THE WHOLE PICTURE: It Knows What Scares You

wholepicture_poltergeist

Franchises are a part of the cinematic landscape. Some series grow more complex and change throughout their run while others just keep doing what’s expected of them. Now, I am happy to announce another ongoing series of our own. Every so often on Moviocrity, I will be looking at each film in a given franchise. One by one they will be reviewed and hopefully give a clear view of how certain franchises survived and how others fell apart. You’ll be able to read all about it in a column I’m calling THE WHOLE PICTURE!


So, the POLTERGEIST remake is upon us and is it just me, or do people not seem to care? This is a project that has been teased endlessly over the past decade as people waited to see if and when it went into production. But now that it’s here… meh. The trailers haven’t made it look much more than a retread of the original and early word is not good.

I have not yet seen the film and am not sure when I will get to it. But this does present us with an opportunity to look back on the films that preceded it. POLTERGEIST was one of the most successful horror films of the 1980s, despite its lack of an R-rating, which believe it or not used to be something films of its type aimed for. So, now we look back on the original POLTERGEIST trilogy, a series fraught with problems and tragedies, to see how they hold up today.

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

POLTERGEIST (1982). Director: Tobe Hooper. Cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti.
POLTERGEIST (1982). Director: Tobe Hooper. Cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti.

POLTERGEIST (1982) – 1982 was not just the high watermark for genre cinema; it was also one of Steven Spielberg’s most prolific eras of pure fantasy filmmaking. The previous year had seen his triumphant return with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, a film that made everyone forget about 1941. Then in the summer of ’82, he released E.T., THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, which remained the most successful film of all time for fifteen years. And just one week after E.T. came POLTERGEIST. Spielberg did not direct POLTERGEIST, at least not officially. He did however write and produce it and was a constant presence on the set. The official director was Tobe Hooper and I dismiss reports that say Hooper was little more than a puppet. I still see quite a bit of Hooper in the finished film. However, virtually everyone has stated that at best, Hooper and Spielberg collaborated as directors which would mean the film is a product of both. Whether Spielberg should have given Hooper a wider berth is a legitimate question. We’re left to judge POLTERGEIST on its own merits.

And it has quite a few. POLTERGEIST introduces us to the Freelings. This utlimate suburban family is headed by two former hippies (played by Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams) who were obviously involved in the 1960s counterculture. Now, mom is a housewife while dad is a successful realtor. They are part of the new generation that falls asleep with the television on. At night, she smokes pot while he devours a biography on Ronald Reagan. During the day, they manage three kids. Excuse me for a second, I think I just realized the Freelings from POLTERGEIST are also the Keatons from FAMILY TIES.

The family was the first to move into Cuesta Verde, a suburban complex Steven Freeling helped develop. In fact, their youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) was born in that house. Which might be why she can hear people talking to her from inside the television set. Soon, the family begins experiencing paranormal phenomena which excites them at first. But it’s all fun and games until your youngest daughter is snatched from reality and is held prisoner in a parallel universe straddling the threshold between life and death. When we next see Steven, he is chain smoking, haggard and begging a team of paranormal investigators to bring his little girl back.

POLTERGEIST still delivers. The characters are written in a way that makes them endearing instead of infuriating (something none of the sequels could replicate). The scares are genuine and the film genuinely suspenseful. Richard Edlund’s special effects are a real treat and watching this film takes you back to a time where the entire industry was treated a little differently than it is today.

Zelda Rubenstein was given a lot of attention for her role as Tangina and while she is fine, she was perhaps a bit overpraised. Beatrice Straight and her researchers are far more interesting in how they interact with the family and deal with what is most definitely the most extraordinary haunting in recorded history. Perhaps not as psychological as Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST still remains one of the best pure haunted house spectacles put on film.  Highly Recommended.

POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986). Director: Brian Gibson. Cinematographer: Andrew Laszlo.
POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986). Director: Brian Gibson. Cinematographer: Andrew Laszlo.

POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986) – By the time a sequel to POLTERGEIST finally came around, Tobe Hooper was fulfilling a three-picture commitment with Cannon and Spielberg was busy getting passed over for an Oscar with THE COLOR PURPLE. Michael Grais and Mark Victor, who co-wrote the original with Spielberg, did return however. Not that it mattered much. The results are unbelievably muddled with the blame falling partially on the execution and partially on a meddling studio.

Far from the up and coming development from just a year prior, Cuesta Verde is a virtual ghost town. Everyone has moved away following the unexplained events of the last film and the revelation that the homes were built on top of a cemetery. But while excavating the land, crews have found not only the bodies of a Native American tribe, but also several people they can’t trace. Tangina summons the shaman Taylor (Will Sampson – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) to go help the Freelings, as she believes the nightmare isn’t over yet.

