

Poltergeist III (1988)

From IMDb: Carol Anne is staying with her aunt in a high-rise building, where the supernatural forces haunting her make their return.

What I Remember:

So all I remember of this movie is it takes place in a high rise in Chicago. I remember the Chicago part because I live here. I also remember a scene in a parking garage, and something about characters transforming into puddles?

After Watching:

This movie is so bizarrely outrageous I am not sure what I just watched. It truly feels like there were at least four disapparate plot threads and rather than weave them together it just bounced from one to the other. I also forgot Carol Anne is inexplicably living with her aunt in this one! And they never really explain why, given the alleged defeat of Reverend Kane in the previous film.

It took me a while to realize Carol Anne is actually Pat’s niece given that Bruce is much kinder and more doting on her. He says early on that he wishes he could keep her there forever while his wife/Carol Anne’s aunt gives them this look:

#ThatFeelingWhen your husband shows affection for your traumatized niece and you just want to be rid of her

So I mentioned four plot threads:

  1. Carol Anne’s douchey psychologist who believes she is just a master manipulator.
  2. There’s her cousin Donna who just wants to party with her friends and and get into teen shenanigans with love interest Scott.
  3. Then a weird evil mirror twin thing starts happening.
  4. Then Aunt Pat and Bruce get put through a ringer of special effects, while Aunt Pat repeatedly refers to Carol Anne as a little brat they should just abandon to the evil Reverend Kane because after all, Bruce’s (real) daughter is upstairs (ironically she is unknowingly referring to Donna’s evil mirror double).

I want to spend time on the bizarre ringer of special effects Pat and Bruce go through in the third act because it is so ridiculous. Bruce thinks he sees Carol Anne, and begins following her throughout the high rise complex. There is a neat little nod to Don’t Look Now with Carol Anne’s red pajamas. During the next 5 minutes:

  1. They get locked into a frosty cold storage, and a vertical whirlpool of water attacks them (?!)
  2. The spirit of Tangina gives Bruce a necklace and cryptic advice
  3. They are in their building’s parking garage which is inexplicably/spookily full of snow and ice, and snowy/icy cars begin attacking them
  4. The cars stop attacking them, and the garage is suddenly normal and quiet again. Then this scene happens:

She said we could beat them! It’s over baby. It’s over darling. Believe it! It’s finished and we did it together.

Poltergeist III

THEN THEY JUST START MAKING OUT AND CELEBRATING BUT LITERALLY THEIR NIECE IS STILL MISSING AND PRESUMABLY BEING TORTURED BY REVEREND KANE.

Wat | Know Your Meme

Fortunately, right after this incredibly preemptive celebration Pat’s friend drives up to them and tells them Donna and Carol Anne are upstairs. Pat refers to Carol Anne as a little brat again on the way up:

BRUCE: What have you got in mind?

PAT: Packing everything that belongs to that little brat, and sending her home to my sister

BRUCE: It wasn’t her fault.

REVEREND KANE: YES, IT IS!

To be fair to Reverend Kane and Pat, it is Carol Anne’s fault this stuff is happening to them as opposed to their other family members.

The movie ends with a similar conceit to the second one; the family must fight Reverend Kane by demonstrating their love for one another, and in particular Aunt Pat has to declare her love for Carol Anne. Which is a solid delivery, but rings false given how incongruous her love declaration sounds in contrast to her repeated requests to just abandon the little brat. Did Pat finally realize her love for Carol Anne in the nick of time? Was she kind of possessed by the evil entities when repeatedly calling Carol Anne a little brat? Was Aunt Pat supposed to just come across as frustrated when she kept calling Carol Anne a little brat, but it inadvertently just sounded cruel?

Also – and I timed this – there is a sequence where Tangina says Carol Anne’s name 13 times in the span of about 70 seconds. Okay so it’s obvious I have some issues with this film.

But here’s the thing…I actually liked it better than the second film.

