Tagline: They’re back.
Director: Brian Gibson
Writers: Mark Victor, Michael Grais
Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sampson, Julian Beck, Geraldine Fitzgerald, John P. Whitecloud, Noble Craig, Susan Peretz, Helen Boll, Kelly Jean Peters, Jaclyn Bernstein, Robert Lesser
PG-13 / 1hr 31min / Horror
Budget: $19,000,000 (estimated)
Back in 1982 Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist, a movie that was written and produced by Steven Spielberg, and for the most part it may as well have been him behind the camera.
There are moments, such as the infamous face-ripping, that are unmistakably Hooper, buy other than that pretty much everything about the movie screams Spielberg, from its familial tone and grandiose set-pieces to its high profile marketing strategy and tantalising teaser poster. The ’80s belonged to Spielberg, as much for his involvement as a producer as a director, lending more than a helping hand in blockbuster features such as Back to the Future, The Goonies and Gremlins, and he was the absolute best person to lend your movie that magic touch, both creatively and commercially.
Predictably, Poltergeist was an unbridled smash. The story of a suburban family terrorised by a malevolent spirit with designs on snatching their daughter, audiences were wowed by an effects-laden frightfest that proved fairly original for its time and place, and in an era in which sequels had almost become a given, it was only inevitable that the Spielberg/Hooper project would follow suit. Four years later we got that sequel in Brian Gibson’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which although treading unambitious ground was not as big of a disaster as it might have proven given its predecessor’s colossal shadow.
That’s not to say the movie is without its faults. Its main problem seems to lie in its unwillingness to offer anything original, and when Carol Anne Freeling utters the words ‘They’re back’, you kind of get the feeling you’ve been here before as toys come alive and our adorable princess is once again drawn to the other side, where a battle between realms ensues. Lacking the expertise of Hooper and Spielberg, the movie’s main draw are a series of practical effects set-pieces, particularly a scene involving young Bobby Freeling and some rather special braces.
Still, the man who had originally been tasked with the creature design for Poltergeist II was less than impressed. H. R. Giger had been working on Aliens when director and industry contact Gibson pitched the idea of using the creator of the xenomorph to special effects art director John Bruno, who had seen Giger’s work and was keen to meet him, a feeling that was reciprocated since Giger was admittedly broke at the time.
Giger quickly found himself having second thoughts about his involvement in the project. He was responsible for designing the movie’s most memorable practical effects sequence, a transformation involving a worm, a bottle of tequila and the monster they somehow create, but Giger was perturbed by Gibson’s lack of SFX knowledge, and when Cornelius De Fries, hired to represent an absent Giger, found himself defending his designs, it became clear that the studio was interpreting them in their own way. The two sides had very differing ideas about what they wanted onscreen. Giger’s considerably darker designs had no place their movie, and it’s easy to see why.
The plot itself is quite ridiculous. Having lost their house to another dimension, the Freelings find themselves broke and living with their mother, shunned by an insurance company who refuse to pay out on a house that is presumed missing, which even for a faceless corporation is quite understandable. All is roses when grandma passes away after revealing that she too possesses the powers of clairvoyance. In fact, all of the Freeling women do, and it is this power that has a malevolent spirit follow the family across town and resume its reign of terror, appearing in the form of a creepy old preacher named Kane.
The addition of Kane is the other notable element here, and it is a testament to actor Julian Beck that the character has become something of a cult figure in a movie which generally underwhelms, particularly since he played the role while battling cancer (Beck died during production and had to have some of his lines looped by a voice actor). Kane is the deranged leader of a cult who buried his sect where the Freeling family home once stood. Carol Anne has been drawing rather macabre portraits of the man, who soon begins contacting her on her toy phone and stalking the family into submission as he sets out to break their bond and weaken their resolve.
Luckily, another stranger appears out of nowhere to protect them — a giant Native American who they have no qualms about inviting into their home as all sorts of weird occurrences plague their every step. The native, named Taylor, then sets about every fulfilling every stereotype you can think of: setting up a tepee in the family garden, daubing little Bobby Freeling in war paint, and even manipulating nature with the kind of mystical powers that seem to scream poltergeist but for some reason go unquestioned. We also have the unfortunate return of the excruciating Zelda, who once again proves wonderful at describing the family’s perils without ever actually solving them.
With the battle lines drawn, the house soon becomes a carnival of insidious chicanery, tormenting its residents with mean-spirited acts of feng shui as zombies and acts of possession attempt to tear the family apart. Fortunately for them, the mysterious Native American — his every sentence a trite, mystical proverb of increasing illogicality — procures a special pipe and blows smoke through the nose of patriarch Steve, giving him the strength and knowledge to conquer all, and the final sequence, set in the gravity deprived netherworld where poor little Carol Anne is confined, confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that what they were smoking was in fact angel dust.
Most Absurd Moment
While in the bathroom brushing his teeth, Robbie Freeling’s braces take on a life of their own, somehow unfurling a few thousand feet of metal wiring and cocooning him to the ceiling. Going in search of the plug socket, it then tries to electrocute the entire family, but somehow finds this relatively primitive task much more difficult.
Most Overblown Special Effect
After drinking the reanimated worm swimming at the bottom of a bottle of tequila, borderline alcoholic Steve is immediately possessed by the spirit of the seemingly omnipotent Kane, and after trying to rape his wife Steve regurgitates the worm – now the size of a giant haggis – onto the bedroom floor. The haggis then becomes a laser-shooting fetus which grows to have many tentacles. Only then do the increasingly vague transmutations truly begin.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Shunned by yet another heartless insurance company, Steve and Diane Freeling have a surprisingly frank discussion about the disappearance of their house.
Diane: I said we shouldn’t have told them that the house just vanished into thin air.
Steve: That’s what I’m talking about. You tell them the truth and what do you get? Nada!
Diane: They say that if the house disappeared, then technically, it’s only missing.
Steve: Missing? What do they think, this house is gonna return or something? It’s been a full year. The house is not coming back. I’ve got a gut feeling, Diane. I’m positive about that.
Diane: I know that, Steven!
Poltergeist II: The Other Side is an unambitious sequel that offers more of the same, and its predecessor’s novelties of talking dolls and ethereal possession quickly become tiresome, but the movie’s special effects are fun for the most part, while Julian Beck’s eerily skeletal Kane is something of a welcome addition.