The Freelings are living at a relative’s house and sure enough, the hauntings begin again. This time, they coincide with visitations from the ghostly Rev. Kane (Julian Beck) who we learn was the leader of a doomsday cult from more than a century ago. He is the Beast made flesh. Taylor helps Steven prepare for the moment when he will need to defend his family against the evil Kane.

Like another infamous sequel, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, the second POLTERGEIST has several interesting ideas, almost all of which are handled terribly. The entire film alternates between confusing and ludicrous. Lots of new information is dropped into the narrative, including the idea that Carol Anne is just one of a long line of clairvoyants that include her mother and grandmother. Some of the most intriguing parts of the script are weighed down by terrible dialogue, scenery chewing acting and cheesy special effects. The climax, which attempts to visualize this “other side” only hinted at in the previous film, is simply ridiculous. POLTERGEIST II is one idiotic film.

Part of this is due to problems during the production. Beck died of stomach cancer midway through filming. This is obviously why later in the film, the figure is replaced by corny special effects and a couple monster creations (including a couple by H.R. Giger). The film was also cut by the studio from 131 minutes to under an hour and a half. That kind of editing guts a film and is likely why the film doesn’t make all that much sense.

So, why doesn’t this get an “awful” rating? Because of the addition of the Rev. Kane. This figure is frightening and Beck’s portrayal (with some post-production looping by Corey Burton) is enough to chill you to the bone. His brief appearances elevate this film far more than one would expect and one can only imagine if the film wouldn’t have turned out much better had tragedy and overzealous editing not interfered.

Oddly enough, the Freelings never mention their eldest child at any point during the film. A scene that had them discussing her leaving for college did not make the final cut. That part was played by Dominique Dunne in the original. Dunne was murdered by her boyfriend just a few months after the first film was released. Her absence along with the lack of any explanation casts an uncomfortable shadow over the rest of the film.  Disappointing.

POLTERGEIST III (1988). Director: Gary Sherman. Cinematographer: Alex Nepomniaschy.
POLTERGEIST III (1988). Director: Gary Sherman. Cinematographer: Alex Nepomniaschy.

POLTERGEIST III (1988) – Carol Anne has been sent by her parents to live with her aunt and uncle (Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt) at the Hancock Tower high rise in Chicago. Carol Anne has been told the change of scenery is so she can attend a school for gifted but emotionally disturbed children. In actuality, it is to help hide her from Kane, who continues to pursue her despite the events of the last film. This is perhaps the worst place to put her in since the school psychologist Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire) is putting her under hypnosis and forcing her to remember the terrible events of her life, which only draws Kane closer.

Dr. Seaton is a completely ridiculous character, likely written in the script as simply “arrogant skeptic.” He behaves as no psychologist would. He’s smug, condescending, and openly hostile to children and adults alike. Though Carol Anne’s stories are fantastic, Seaton’s explanation – that she is an attention-seeking puppet master that is able to create a state of mass hypnosis in everyone around her – is even more ridiculous. It’s merely one of the more egregious parts of a film that doesn’t seem to understand anything about its characters, or people in general.

Kane does indeed find Carol Anne. Kane now lives in a mirror universe for some reason and is trying to snatch the little girl so she can lead him and his followers into the light. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this the exact opposite of what this character was trying to accomplish in the last two films?

But then nothing really makes sense here. At the beginning of the film, Carol Anne’s aunt is sympathetic towards her and willing to entertain the possibility that something strange did indeed happen. By the middle of the film, she’s calling her a troublemaking brat and wanting to ship her off as quickly as possible. There are also some partying teens (including Lara Flynn Boyle in her film debut) which are dropped suddenly, as if the film realized it was already indulging in far too many clichés.

POLTERGEIST III is a smaller production and this shows in every facet of the production. The effects are all done in-camera, which is interesting but it’s not as though they look very good. There’s a decaying head effect that looks like it came from a high school shop class. The direction and cinematography is drab. Even the music score is full of uninspired keyboard work and loud chords to accentuate the film’s many ineffective jump scares. POLTERGEIST III introduces something new for the series, namely an on-screen body count. But this doesn’t seem like ingenuity or a rising of the stakes and merely points out how out of tune this entry is with the rest of the series.  Awful.


This was the last of the POLTERGEIST trilogy, as it ended on a tragic real-life note. Just 12 years-old, Heather O’Rourke passed away during post-production on POLTERGEIST III from intestinal stenosis that had been misdiagnosed as Crohn’s disease.

In the years following that, the franchise was left mostly dormant. The name got a lift in the 1990s with a TV series, POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY. But this bore no connection to the films themselves.

Now, we have the new remake, which may or may not work. In truth, the series was never able to build upon the success of the original. The 1982 knew what scared us, while future installments only disappointed us. Which leads us to the remake, a film greeted with apathy.

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