The original Poltergeist casts a shadow its sequels and remake are doomed to sit under; in terms of objective quality, place in urban legend thanks to its alleged ‘curse’ (predicated on the death of child star Heather O’Rourke), and behind-the-scenes gossip that director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg didn’t see eye-to-eye. Many people still believe Spielberg directed the bulk of Poltergeist.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side isn’t a very good sequel to Hooper’s 1982 summer blockbuster, but it still made twice its $19 million budget back, so it’s easy to see why a third film was made. Unfortunately, Poltergeist II commits almost every sin of lazy horror follow-ups, and should really have been the end of the whole endeavour.
One year after the events of Poltergeist, where the Freeling family—father Steven (Craig T. Nelson), mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), and their kids Carol Anne (O’Rourke) and Robbie (Oliver Robins)—escaped the angry spirits that invaded their Cuesta Verde home, they’re now living miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, with Diane’s clairvoyant mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Despite being twitchy around malfunctioning vacuum cleaners, and refusing to ever own a TV again, life’s starting to get back to normal and the Freelings are beginning to put their paranormal experience behind them.
But not for long.
Unfortunately, an excavation of the vacant lot where their old house once stood reveals an underground cavern full of skeletons—which draws the attention of psychic medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) and her Native American friend Taylor (Will Sampson), who realises one of the corpses is that of insane Old West preacher Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck), whose spirit’s determined to seize Carol Anne.
The disappointing thing about Poltergeist II is that it’s little more than a lame excuse to have the same characters go through a similar experience, but without any of the subtlety and inventiveness the original film demonstrated. I don’t understand why anyone thought the success of Poltergeist was primarily down to the chemistry of the cast, as it was always more about the stylish filmmaking, tight script, and those Oscar-nominated special effects from ILM. It would’ve made more sense to have a different family antagonised by ghouls, because extending the torment of the Freelings only leads us down a less interesting path.
Even the title of the film seems redundant, as there’s more emphasis on phantoms you can actually see—although one can forgive the casting of Julian Beck as creepy villain Kane because he’s absolutely mesmerising whenever he’s around; thanks to his skeletal physique, wisps of white hair, oversized teeth, and old-fashioned Southern drawl. One sequence where Kane goes to visit the Freeling’s new home, bringing a localised rainstorm with him, trying to sweet-talk his way inside their new home, is the only moment in Poltergeist II that totally works. It’s like something out of a Stephen King story and far better than this movie deserves.
For the most part, this 1986 sequel is little more than a string of jump-scares and increasingly ridiculous imagery—as the tension and otherworldliness of Poltergeist gives way to daft ideas like Steven drinking a Mezcal worm that grows into a monster he vomits up and watches crawl away, or the metal of Robbie’s dental braces unspooling to suspend him in the corner of a bathroom ceiling. As those two examples suggest, it feels like Poltergeist II was influenced by trends of mid-1980s horror (particularly the imaginative kills of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), but it’s not a good fit for that kind of approach. Poltergeist films should be quiet, unsettling, and rooted in the idea this stuff might actually happen—as cases of poltergeists are still reported today. I guess there were always signs writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor had a fondness for the weird (the original film did involve a a murderous tree, after all), but they take things too far in the sequel. The climax involves the Freeling family flying around ‘The Other Side’ (resembling something from The NeverEnding Story), trying to rescue their daughter, and it’s as laughable as it sounds.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side is now 30 years old, but there’s a reason it’s been largely forgotten, even by genre fans. Despite having twice the budget of its predecessor, and another score by the wonderful Jerry Goldsmith, English director Brian Gibson’s efforts are crippled by a weak script that unwisely continued the Freeling’s story past its conclusion. That it couldn’t even integrate Zelda Rubinstein very well into proceedings, essentially ‘replacing’ her with a mystical Indian for long stretches, is about all you need to know. Poltergeist II may have doubled MGM’s money upon theatrical release in ’86, but compared to the original’s takings ($121m from a $10m budget), it was seen as a disappointment and condemned this franchise to the further worthlessness of 1988’s Poltergeist III.
Where are they now?
- Craig T. Nelson’s career went on to further highs, with roles in movies like Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and as the lead of ABC sitcom Coach (1989–1997). These days, he’s arguably best-known as the voice of another family patriarch, Mr Incredible in Pixar’s The Incredibles, and for another popular sitcom—Parenthood (2010–15).
- JoBeth Williams has similarly never stopped working since ’86; being Emmy-nominated for a guest-role in early-’90s Frasier, and mostly appearing in television shows—from Private Practice, to Dexter, and Hart of Dixie.
- Heather O’Rourke famously died in 1988 at the tender age of 12, after being misdiagnosed with Crohn’s Disease by doctors. She died of cardiac arrest caused by septic shock brought on by intestinal stenosis. Poltergeist III was dedicated to her memory.
- Oliver Robins (also recognisable as the boy who visits the cockpit in Airplane II: The Sequel) quit show business the same year Poltergeist II was released, and only returned as a writer-director in 2000, to little success. He is now the only surviving child actor of the trilogy, as screen older sister Dominique Dunne was strangled to death months after the original’s 1982 premiere—hence why she doesn’t appear in this sequel.
- Zelda Rubinstein worked steadily through the 1990s and 2000s, although never appeared in anything with the same impact as the three Poltergeist films. Her distinctive voice was used in a popular Skittles advertising campaign (“taste the rainbow”), and she narrated the Scariest Places on Earth documentary/reality series (2000–06). Rubinstein died in 2010, several months after a mild heart attack she never fully recovered from. No funeral was held, at her request.
- Will Sampson died the year after Poltergeist II’s release, of post-operative kidney failure following a heart and lung transplant to combat scleroderma.
- Julian Beck made a lasting impression as Kane in Poltergeist II, but the actor died of stomach cancer before the film was released. Consequently, some of his lines in the movie are looped by actor Corey Burton.
Cast & Crewdirector: Brian Gibson.
writers: Michael Grais & Mark Victor (based on characters created by Steven Spielberg).
starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Oliver Robins, Julian Beck, Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sampson & Geraldine Fitzgerald.