‘Poltergeist III’ Shows Just How Unnecessary Certain Sequels Can Be

Poltergeist III poster

It’s only with an obscene amount of free time, combined with a morbid curiosity, which had me watching “Poltergeist III” on cable. My only real memories of it beforehand were a behind the scenes show detailing the special effects and Siskel & Ebert’s scathing review of it. By the time this sequel came out in 1988, the series had already worn out its welcome. I don’t remember anyone liking “Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” and it was said to have been one of 1986’s big losers at the box office. Nevertheless, the powers that be at MGM decided they could wring just a little more money out of this franchise with one more sequel.

Once again, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is at the center of the story which has her shipped off to Chicago to live with Aunt Pat (Nancy Allen) and her husband Bruce (Tom Skerritt) who manages the luxurious high rise building they reside in. However, it doesn’t take long before those evil spirits and Reverend Henry Kane find Carol Anne and start their nasty little tricks to get her to come to the other side.

Now I can’t help but wonder if Carol Anne’s parents just dumped her in Chicago so they could be rid of those evil spirits for good. What if this series continued on? Would Carol Anne have resided with a different family member in each successive sequel to where she would become the ultimate unwanted house guest? Just imagine what Aunt Pat’s conversations with the girl’s parents (played by Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) were like. I mean, Pat at one point says all she heard was they were caught up in a land deal gone bad, but maybe it went more like this:

“Pat, we love our daughter, but this poltergeist problem is really just rubbing us the wrong way.”

“Oh come on, stop kidding around sis! Your daughter is being bothered by a poltergeist! You expect me to fall for that?”

“Oh yeah Pat? You think I’m joking?! C’mon! I dare you to let her stay with you! I double dare you!”

“Yeah right! So that the ghosts or spirits or whatever the hell they are can haunt me and my family?”

“What are you, chicken?”

“Pat, stop teasing me! You called me a chicken all the time when we were kids! I AM NO CHICKEN!!!”

“Alright, prove it!”

Now guess what happened after that…

Apparently, Carol Anne was told by her mommy and daddy she was to attend a school for “gifted children with emotional problems” in Chicago. Once there, she meets up with one of the dumbest psychiatrists in cinematic history, Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire). He’s the one who foolishly opens Pandora’s Box by getting Carol Anne to talk about her experiences from the first two movies. By doing so, a slimy hand bursts out of his desk and throws a coffee cup at him while an evil voice cackles away.

So, what’s Dr. Seaton’s explanation for this? He says Carol Anne is a manipulative child who has the power to create mass hysteria and perform mass hypnosis on people to make them think they see ghosts. What?! Are you serious?! People pay this guy money to say shit like that? Where’s this guy’s degree? Is he a legitimate psychiatrist, or is he like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can,” faking his lifestyle while forging checks?

The character of Dr. Seaton basically exists for the audience to despise him whenever he opens his mouth. His disbelief in all the strange and bizarre things happening in the building is excruciating to sit through, and you just want these evil spirits to strangle him to death so he’ll shut up. Seriously, it says a lot about a movie when you start siding with evil spirits against the humans.

In fact, this is the big problem with “Poltergeist III;” you don’t care much for the majority of these characters. They exist merely as clichés instead of living breathing human beings, and seeing them suffer becomes more fun than fearing for their safety which all but kills the suspense. You have the teenage guy Scott (Kipley Wentz) who’s slobbering over his girlfriend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle of all people), and they look like they’ve come out of a thousand movies from this genre. Then there are Pat and Bruce’s hopelessly self-absorbed and shallow friends who are too interested in their own needs to notice signs of evil spirits invading the building. And where exactly are the cops in all of this?

Looking back at the Siskel & Ebert review, the one major complaint they had about this sequel, which I am in total agreement with, was all the characters kept incessantly crying out for one another:

“CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNE!!!”

“SCOTT!!! SCOOOOOOOOOT!!!”

“BRUCE!!! BRUCE!!!”

“CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNE!!! CAROL ANNNNNNNE!”

I swear, Carol Anne’s name is mentioned as many times as Al Pacino used the F-word in “Scarface.” It didn’t take long for me to figure out what Kane was saying to his fellow evil spirits as well as their quick reply:

“We must bring her to the other side!”

