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Crap From The Past: "Poltergeist III"

My review of the third movie in the "Poltergeist" movie franchise, a franchise which went on much longer than it should have.

It’s only with an obscene amount of free time I have (thanks to being unemployed) combined with a morbid curiosity that had me watching “Poltergeist III” on cable. My only real memories of it were a behind the scenes show detailing the special effects, and Siskel & Ebert’s scathing review of it on television. By the time this movie came out 1988, the series had already worn out its welcome. I don’t remember anyone particularly liking “Poltergeist II: The Other Side” and that it was said to have been one of summer 1986’s “big losers” at the box office. Nevertheless, the powers that be at MGM decided that they could wring just a little more money out of the franchise with a second 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 ridiculously luxurious high rise building they reside in. It doesn’t take long however for those evil spirits and Reverend Henry Kane to find Carol Anne and start their nasty little tricks to get her 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 JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson in the previous films) were like. I mean Pat says at one point that all she heard was that they were caught up in a land deal gone bad (ya think?), 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!”

Guess what happened after that…

Apparently, Carol Anne was told by her mommy and daddy that she was to attend a school for “gifted children with emotional problems” (what a nice way to boost a child’s ego) 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? That 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 is dumb enough to open his mouth. His disbelief in all the strange and bizarre things happening in the building is excruciating to sit through, and after a bit you just want these evil spirits to strangle him to death so he’ll shut up. It says something about a movie when you start siding with evil spirits against humanity.

In fact, that is the big problem with “Poltergeist III;” you really don’t care much for the majority of these characters. They exist more as clichés than as living breathing human beings, and seeing them suffer becomes more fun instead of fearing for their safety which all but kills the suspense. You have that teenage guy Scott who’s slobbering over girlfriend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle of all people), and they look like they’ve come out of a thousand movies from this particular 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 high rise 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 that 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 that bottomless pit which 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 budget overall for “Poltergeist III” was just under $10 million, and it pretty much looks it. While the other “Poltergeist” movies may have state of the art special effects, the filmmakers here get short served and have to work with what’s available. Yes, some of those mirror tricks are cool as characters pass by without their reflections showing up on them, but that’s an old hat trick in this day and age.

Directing “Poltergeist III” is Gary Sherman who made the horror movie “Dead & Buried” which has since become a cult hit. He later made the superb exploitation feature “Vice Squad,” and that featured one of the scariest and most vicious pimps ever played by Wings Hauser. A lot of Sherman’s skill isn’t really evident here, and even he admits this is his least favorite of the films he has 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 anyway.

My hat is off however to Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen who come out of this experience looking 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 re-filmed climax which frustratingly leaves the fate of certain characters up in the air. These are two veteran actors that continue to work and seem to be more than happy to leave this sequel in the past where it belongs.

Aside from Heather O’Rourke, the only other cast member to appear here from the last two “Poltergeist” movies is Zelda Rubinstein as that crazy psychic 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 that it was Heather 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 Nancy 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 character prepared to go to war with those 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! So stop complaining about that 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 * * * *

Other articles by Ben Kenber:

“The Last Airbender” – Yup, It’s Every Bit the Failure People Have Been Calling It

Norbit

Hell Ride

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