Thursday, October 13, 2016

Unnecessary Sequels: Poltergeist

Moving right along, there are so many great, classic horror films. And unfortunately, an awful lot of them also have very unnecessary, often very bad sequels.

It's become an accidental tradition, over the last couple years, to do entries of this "Unnecessary Sequels" series around Halloween. I've already covered classics (and their not-so-classic sequels), such as Fright Night, and Halloween. Going after Halloween was  tad "controversial", simply because it is such a famous, and to some fans even beloved series. But I stand by the fact that the original never needed a sequel, and in fact has a more powerful, chilling ending if taken as a stand-alone film. So now I'm back, this time to cover a film that is a truly great work, probably my top runner up for "Best Modern Horror Film", behind John Carpenter's The Thing And that film would be, Poltergeist...

They're Here...

Film: Poltergeist
Year: 1982
Director: Tobe Hooper (and arguably Steven Spielberg)
Unnecessary Sequels: Poltergeist II (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988)

Back in 1982, Steven Spielberg ruled the summer, as within one week of each other that June, you had the release of both Poltergeist and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. E.T., of course, is a celebrated classic, both as a science fiction film, and a great family film. Even as great slice of the 80s. But Poltergeist is also considered a classic, especially in horror film circles, and was a hit in it's own right. Directed by Tobe Hooper, known horror creator of such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot, and Lifeforce, he certainly sat in the chair, and got the official credit.

But to those who know and love Spielberg's works, this film just screams Spielberg, and does not, in all honesty and due apologies to Mr. Hooper, really bear much of his mark or style at all. Spielberg was not allowed to direct two films at once due to studio contracts, so even though he only "produced" Poltergeist, he was on set almost every day, and he had a very firm hand in crafting the film and it's entire creative and post-production process. Much the same as George Lucas did not take official director's credit for the second and third Star Wars films, but in much the same way, he was arguably still the director. Either way, most people consider this to be a "Spielberg Film", regardless of the details, because it just FEELS like one.

This Clean?

The film stars Craig T. Nelson of TV show Coach fame, and JoBeth Williams, as Steven and Diane Freeling, a typical white suburban American family, with three children, a nice new home, a dog, a pool being installed in the back yard, the works. Steven works for a real estate agency, and in fact is personally involved in the development and promotion of the new suburban neighborhood that his family now lives in, "Cuesta Verde". Problem is, something's not quite right in the neighborhood, more specifically, with the Freeling's house.

Little by little, the family starts experiencing strange, inexplicable, possibly paranormal phenomenon, like furniture moving on its own, or their youngest daughter, Carol Anne, staring at a TV set that comes on all by itself. The instances get worse, and more powerful, to the point that Carol Anne is seemingly sucked into a void that exists in the children's closet. So the family, against Steven's initial feelings, calls in paranormal experts to observe the house. The experts definitely track strong paranormal activity, to the point that it starts effecting them, and they themselves have to call in bigger fish to deal with it. In this case, a "spiritualist", by the name of Tangina Barrons, played by the excellent Zelda Rubenstein.

Why, Hello There!

The thing that is remarkable, at least to me, about Poltergeist, and probably it's greatest strength, is the fact that while it IS most definitely a scary film (especially if you're seeing it for the first time), it does something that few modern horror films attempt, certainly in the 80s. That being the fact that it does not, with the exception of a particular ectoplasmic goo scene, feature any real blood or gore, it doesn't rely on cheap "gotcha" jump scares. And while I don't want to spoil things for you, absolutely no one dies. It proves that you can make a scary movie, WITHOUT a huge kill count (or any, for that matter), and you can also do it while focusing on the human characters, and making the audience CARE about those characters, in this case a good, endearing, innocent family.

One of the most fucked up scenes an actor has ever been put through.

The film's strength is it's heart, and the fact that, like most Spielberg movies, it builds a foundation on the main characters, and gets you, the viewer, invested in not only the story, but them as people. Much like another Spielberg produced 80s horror film, Gremlins, it manages to be what I call "family horror", more old school, classic Hollywood styled scary films, that manage to be fun AND creepy, heartwarming AND terrifying. The film also, unfortunately, has a bizarre production history and rumored "curse" that follows it, that I'm not going to bother getting into here. If you're curious and unfamiliar, ask Google.

The movie is deserving of it's classic status, and it was also a well-earned blockbuster hit of 1982 (though, obviously, not nearly to the extent that E.T. was). Sadly, if it didn't also have shitty sequels to talk about, then this would be a very different kind of article.

