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Summer of ‘88: Poltergeist III

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Poltergeist III</em>

Never has the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle played more prominent a role in my reaction to an obviously mediocre movie than it did and continues to with Poltergeist III. The enemy in this case being the notion that Poltergeist II: The Other Side isn’t a wretched, insulting cash-in that distorted and desecrated everything that entranced every kid who still can’t look at clown dolls without giving them the major side-eye. There are no arguments to be had that the third movie in the series is worth anything other than a late-night cable-TV viewing to either cure insomnia or revel in nostalgia for a highly representative entry from the height of VHS-era horror. But I’m glad it exists if only to bend the curve that much further toward the unimpeachable original.

For reasons too frustrating not to explore, there are some who have some level of affection for that damned first sequel, even though it ruptures the logic of everything that went into the original film, which couldn’t have been more simple in its cause-and-effect depiction of a paranormal event. Exhibit A: Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his real estate development firm plowed over sacred ground, moved a giant cemetery a few miles up the hill, and let the bodies mingle with the foundations of a whole neighborhood’s worth of nearly identical suburban California abodes. Exhibit B: The restless spirits turn over in their graves, steal the Freelings’ youngest daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), from the physical world, bringing her over to their side and holding her hostage, her presence only apparent through the audio from an orphan TV channel transmitting static, white noise…and Carol Anne’s cries for help. Exhibit C: Diminutive psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein) helps Diana Freeling (JoBeth Williams, in a heroically enduring performance) rescue her daughter from the spirit world, telepathically directs the spirits toward the light that, so she explains, will absorb their souls, and declares, “This house is clean.”

In 1982, Steven Spielberg, who authored the original film’s screenplay, was many years in his career away from embracing the ethical, moral, and narrative complexities that have fueled one of the most rewarding third acts in American filmmaking. When he went on the record in calling the second of Poltergeist’s two climaxes his least favorite part of the movie, the reasons were no doubt a reflection on the tension between his and director Tobe Hooper’s conflicting sensibilities, not because he felt the return of Cuesta Verde’s vengeful dead (even after Tangina’s earlier seal of approval) didn’t make sense. The spectacle of skeletons erupting from the floors and pools was simply a better forum for Hooper’s flea-ridden gifts, and perhaps Spielberg realized he’d let the journeyman waltz away with his movie’s big exclamation point.

Spielberg should’ve been content that the movie had one. The 1986 sequel amounted to a series of ellipses, inadvertently validating Tangina’s claim in the original film that “there is no death.” There are only inevitable rehashes. The hauntings of the first film were explicitly pinned on the fact that the final resting places of a great many forgotten souls were desecrated by callous American sprawl. So why are the Freelings bedeviled in Arizona, where they’ve relocated and now live with Diane Freeling’s mother, Jess (Geraldine Fitzgerald, a year or two removed from wrapping her lips around Harvey Wallbanger in a very special suicide episode of The Golden Girls)? Because, as Margaret White once said, “sin never dies.” The Light, in the original film, was a resolutely agnostic approximation of Heaven. The retrograde second film retreats from the first movie’s spiritual boldness (Tangina to Diane: “Will you do everything I tell you, even if it comes contrary to your beliefs as a human being and a Christian?”) and anchors itself around the malevolent presence of Kane (Julian Beck), a demon who resided underneath the Freelings’ plot and now seeks Carol Anne while posing as a reverend.

Best I can tell, it’s the late Beck’s toothsome presence in the film, saddling up next to Carol Anne and leering at her like an Afterschool Special child molester, that’s responsible for any cachet the movie has among those who ought to see how far the franchise had fallen. (Even the work of composer Jerry Goldsmith, one of the only non-actor holdovers from the first film, pales in comparison to his alternately brutal and ethereal themes from the original.) His death in 1987—another check mark in the escalating rumors of a “Poltergeist curse” even before O’Rourke’s sad, untimely death at 12 to septic shock—didn’t deter the suits that green-lit Poltergeist III from retaining Kane in an obvious attempt to render unto their franchise an evil avatar, an un-killable monster on the order of Freddy, Jason, and Michael. Poor Nathan Davis was made to look the part, but wasn’t given any opportunity to tap into Beck’s pervvy moxie.

Poltergeist III, under the helm of director Gary Sherman (Raw Meat, Vice Squad), once again relocates beleaguered Carol Anne, now approaching preteen-dom, to the glass-and-steel jungle of Chicago. Steve and Diane, busy not being involved in Poltergeist III, have sent their daughter to live with Diane’s sister, Pat (Nancy Allen), and her husband, Bruce (Tom Skerritt), in a posh high-rise with more mirrors per square inch than Studio 54. Carol Anne attends a school for “gifted” but “troubled” children, all of whom are reminded that most of mankind’s creative geniuses were also cuckoo. The school’s priggish psychological counselor, Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire), is convinced that Carol Anne isn’t actually the repeated target of malevolent preachers, but rather has a talent for mass hypnosis. (Apparently, she hypnotized a 2,200-square-foot house to swallow itself up whole six years prior.) Meanwhile, Tangina spills some tea in California and instantly realizes her flaxen-haired charge is yet again in The Beast’s sights.

It turns out that Seaton’s barrage of hypnosis therapy has allowed Kane to home in on Carol Anne’s wavelengths and follow her to Chicago. He reveals himself to be quite the magician and pulls a lot of “now you see me, now you don’t” trickery with those omnipresent mirrors before grabbing Carol Anne and pulling her to the other side, a place she really ought to know how to get out of on her own by now. It’s up to her aunt and uncle to convince the functionally orphaned Carol Anne that they love her, and that she should return to them on the boring side.

No, Poltergeist III doesn’t make any sense either, but it reaps the rewards left by the legacy-dashing second film’s sins, and runs with them in what I guess would constitute a dazzling display of dream logic if you’d never seen a single Nightmare on Elm Street. Sherman’s sensible approach to the material was to eschew the ILM overload that marked the series up to that point and opt for (much cheaper) in-camera optical effects and low-tech illusionry. At its best, Poltergeist III recalls that surreal mix of DIY ingenuity and narrative ineptitude that mark some of Lucio Fulci’s lesser efforts. At its worst, well, it’s just another soulless, hacky-tacky horror sequel. Sherman called it his least favorite of all his films, but I have to assume he never saw Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

Eric Henderson is in your holy temple.