“Yes Reverend, but we also got to get this screaming bitch to shut the hell up!”

Remember the bottomless pit that opens up in the garage? Those slimy hands reaching out to grab the main characters look like those rubber gloves you buy at the supermarket but with extra makeup applied to them. The overall budget for “Poltergeist III” was just under $10 million, but it looks like it cost a lot less. While the other “Poltergeist” movies have state of the art special effects, the filmmakers here get short served and have to work with whatever’s available. Yes, some of those mirror scenes are cool as characters pass by without their reflections showing up on them, but that’s just an old trick.

Directing “Poltergeist III” is Gary Sherman who made “Dead & Buried” which has since become a cult classic. He also made the superb exploitation feature “Vice Squad” which featured one of the scariest and most vicious pimps ever played by Wings Hauser. A lot of Sherman’s skill isn’t evident here, and even he admits this is his least favorite film of the ones he made. Perhaps the studio played around with the sequel more than he liked, and with a franchise like this you know he’s never going to get complete control over the final product.

My hat is off, however, to Skerritt and Allen who came out of this movie relatively unscathed. They overcome the ridiculous material and manage to keep a straight face as the movie becomes increasingly laughable and confusing as it heads towards its unnecessarily reshot climax which leaves the fate of certain characters up in the air.

Aside from O’Rourke, the only other cast member to appear here from the previous “Poltergeist” movies is Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina. I find it funny how she received both Saturn and Razzie Nominations for her work here. I for one can’t figure out if she’s good or bad in this movie, but her mystical dialogue gets a bit ponderous with her overzealous delivery of it.

Of course, the lasting significance of “Poltergeist III” is the fact it was O’Rourke’s last movie before her tragic death at far too young an age. Her loss is inadvertently emphasized in the film’s final scene in which she is substituted with a body double. Since she passed away during post-production, you know it’s not her being held by Allen. For what it’s worth, she is very good here despite the cruddy material, and the film was dedicated to her memory.

Who knows what would have happened if O’Rourke lived to see another “Poltergeist” sequel. With Carol Anne quickly growing up, it would have been a kick to see her turn into an Ellen Ripley type of character who is prepared to go to war with these evil spirits. While others will be horribly terrified by them, she’ll see it as just another day at the office. I can just see her talking with girls her age:

“You think you have it rough? I got sucked into another dimension by evil spirits when I was five! Going through puberty was a piece of cake compared to that! Stop. complaining about the run in your nylons!!!”

I wonder what the tagline was for “Poltergeist III.” The tagline for the first one was:

“They’re here.”

With “Poltergeist II,” it was:

“They’re back.”

I guess the tagline for the third film was:

“I’m screwed!”

* ½ out of * * * *

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Oliver Robins Looks Back on ‘Poltergeist’ at New Beverly Cinema

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On Thursday, August 16, 2012, Oliver Robins dropped by New Beverly Cinema to talk about the making of “Poltergeist.” Robins played Robbie Freeling, the boy who was terrified of that weird looking tree looming outside his bedroom window. These days Robins works as a filmmaker, but he explained how his time on the set of “Poltergeist” truly inspired him to make movies, and he helped debunk certain myths which continue to surround it years after its release.

Robins came up to the front of the audience after “Poltergeist” finished showing, and he talked about how he grew up at the New Beverly and discovered many movies which he might not have seen otherwise. He also remarked at how Steven Spielberg, who wrote and produced “Poltergeist,” gave him an 8mm camera as a present, and how the camera and the movie inspired him to become a filmmaker.

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In talking about how he got cast, Robins said he had no real acting experience beforehand and that his only previous acting job was in a fertilizer commercial. The audition for “Poltergeist” was actually an open call which had hundreds of people coming down to be considered. Robins recalled having to wait for hours before he got inside to talk with the casting directors. When he did, they looked at him as being the true incarnation of Robbie as he talked about how he had lived in a haunted house while in New York.

Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper, however, were concerned because Robins couldn’t really scream, and they ended up getting a coach to help him learn how to. It got to where Robins was practicing his screams in his closet, and the neighbors began to wonder if there was any child abuse going on in his home. When he proved to the filmmakers he could indeed scream, Robins was informed he got the part.