Just talkin' on my Dream Phone...

Without getting too spoiler-y, the ending of the original film is very powerful, and very self-containing. Meaning it's a GOOD, solid ending that, while it certainly leaves you with questions, as all good horror movies should, it also feels "wrapped up", and does not need "the continuing adventures" to be created. But Hollywood is Hollywood, and money is money. So in 1986, Poltergeist II was born, not directed by Hooper, nor with much (if really any) involvement by Spielberg.

Now, in the interest of fairness, Poltergeist II is not a BAD film. It's okay, in it's own way, and has at least a couple elements of merit to it. Namely, the new characters of "Reverend Kane", and Taylor, a Native American shaman and friend of Tangina. The Freeling family has moved, and their old home location has become the site of a paranormal archeological excavation. Everything seems hunky dory at first, but naturally, there wouldn't be much of a movie if things didn't go awry.

And where things go awry, is this film, this unnecessary sequel's, biggest problem. As far as I'm concerned, this movie commits a cardinal sin, and does the one thing that, at the very least supernatural-based horror films, should never do. And that is tell you too much, reveal too much, flesh out the ghost, or the monster, or the bad guy, too much. Poltergeist II does that, and if you take it as canon to the first film (I don't), as far as I'm concerned, it really kinda de-mystifies the first film quite a bit.

Admittedly, very creepy.

According to this sequel's canon, Reverend Henry Kane is the source of the paranormal occurrences, that the Freeling family encountered in the first film. In the first film, again while trying to avoid giving TOO much away, you are never given any clear story or details at all, about just WHAT is haunting them, and just WHAT kind of ethereal monster is after Carol Anne. And it's better that way, the story plays better, and it makes the whole deal spookier, when you really don't know WHAT is going on. You are just as in the dark as the terrified family, and that's part of the fun: you, the audience, are along for the ride. But in P2, they try to say that "Well, it was actually just a crazy old preacher's soul that's after the girl". Much, MUCH less scary, and honestly kind of lame.

The actor himself, Julian Beck, to his credit, does a phenomenal job, and is appropriately sinister and creepy. But the fact remains that the original film never needed nor ASKED for greater explanation, any more than it did for an ill-advised sequel that tries to provide that. Zelda Rubenstein also makes a reappearance, once again helping the family fight the forces of Darkness, along with her friend Taylor. And all of that is nice, well done enough, but just incredibly un-needed. But for all of this film's flaws, it is nowhere NEAR as bad as what followed...


So in 1988, MGM decided to poop out yet another sequel. And this time, whether it was due to them "wanting to shake things up", or more likely, them wanting to make a cheaper film, they didn't bring most of the cast back. In fact, the only two returning actors, are Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne), and Zelda Rubenstein. They concocted some half-baked story about how Carol Anne's parents decided to, because reasons, send her away to Chicago to live with her aunt and uncle. Because the family, the parents, that fought so very hard in the FIRST two films, to protect this girl they loved so much, would totally just decide to send her away afterwards.

So here she is, living with strange people in a sky scraper in Chicago, and wouldn't you know it, the spirit of that dastardly old Rev. Kane, STILL won't shut the fuck up! He's back again, just like The Joker in an old episode of Batman, and the psychic Tangina, naturally sensing that he's back, rushes across country herself to conveniently be there to help out, once again. Because some Hollywood scripts, are written very, very well.

In full blunt honesty, while the second film at least deserved to be talked about a bit, this film really does not. It is on Jaws: The Revenge type levels of crap. And the worst part is? The poor little girl, Heather, at the tender age of 12 years old, died just months before the film was even done in post-production, due to really shitty and very sad medical malpractice. So the kid doesn't even get to finish growing up, let alone living her life, but the studio has it's bottom line to think about, so they put this garbage film out anyway. Though to their empty credit, they DO dedicate the film "in her memory".

In 2015, they (of course) even made a remake, simply titled Poltergeist once more. And I really couldn't say if it was well made or not. I've seen enough crappy, pointless remakes and reboots in my time, that I simply was not interested and don't really have any intention of seeing it. The original film is an absolute classic, that if you haven't seen, I would say it's one of those films, unless ghosts really scare you, or you just can't do spooky movies in general, that you really must see. It's worth it, and it really does tell a good, interesting story. The sequels, however? If you were asking for my advice, I'd say don't even bother. The original stands on it's own just fine, and I think that's how it should stay.

RIP to Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke

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