After the runaway success of Poltergeist – the result of the controversial union of Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper – a sequel seemed like a no brainer. But where else exactly could the continuing, supernatural adventures of the long suffering Freeling family possibly go after their run in with child snatching spirits? Well, the long answer can be found in the movie’s subtitle which heavily hints at a trip to The Other Side, but this would have anyone who paid attention during the first film scratching their head – after all, during all the spooky shenanigans, didn’t Carol Anne and her mother, Diane, already go to the Other Side in that movie? True, the filmmakers counter, but we didn’t actually see it, did we?
Thus begins a frustrating retread of a sequel which mixes in Native American shamans, tequila-based possessions and arguably the most underrated horror villain of the 80’s into a special effects fueled gumbo that dares to ask the question: Why did the Freelings cross the road? To get to the Other Side of course! Haven’t you been listening?
A year after their home was crushed down to the size of a Rubick’s Cube and sucked through an interdimentional portal by an infestation of spirits, the Freelings are practically broke while living with Diane’s elderly grandmother. The unit is trying to cope the best way they can, but husband Steve is especially feeling the pinch, suffering bouts of inadequacy due to the fact he is failing to provide for his family. However, possibly handling matters the best is their impossibly angelic youngest, Carol Anne, who has seemingly bounced back well for a child who was abducted by ghosts trapped between worlds and her grandmother has strong suspicions that the golden haired moppet has a special, extra sensory type gifts.
However, when the old dear passes away, the Freelings’ old ghost troubles resurface as their spectral stalkers make another attempt to swipe Carol in order to finally travel into the light. However, while their first attempt was somewhat unfocused, this time the spirits have a figurehead in the form of the legitimately unnerving Reverend Kane who targets the family directly.
However, help is at hand in the form of Taylor, a towering Native American Shaman who has been sent by helium voiced medium Tangina to aid the family with his mystical powers and wise life lessons. However, the demonic form of Kane isn’t going to take a locked door as an answer – he is a ghost, after all – as he resorts to ever more insidious means to prise the loving family apart at their very core and claim Carol Anne once and for all.
There’s nothing like a deeply mediocre sequel to really make you appreciate exactly how well the original was put together and Poltergeist II suffers incredibly from a clutch of no-shows that hamstrings the spooky sequel right from the get-go. The lack of Spielberg and Hooper is starkly felt and regardless on your opinions about the matter of who actually directed the first movie (Spielberg may have hovered like micro managing hummingbird, but it’s blatantly Hooper’s movie), the balance of stunning effects and family drama is way off, punctuating some drab character dynamics with some inferior set pieces. Take the Freelings, a family so Spielbergian, you genuinely expect them to have E.T. lurking in their garage, gobbling up M&Ms like a chocaholic whose experiences with the paranormal created a touching bond while the supernatural shit hits the fan. However, here the mix is noticably off with the Craig T. Nelson’s patriarch reduced to fretting about his spiritual manhood and endlessly let off the leash to ramble off on unfunny tangents. With Nelson’s booming guff drowning out everything except screeching wraiths and Jerry Goldsmith’s score, JoBeth Williams doesn’t have much to add, especially since the character of Dr. Lesh (whom Diane bonded sweetly with in the original) is a no-show and both Carol Anne and Robbie go from being screamy and cute to screamy and annoying. That leaves One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s Will Sampson to try and add some weight to the human cast, but aside from hoping to see him escaping the Other Side by throwing a drinking fountain through a window and hot-footing it to freedom, the addition of some Native American spiritualism simply is as weird a fit to the series if the Ghostbusters suddenly kicked in the door during an Insidious movie. If we’re being honest, it’s a little awkward too, having Steve Freeling roast an impassive Taylor for his beliefs (the man literally witnessed a giant, roaring ghost head erupting from a child’s closet barely a year ago – why the hell is he still so close minded) and having the heroic Sharman thwart the forces with evil with magic spears and mystic chants with no explanation as to what is actually going on.
The scares are similarly inconsistent, the flashy effects suffering from shockingly forgettable set ups – Robbie being attacked in the first movie after his clown doll suddenly comes to life is iconic and traumatic in equal measure, Robbie being assaulted by his dental braces isn’t. Also unsatisfying is the climax that sees the family (and us) flung into the Other Side only to discover that it’s pretty dreary, really and the final battle with the ultimate evil is annoyingly wrapped up in under five minutes.
However, one place where the movis scores a substantial hit by living in your skull rent free is the unshakeable performance of Julian Beck as the cadaverous Reverend Kane, whose sickly pallor and rictus grin come directly from the fact that the poor dude was suffering from stomach cancer at the time. As well as fantastically sinister performance, another moment that burns itself into the cortex is when Steve purges himself from the demonic possession brought on by swallowing a sentient tequila worm (not entirely sure that poltergeists do that, but ok) by violently throwing up a H.R. Giger designed humunculi that scrambles under the bed leaving a trail of goo behind it.
However, even these, two world class moments aren’t enough to infuse Poltergeist II with fraction of the energy the first movie came equipped with and director Brian Gibson (who eventually went on to direct the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It) instead turns in a sequel ironically devoid of life.