When asked if a bond had formed between him and his fellow cast members, Robins told the audience “Poltergeist” was rushed into production and that there was no time for rehearsal. He did say, however, that JoBeth Williams, who played his mother Diane, really was a mother to him throughout the production.

One scene which really stands out is when Robbie’s father, Steven (played by Craig T. Nelson), teaches him how to count after lightning strikes to determine the distance between it and the sound of thunder. Robins remarked how Nelson was a comedy writer before he became an actor and that he made the set of “Poltergeist” very light-hearted as a result. Robins even remarked how working on the movie allowed him to stay up all night which he loved, and Nelson ended up telling him after one crazy night of filmmaking, “This is just another night in Simi Valley!”

Another famous scene from “Poltergeist” is when the tree comes through the window. Robins explained what ended up being 30 seconds of screen time where he got attacked by the tree ended up taking two weeks to film. Now this was back when digital effects were far from being a reality, so all the effects we see in the movie are real. Robins also pointed out there were several different trees being used for this sequence; one with roots, one where the branches reached out at him, and another which tried to eat him.

Robins described the tree sequence as being the most tedious and complex to film, and that he ended up spending much of the time being covered in molasses. He said being covered in that substance makes your body temperature drop precipitously and that he had to emote in his scenes in order create believability.

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Now there is an infamous story on IMDB of how when Robins gets attacked by the toy clown, he got choked for real and yet Hooper and Spielberg thought he was really acting. It was later said that when Robins face began turning purple, the filmmakers rushed over to remove the clown’s hands from around his neck. To this, Robins response was, “Maybe that did happen, but I can’t remember. Maybe I blocked it out of my conscious mind.”

When asked what it was like working with his sisters who were played by Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne, Robins said it was great and that they both felt like real sisters to him. He also remarked at how Hooper and Spielberg were cool to him and other actors about wanting to change their dialogue. As a result, there proved to be a lot of ad-libbing on the set of “Poltergeist.”

There is also this ongoing story of how there were two directors on the set of “Poltergeist.” While Hooper’s name is listed as the film’s director, many believe Spielberg had the most influence. Robins, however, cleared up these rumors once and for all:

“There was only one director on set, and that was Tobe Hooper. Spielberg did write the story, but Hooper was the only one who directed me. It does feel like a Spielberg movie and he did work closely with Hooper on this project. In many ways it was a team effort, but Hooper was the true director of ‘Poltergeist.’”

Robins was also asked what it was like filming the scene between him and Beatrice Straight who plays Dr. Lesh where she tells him what she felt the true nature of ghosts were. He said Straight made him feel like he was really talking with someone who knows about ghosts, and this kept their performances from ever feeling forced.

It was great to hear Oliver Robins talk about the making of “Poltergeist” and to hear him dispel several myths about the 1982 movie. Since making that classic movie, Robins has retired from acting and went on to graduate from USC’s film school to where he has since become a very gifted filmmaker in his own right. His work in the Tobe Hooper-directed movie will continue to stand the test of time.

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Poltergeist’

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I got the Blu-ray of “Poltergeist” around the time Circuit City was closing all their stores forever. I had seen bits and pieces of the movie before, but I had never watched it all the way through until a couple of years ago. What finally spurred me to watch it was having watched “Poltergeist III” on cable, and that sequel was a true abomination. I figured what came before that needless sequel had to be so much better. Getting past all the trivia surrounding “Poltergeist” and its so-called “curse,” it remains remarkably frightening for a PG-rated movie.

Actually, it’s quite fitting I watched “Poltergeist” during the period of the wildly successful “Paranormal Activity” movies since they all focus on the strange and bizarre happenings around suburban households. These days it seems like the “found footage” genre is the only way to make a horror movie set in the suburbs seem all the more frightening. But “Poltergeist” showed if you get the details just right, then you can find yourself relating to characters and their surroundings completely and without any question.

“Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe Hooper, but Steven Spielberg’s name is all over the movie as he came up with the story, co-wrote the screenplay and served as one of its producers. It’s hard to escape the influence he had over this production as, like “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” it takes place in the suburbs of America where many of us grew up.

