‘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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Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

* * * * out of * * * *