The scene where Tangina says Carol Anne’s name 13 times actually culminates with one of the craziest & coolest things I’ve seen in a practical effects horror film. Just take a look at this:

While the second movie is more more faithful in tone, setting, and plot to the first one…it is boring in comparison. After rewatching, the two scenes with Reverend Kane are really the only great moments of genuinely creepy horror and atmosphere. With the third one, it is a shitshow but it is a pretty consistently entertaining shitshow.

I feel like this phrase gets thrown out a lot to justify jarringly different sequels with poor receptions, but I’m going to pull this card anyway: If this wasn’t labeled as a Poltergeist sequel it probably would have done better. It would still need to clean up the second half, but it’s an interesting horror film with a solid combination of effects and and creepy moments. Here is a rundown of why I enjoyed this awesomely bad horror film:

Mirror Scares & Evil Mirror Twins

I forgot about the mirrors motif and some of the mirror scares, which are definitely one of the strengths of movie. I don’t know if it’s because of watching this movie repeatedly at an impressionable age, but the trick of a mirror showing a disconnect between someone’s movements in the mirror versus real life is incredibly unnerving. If you watched Mirrors hoping to be creeped out and was understandably disappointed, check this movie out instead.

Likewise, this makes the abrupt evil mirror twin twist with Donna and Scott incredibly effective. You have no reason not to believe Scott and Donna came back form the mirror world – till Donna inexplicably pushes Dr. Seaton down an open elevator shaft. She just stares blankly, and then the elevator comes up the floor and a giggling, coy Scott walks off.

Scott and Donna just laugh hysterically, seemingly at Dr. Seaton’s death. Then they make out, and then Scott’s twin rips Donna’s cheek open.

Just evil entities doing evil entities stuff mame

It is so utterly strange and doesn’t really make sense but it is so utterly effective I don’t even care. The attention to detail is great – as they walk away you notice the words on their clothes are reversed in the real world:

Teen Characters You Actually Like

Speaking of Donna and Scott, another strength of the film are the teen characters. Usually a bunch of teens partying is a recipe for dislikable characters, but Donna and Scott are christmastic even when they are causing trouble, or actually evil entities in disguise. They are literally the kind of teens who pay for beer they could have just as easily stolen. That’s partying teen class in a horror film right there. I can’t help but assume the wave of teen slashers in the 80s influenced this film.

Tangina

Tangina’s you ain’t shit face when she sees Aunt Pat foolishly trying to rescue a demon baby version of Carol Anne

It was great to have Tangina return, and honestly pretty shocking when she dies. This is the only Poltergeist movie that kills characters so it really shows how high the stakes have been raised in this one. Tangina is like a more mumbo-jumbo version of Elise in the Insidious series, and it is neat to see a woman of a certain age as one of the protagonists.

In general I feel the characters in this one are great, even if I wish they would have developed Aunt Pat more and more cohesively weaved the different plot threads together.

Chicago Setting

I live in Chicago and grew up in the suburbs, so I love that the movie is filmed on location in Chicago. They filmed at the John Hancock building, and you can see the Sears Tower in the first scene when Carol Anne is looking outside. Check out this trailer that prominently features aerial shots of downtown Chicago before focusing in on the Hancock building:

Sears Tower
John Hancock building

Atmosphere:

The piano score reminds me of the original Resident Evil 2′s theme music for the police station’s main hall. I’ve seen people say its cheesy compared to the first two, but I enjoy it.

The setting itself being a very modern, sterile high rise building is so unique and refreshing for a “haunted house” movie. It is also a neat reflection of the strange (albeit arbitrary) family situation Carol Anne is now in. She is precious and often alone with no one but herself, which the setting literally and metaphorically reflects with its mirrors and windows.

Poltergeist III is really worth your time if you are a horror film fan, and can mentally distanced it from the other two films in the series. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it even when it was laughably bad.

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