We drop in at the home of the Freeling family which is located in the nice, clean California town of Cuesta Verde, and it’s the kind of neighborhood where the houses don’t look all that different from one another. The cars are parked out front because they aren’t parked in the garage for some odd reason, and the kids are riding their bikes all over the neighborhood.

Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful realtor and his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is a stay at home mom caring for their children Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne. One night, Carol Anne goes downstairs and sits in front of the television which is showing nothing but static. It’s an especially frightening image on the Blu-ray release as the flickering creates an eerie strobe light effect as if the house’s inhabitants are in the process of being brainwashed. Carol Anne begins talking to the television as if she’s having a conversation with someone invisible to everybody else. We can’t even hear what that someone is saying to her, but we believe Carol Anne is communicating with another and our imagination runs amuck at who that might be.

Following this, strange things begin to happen around the Freeling household like chairs moving by themselves and the furniture being rearranged in a heartbeat. One night while sitting in front of the television, a hand reaches out and pushes Carol Anne away which is followed by a force of energy penetrating the walls. Her parents wake up to see their daughter telling them, “They’re here…”

What makes “Poltergeist” so effective is how the filmmakers play on those childhood fears we all had. Whether it’s that creepy looking tree outside the bedroom window or the clown puppet which you fear will come alive and attack you in the night, we can all relate to what goes on here except, of course, for being sucked into another dimension. I remember always asking my mom to put my AT-AT toy, the Imperial walker from “The Empire Strikes Back”, on its side so it wouldn’t crawl over to me while I slept. I also kept having these dreams where this green school desk I had would end up rushing at my bed to attack me. Now imagine if these things happened in real life, and you will get a sense of what “Poltergeist” is all about.

There’s nothing too unique about the characters who live in Cuesta Verde, and this makes them all the more relatable. Seeing the kids’ room with those “Star Wars” posters and bed covers bring back a lot of memories. When these supernatural occurrences start happening and get increasingly worse, we can easily see it happening in our own homes. Then again, this might make our own households far more exciting than they usually are as living in the suburbs can be too low key for some.

“Poltergeist” is also perfectly cast with actors who inhabit their suburban characters with what seems like relative ease. Nelson and Williams still seem like the typical American parents we all know. Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne and Oliver Robins are perfectly natural as their children, and they appear very comfortable in front of a camera. You also have Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, a parapsychologist, and she gives this movie a strong dramatic weight.

There is also something to be said for Zelda Rubinstein’s performance as spiritual medium Tangina Barrons. While her high-pitched voiced might seem a little annoying, she makes her strange dialogue sound very believable as Tangina becomes the family’s last hope to save Carol Anne. It’s no wonder her presence in “Poltergeist” is so unforgettable, and not just for her immortal line, “This house is clean.”

Movies like “Poltergeist” usually have filmmakers getting too caught up in perfecting the special effects at the expense of everything else, but Hooper manages to balance everything out to create one of the most terrifying haunted house movies ever. As much as Spielberg’s name is all over this movie, I have to believe Hooper is the one who made this movie as scary as it is. While it may not be as unnerving as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (and very few movies are), he really packs in a lot of scares for a PG-rated movie.

You could also say that “Poltergeist” is a serious dig at the cutthroat world of real estate as Steven makes the horrifying discovery of how certain sacred things which were not moved from their original location. People will do anything for the perfect property when there’s a ton of money involved, and if they can cut corners to make house building go faster they will. Heck, this almost sounds like a supernatural version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

I can’t help but wonder if home insurance even covers supernatural occurrences like this. Would the Freeling’s insurance carrier find an excuse to deny them any financial compensation? Could you imagine the looks on their faces if their agent denied their claim for negligence as if it’s their fault for not reporting this to the authorities sooner? If I were on the receiving end of that, I would be pissed!

It says a lot about an 80’s movie like “Poltergeist” that it still holds up so well all these years later. Its portrayal of suburban America doesn’t look much different from what we see today. I guess the only real difference, aside from cell phones and iPads, are the number of bank foreclosures going on, and you certainly don’t see this happening here. While it may have been ruined a bit by sequels (and this movie really didn’t need any), it still is worth re-discovering and would make an interesting double feature with “Paranormal Activity.”

One other thing; is it just me or does that white spidery creature who blocks Williams from her children’s bedroom have the voice of MGM’s roaring lion?

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *